There’s a new museum in the area that sort of sneaked in under the radar, and it’s terrific. I’ve already been twice. It has a mouthful of a name that could mean anything—the International Independent Showmen’s Museum—but in reality it’s all about the world of the midway, with its games of chance, Tilt-a-Whirl rides, corn dogs—and yes, freaks and girlie shows.
They still exist, in a very sanitized version, at any county fair across the country. But today the shows are owned by corporations, not eccentric carny families, and they just don’t compare to, say, the 1930s and 1940s, when there was no television and most people were trapped in semi-rural poverty.
A night at the carnival was about the most exciting thing that could happen. And they had a wonderfully low reputation, particularly among ministers and old ladies. To this day “carny” remains a synonym for “disreputable.”
But the museum puts a new spin on this. It was lovingly put together by carny —or “outdoor entertainment,” as they now call it—people, and it tells their side of the story. It’s a tricky story to tell, with one tasteless element after another, like the exhibition of deformed people for money and the infamous Saturday midnight show at the tent with the hoochie-coochie dancers. The museum puts all this in the context of the times, and the result is a celebration of carny pride, not to mention a little gold mine of Americana. It’s well worth the $7 admission charge.
And it’s in Gibsonton. Where else could it be? Gibsonton (also called Gibtown) has always been the winter home of the carnies. It’s on the far west side of Tampa Bay, maybe 45 minutes from Sarasota, and has the appearance of a decrepit, shabby little Florida Cracker town, with modest houses and a lot of trailers. If it seems full of junk, it is. You’re allowed to store bumper cars in your yard. It’s the only town in the country that’s zoned for training grizzly bears. But its real claim to fame is darker and more disturbing—it’s the town the circus freaks lived in.
But what were the carnivals like?
Some were enormous. There’s an amazing display in the museum of a full-scale show, rather like the miniature Big Top display in the Circus Galleries of the Ringling Museum. This one stretches almost 100 feet long, with more than 15,000 little human beings standing in line at the concession stands (275 of them), ogling the exhibits (74 of them), and riding the 127 rides.
Everything is designed to separate the carny-goer from his money. The games of skill, for example—the jingle board, Fishee-Fishee, Spill the Milk. They were based on something that looked easy to do but which was actually quite difficult. Still, you could often win a prize if you tried long enough, and the museum has many old prizes on display: the kewpie dolls, the cheap plaster statues of dogs and little girls, the stuffed animals, the dishes circa 1935.
The most eye-opening part of the museum concerns sex, specifically the girlie shows. As a child in East Texas, I can vaguely remember going to fairs and always being perplexed by the attraction that involved some scantily clad women in a tent. What was that all about? Well, the museum has finally provided me with the answer.
They were mini-traveling burlesque shows. The museum has somehow gotten its hands on the recorded spiel from one of these shows and it is hilarious and instructive. The barker is outside, presenting the girls to the public. “Take a good look at these costumes, folks. Once you get inside you’re never going to see them again.” And “Here’s Tammy from Miami—the girl with the million-dollar treasure chest.” And in case you still miss the point: “You’ll have your hands in your pockets and a new grip on life. Don’t look for Grandpa, he’s already inside.”
The larger shows had full-scale burlesque, with stars like Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand. The smaller ones were much more down and dirty. There’s a printed mention of the last show on Saturday night, when the girls would dance nude and there was “audience participation.” I for one would like to know more about this, and hopefully this exhibit could be expanded a little.
Likewise the freaks. Or, in the more politically correct phrase, “unusual people.” These days we are so far evolved that it’s inconceivable that people with physical deformities would allow themselves to be exhibited for money (except, of course, on reality TV). But back in the day this was an accepted part of the culture. Among the unusual people pictured at the museum are the Monkey Girl, the Lobster Boy, the Three-Eyed Man, a whole slew of Siamese twins, Stella the Bearded Lady, and Baby Flo, who tipped the scales at 800 pounds—or so the barker claimed.
Gibsonton was their home. It was the only place where they could relax and be relatively normal. At one point the police chief was a dwarf. Many married and had families. The armless girl married a man who drove nails and ice picks through his nose. Perhaps the most famous couple was Al Tomeni (who was 8 feet, 7 inches tall and wore size 27 shoes) and his wife, Jeanie, who was 2 feet, 5 inches. They owned a fish camp on the Alafia River and Al was president of the Gibsonton Chamber of Commerce.
The towns around Tampa and Sarasota used to be dotted with these carnivals, and their influence on American culture has been enormous. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’s legendary manager, started out as a Tampa carny promoter, and his machinations of Elvis’s career, the squeezing of every possible penny from every possible income source—and keeping a good percent for himself—is pure carny.
Last season’s TV series, American Horror Story, was set in a small-town Florida freak show and was an enormous hit. People are starting to pay attention again. So take a day trip up to Gibsonton for the real thing. And make sure you have lunch at the famous Showtown Bar. It may be a little intimidating, but force yourself to go inside. It’s deliciously smoky and “dive-y” and the food is good. Try the biscuits and gravy. The freaks are all gone by now but you’ll still see the carnies, sitting at the bar and telling their stories about a vanishing chapter of Florida history.