Come along with me:
Head west through Hillsborough County – for you non-natives, we’re talking west coast of the Sunshine-y State, where Tampa is located. So we’re going that direction, through FishHawk and Riverview. Everything is very new, very franchised. It’s nice, don’t get me wrong. Exactly the kind of towns people who work in Tampa live in to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. But, it’s all very polished. Keep heading west and you’ll make your way over I-75. And all of a sudden, the landscape shifts. Dramatically. A Murphy’s gas station greets you first. Then, an abandoned carnival ride, sitting in a grass lot. Then, the many ramshackle mobile home parks. Welcome to Gibsonton.
This is a small taste of a Florida whose hay day has long past. It feels as though time moved on without the town. My travel companion/photographer/little brother and I are on a mission though. At that moment of arrival, we needed FOOD! So we carry on, driving past more mobile home parks and the rolling hills of gypstacks and find, on the edge of the river, the Rivers Edge Bar and Grill. It’s a seat yourself shack that boasts live weekend entertainment and a dock that boaters can pull into and grab a bite.
Now, it’s down to business. We set out for the purpose of our trip: The International Independent Showmen’s Museum. If you harken back to Episode 31, the guys filled us in on Al and Jeanie Tomaini, who had retired to Gibsonton after their stint in the carnival world. Gibsonton had already been established as a haven for those who had made a name for themselves based on their physical abnormalities. But Al and Jeanie became civic leaders of their unique community and attracted many of their comrades to join them in Gibtown, as it’s called by the locals.
The museum’s mission is to preserve the history of traveling shows in America. Not only has it preserved it, it puts it on parade. We walk in and are immediately greeted by one of the friendliest faces I’ve ever encountered – Doc Rivera, Executive Director of the museum. He implores us to, “stay as long as you like, and take as many pictures as you like!” His enthusiasm for this place is contagious. We walk through the lobby and into the exhibit hall. Immediately, you feel the electricity and thrill that is other worldly. It awakens that inner child we all too often forget to unleash and delight. Your eyes are instantly drawn to a fully functioning Ferris Wheel, right in the middle of the hall. Next to it, an illuminated, brightly colored merry-go-round. Around the perimeter of the exhibit space are displays that pay homage to significant figures, performances, and other minutiae related to the carnival world.
Peruse the space and you’ll learn about Father Mac, the official priest of the carnival circuit; early methods of carnival food prep and some favorites (Fiddlestics anyone!?); and original revue shows (oh my!). Check out the refurbished 1917 Packard Truck, which sits as a reminder of how long-haul trucking revolutionized the traveling show. You can get up close and personal with artifacts from bumper cars to popcorn caddies to cases of kewpie dolls. Upstairs, with jaw ajar, you can walk along several feet of a fully detailed, handmade, small scale carnival, delicately and expertly crafted by a Tampa native.
After trekking through the entirety of the museum, that has lovingly and thoroughly captured the essence of this industry, it is clear that those who called the carnival “home” and dedicated their lives to it were certainly other worldly in their own right. To bring entertainment and joy was their lifeblood – a spiritual experience of sorts.
At the end of our tour, as little brother and I began our journey back home, with the smell of the river and phosphate mining heavy in the air and reflecting on our day, we realize we simply can’t wait for the many adventures ahead. And we hope in documenting our FMOFM-inspired travels, that you’ll journey with us.