Ode to the freak show

14

GIBONSTON, Fla. — Imagine strolling through a quiet, tree-shaded neighborhood and you pass a bearded lady on her way to the store as a 30-inch-tall woman and her 8-feet-tall husband wave from their porch — all while the neighbor washes his elephant in the front yard. Pretty sure you must be in “Gibton.”

This town of just over 14,000, located 20 minutes south of Tampa, has an interesting history. In the 1940s it became the winter retreat of carnival sideshow folk. As well as offering a temperate climate, local laws allowed residents to keep circus trailers — and even elephants — on their front lawns.

26Gibsonton’s International Independent Showmen’s Museum preserves a history of not just carnivals and freak shows, but also circuses — everything under a tent.

Housed in a 52,000-feet, two-story building, the museum is a loving tribute to a bygone age, filled with vintage rides and objects from the midway

“Gibton,” as Gibsonton is nicknamed, was a popular fishing spot when Al and Jeanie Tomaini, the aforementioned “World’s Strangest Couple” opened a fishing camp and restaurant called “Giant’s Fish Camp.” Other show folk, looking for an accepting community during the winter months, soon followed. Before long the town’s residents included Siamese twins, bearded ladies, giants and dwarves (the local post office even had a counter specifically for little people).

Gibonston was the setting for the X-Files episode “Humbug,” as well as being an inspiration for “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (although it is important to remember that in real life the show folk were just everyday people making a living). Performers also appeared in the movies “The Wizard of Oz” and “Freaks.”

The carnival sideshow business has been in decline for years since its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, and it is now politically incorrect to exhibit “freaks” — which is certainly for the best. Yet the days of the freak show and the life of the carnies that formed the traveling shows has an exotic appeal.

02Displays include mannequins of the characters from the old freak shows, complete with biographies, vintage bumper cars and rides, a rickety Ferris wheel, and games and prizes of all kinds. The walls are adorned with posters from attractions and personalities, and there is also talk of re-creating a Wall of Death on the grounds.

Upstairs is a pair of large model displays lovingly recreating carnival midways in miniature. The largest spreads some 50 feet and is fascinating in its detail. Rollercoasters and Ferris wheels mix with carnival tents and people milling around. One can find delights with every turn of the head.

09Another display is a model circus carved by Willis Tucker in the 1930s. It was displayed for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards. It was boxed up and stored in an attic for 60 years before being donated to the museum.

The International Independent Showmen’s Museum is a wonderful diversion. It is a tribute to a time when it was quite alright to pay 50 cents to see the Lobster Boy or Percilla the Monkey Girl — a time when no one worried about the safety of leaning over a rail to watch a motorcyclist scaling the Wall of Death.

It may not have been a better time, but it was certainly colorful.

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