By Janet K. Keeler
It’s curious where the puzzle pieces of Americana meet their resting place. One scrap might not add up to much, but when one relic after another fills 52,000 square feet, they snap together to create a full picture.
Such is the case of the International Independent Showmen’s Museum in Riverview, Fla. Thousands of artifacts, from wee up to XXXL and including a 1903 Conderman Ferris Wheel and a 1950 American Beauty Herschell Kiddie Carousel, tell the story of the heyday of the traveling carnival in America.
The tinny ballyhoo piped through the museum’s sound system is a reminder of when the carnival came to town. Who wouldn’t want to “Step right up?”
Oh, the carnival still travels to mall parking lots and church back lots, but it’s not the only game in town now. There are other diversions to entertain the imagination of young folks, and many of them have a screen.
But back in the day when the carnival trucks, and maybe along with the circus train, rumbled into Everett, Pa.; Davenport, Iowa, or New Harmony, Ind., the world stopped. There was nothing more exciting than testing your throwing arm for a chance at a cloth kewpie doll or a hand-painted plaster cowboy. Where else could you get scared out of your mind by peering into a pit of live snakes or get a glimpse of man so covered with tattoos there was no unadorned skin visible?
The Showmen’s Museum preserves this history in a place that is pickled in carnival lore. Riverview is in rural Hillsborough County just across the Alafia River from Gibsonton, called Gibtown affectionately by the carnival folks who’ve wintered there for years. Big city Tampa is a mere dozen miles northwest, but it might as well be a million.
Each winter, thousands of carnival owners, concessionaires and ride operators descend on the area to attend the International Independent of Showmen’s Association trade show. This is where orders are taken for rides, games, prizes, signs and much more. The association’s cavernous offices are across the street from the museum.
In the 1960s, at the tail end of the “human oddities” period, nearly 140 people with names like Percilla the Monkey Girl, Lobster Boy, and the Giant and his Half-Girl wife lived in Gibtown. Even some actors who played munchkins in The Wizard of Oz called Gibtown home.
In those days, it would not be unusual to see a group of little people walking down a neighborhood street. Perhaps they were headed to the Showtown Bar and Grill on Hwy. 41 or nearby Giant Camp Restaurant, run by the 8-foot-5 Giant himself, Al Tomaini, and his wife, Jeanie, who had no legs.
Giant restaurant and fishing camp are gone, and a tall memorial marker honoring the Tomainis sits on the site. The Showtown remains, tattered but still welcoming patrons.
The sideshow has died for many reasons, the biggest one the change in attitudes about the exploitation of both humans and animals. And these days, you can see the tattooed man at the food court of any mall across the country. Reality TV has done its part in replacing the sideshow, too.
A Step Back in Time
David Rivera -- Doc Rivera as he’s called -- is the Showmen’s Museum executive director. For more than 60 years, Doc ran Metrolina Rides & Shows out of Charlotte, N.C. Doc Rivera knows his carnival lore and is willing to answer any questions visitors may have.
“The history of traveling shows can’t be separated from the history of America,” Doc Rivera said. Indeed the traveling carnival, which was born at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, traces both the country’s technological and societal changes. An exhibit on that watershed fair starts a visit to the museum.
How things have changed: a metal 1923 Grandstand Peddlers hot dog box used to sell hot wieners in the stands has morphed into today’s lightweight foam containers that keep food hot or cold. The carny worker who operated the 1960s electric corn dog cooker could never imagine the food that would eventually be dropped into the deep fryer: Snickers, Twinkies and sticks of butter.
A display of letters from the 1920s and 30s from show owners to animal sellers is a fascinating glimpse into the attractions of the time. Anteaters, prairie dogs, kangaroo rats, mountain lions and lots and lots of snakes were on the to-buy lists for people like Al. F. Wheeler, who ran a jungle show out of Pennsylvania. Eldrich Bunkley plunked down $4 for a den of snakes to be shipped ASAP to Cobden, Ill. The $6 balance was promised upon delivery.
There are many more exhibits at the two-story museum, including an extensive display on black minstrel shows and a tribute to Father Mac, “carny priest.” The exotic lure of the Mideast and Far East are evident in the names of some of the performers, including the “Two Headed Women of the Nile, Princess Luxura.” A costume worn by burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, the tailed tuxedo of someone who stood no taller than 3 feet, and the supersized shoes of the Viking Giant are displayed among tickets, posters, banners and fun-house mirrors.
Upstairs is an extensive library of books and magazines used by scholars and students for research, along with more exhibits. Two detailed small-scale models of carnivals beg for attention. The Ray Genter handcrafted carnival model is billed as the world’s largest. Rows and rows of colorful plaster carnival prizes have been saved long past their expected lifespans. Some carnival teams brought the molds on the road, making babies, bears and lady sailors as needed. The relics of carnivals past are a bit chipped and that’s to be expected, Doc Rivera said.
The museum, he said, is in a race to collect the memorabilia that he knows is sitting in garages all around Gibtown, left there by show folk who’ve moved on to the midway in the sky. The museum wants to save them from the elements and time.
There is a safe place for them across the river, in a two-story time capsule of Florida’s and America’s entertainment history.
When you go ...
International Independent Showmen’s Museum
6938 Riverview Drive, Riverview, Fla.
The museum offers 1.5-hour private group tours of 15 or more Monday through Friday with the exception of major holidays. Please call the museum to set up your tour, (813) 671-3503. The museum is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday from 12 - 5 pm. You can pay for your admission at the door.
Want more show history? The Circus Museum on the grounds of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota is about 50 miles southwest. The museum houses banners, clown cars, glittering costumes, posters and one of the biggest archives of documents from America’s circuses. A popular attraction is the 44,000-piece Howard Bros. Circus model. The museum is at 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, FL. For more information, call (941) 359-5700.
Photos by Scott Keeler for VISIT FLORIDA