On the Road With Oaky : The 'Unknown Bob Hope' Finds Himself Surrounded by Dolls, 3,000 of Them

June 22, 1986|BEVIS HILLIER

Oaky Miller's two brothers became physicians. He became a stand-up comic. His mother once jestingly described her sons as "two quacks and a kook."

Miller, who is based in Los Angeles, works nightclubs, cruise ships, the "condo circuit" in Miami and the Nevada circuit--Las Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe. He is also an author. His definitive first book, "The World's Worst Country and Western Jokes" (Price, Stern & Sloan, $1.95), was published in 1982. When his equally magisterial "101 Ways to Dump on Your Ex" (Spectacle Lane Press, $4.95) hits the bookstores July 28, it too is expected to become the standard work.

Miller's earliest memory is of his father, Charles, singing in blackface in Wilmington, Del. "I saw the love that flowed to him from the audience and thought, 'I want some of that.' " Oaky Miller joined the act when he was 5. When he was 11, the family moved from Wilmington to Tulsa, Okla., where he and his younger brother performed as "Miller's Mighty Midgets."

Charles Miller told Oaky: "If you want to make it in this business, go to Los Angeles." Oaky took that advice. He has flirted with Hollywood, appearing with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds in "Divorce, American Style" (1967), and with Charles Bronson in "The Stone Killer" (1973). He played Roger to Ricky Nelson's Ricky on television's "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."

Today, Oaky makes a comfortable living as a comedian. This enables him to indulge in an increasingly expensive hobby--collecting dolls modeled after well-known comedians. He has Charlie Chaplins by the score (the earliest dates from 1916); a valuable Eddie Cantor; a John Bunny (a comic sometimes called the first film star); Laurels and Hardys; Abbotts and Costellos, and the only existing prototype of Lucille Ball dressed as Chaplin. (Ball refused to authorize the doll.) Miller has more than 3,000 dolls in his Los Angeles office. Eventually, he would like to house them in a museum open to the public.

Miller has acquired many of the dolls on his travels. Once a year, since 1965, he has taken a show abroad to servicemen. "It's known as 'the unknown Bob Hope show,' " he says. "My show is in the same basic vein as Hope's. I bring a lot of pretty girls with me, and a good band; and a friend of mine, Lloyd Willis, who's in his 70s, plays my straight man, just like Jerry Colonna did for Bob Hope. We do old Abbott and Costello pieces, and it's amazing how the kids love these routines; those kids have never heard them. We do an old burlesque piece called 'Bet you $10 you're not here,' and the kids just scream ."

On his last trip, Miller performed on Lampedusa, the Italian island that Libya later tried to bomb. "There are 25 guys stuck on an island that is smaller than Catalina; there's really nothing to do there, and they're so appreciative. I have a line . . . 'They held a beauty contest on Lampedusa, and nobody won.' And the guys like that. I'm not knocking the local girls, but they're not American girls--they're not our girls." He always makes fun of the food too. "My opening line is: 'Before I get started, I want to tell you I really feel sorry for you guys because I had lunch here this afternoon.' Well, right away there's that camaraderie; they understand that I understand.

"During the Vietnam conflict, I always used to say: 'Boy, I really feel safe because Gen. Brown is here. We know if the general's here, there's no war going on here.' It was letting them know that I was there for them and not for the higher-ups."

On last year's tour, which took Miller to Turkey, Greece, Germany and Spain as well as to Italy, he had what he considers the most thrilling moment of his career. He and his group performed on the U.S. aircraft carrier Saratoga, just after planes from the ship had escorted the Achille Lauro hijackers to an air base at Sigonella, Sicily. "We had more than 2,000 guys in the audience, and they were stomping and cheering. Of course, most of it was for the girls."

At the end of every show, Miller delivers a speech thanking the men for what they do and telling them they haven't been forgotten at home. On the Saratoga, he had a sudden inspiration and added: "Now I know why they call you guys 'the terrorist busters.' " Miller was astonished by the response. "I'd pressed the button. I felt like I'd thrown the 60-yard touchdown pass that won the game. There was pandemonium."

Oaky Miller has known less-elated moments in his professional life. During the Vietnam conflict he was performing in Da Nang. "The guys were wearing bullets (in bandoleers) crisscrossed like Pancho Villa's. We were doing an outside show, and there was gunfire going on all around. And guys were leaving for combat missions while I performed."

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