About 20 minutes southeast of Tampa by the banks of the Alafia River and Bullfrog Creek lies a small town called Gibsonton, Florida, population around 14,000. If you came into town in the 60s you would feel like you had been whisked away into Carnival Town because, really, you had been. Commonly referred to simply as Gibtown, Gibsonton was the winter home of world-famous sideshow performers, both human and animal, and the thousands of carnie folk that assembled, disassembled, barked, drove, hustled, and otherwise operated the traveling shows, circuses, and carnivals that entertained the masses in a time when the circus – and more importantly, the freak show – was a favorite past time enjoyed by millions of people around the globe.
The Guardian notes that this small patch of Florida soil was a perfect place for these traveling entertainers to spend their days while not touring. Florida’s pleasant winter weather was ripe for training animals, repairing rides, and practicing acts in a safe environment a good distance away from the touristy beaches and the big tourist noses that would inevitably be stuck into a performer’s business while trying to perfect their craft. It was home to many a sideshow performer and, therefore, had lots of quirks to better serve their population including post office counters appropriately sized for dwarves and barstools made especially for the morbidly obese performers. City zoning laws even allowed for residents to keep their performance animals – lions, tigers, bears, even elephants, in their front yards, as well as the carts used for traveling the country.
With this in mind it comes as no surprise that Gibtown is home to the largest Showmen’s Association in the United States, the International Independent Showmen’s Association, Inc (otherwise known as the Gibtown Showmen’s Club), and annually hosts the largest carnival trade show in the industry. A nice home for a community that continues to dwindle in the wake of electronic entertainment and a PC lifestyle that all but prevents ever gawking at people that are “different”, a tiny flame of hope that keeps the industry alive. An industry I have a great interest in.
Another way this great town is paying tribute to the folks that once called it home is through the International Independent Showmen’s Museum. The museum houses thousands of relics from the last near-century of the business including props and costumes worn by famous burlesque and sideshow performers, gaffs and fair food examples, vehicles used for transport and entertainment purposes, lovely artwork depicting the scenes from the shows, miniature models of full-scale carnivals, old and retired carnival ride cars and several examples of the fun carnival games that we’ve all spent too much money on. The facade isn’t much but is flanked on all sides by trailers and carts used by Royal American Shows which gives you a small taste of what you can expect when you step inside.
Once we made it inside the building I was almost instantly overwhelmed with, as cheesy as it sounds, a great feeling of pure magic. The gentleman at the front was extremely friendly and seemed to be happy that we had a genuine interest in what I’m sure is his passion. He encouraged us to take our time and snap as many photos as we wanted, both of which we took him up on. Inside I was in awe of all the working lights and sounds we were surrounded by. Highlights, for me, included all of the hand-painted side show banners advertising the likes of the 2 Headed Princess, Nightmare Alley, A London Punch and Judy Show, and the world-famous 8 foot plus tall Viking Giant. Maybe even more so was seeing one of the milk jugs Houdini famously escaped from.
As usual, I took a lot more photos and you can see them all on Flickr but here are some highlights:
Seeing the sights and learning about the people that operated and transported them really brought across a sense of true passion that would be required to live such a nomadic and unusual lifestyle. It was invigorating to sense that we were surrounded by art that was created by and for people whose livelihood truly depended on it in an age I’m unfortunately too young to have been a part of. I’m just happy places like the International Independent Showmen’s Museum in Gibtown exists for folks like me that missed out on the show in its prime but have a heart that’s level with those that created it.
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