Irreplaceable memorabilia from days gone by
Some of the ancient Ferris wheel seats had spindled backs, like front porch swings. Running my hand along the wooden parts of the 100-year-old gasoline-powered machine was like going back in time.
Yet the Ferris wheel wasn’t the oldest memorabilia at the International Independent Showmen’s Association Museum. A lot of photographs, side-show items, banners, signs and early games were made before the turn of the century. No, not the millennium — the turn of the century before that. I’m talking about the 1800s.
The Rocky Road to Dublin was the early version of today’s Tunnel of Love. “Oh, if those cars could talk,” I said to the museum’s executive director, David Rivera.
David explained that the small wooden cars had run on tracks, which was easy to verify as they sat upon railroad-car looking wheels. He said they were probably made some time in the 1800s.
All the old-timey rides were gas-powered because of a lack of electricity. “We didn’t have it in homes, and they certainly didn’t have on the road,” he added.
The “Old Mug Joint” was the name of the photo booth cameras, and believe me, there was no resemblance to the cameras of today. This thing was a huge wooden box. I remembered when I took my granddaughter to photo classes on Saturdays in Tampa she had made a camera out of a cigar box and had actually taken a picture with it.
Same principle. Who could have guessed?
The museum brought back a lot of memories. Of being a child on merry-go-rounds and of the carnivals I had gone to as a child in the 1950s.
The carnivals then weren’t like they are today.
In the 1970s, laws were enacted that made it illegal to feature people who had deformities – like conjoined twins or body parts in the wrong place.
“Those people made a good, decent living, and the others in the shows were their family. Once they couldn’t be put on display anymore, what could they do? They had to take welfare. There was no way most of them could hold other jobs, and they were always on display anywhere they went anyway,” David said.
‘Hey — how did he know so much about the traveling showmen? I wondered.’ So I did what reporters do best: I asked.
As it turns out, David – known locally as “Doc”— has lived in Hillsborough County since 1956. But his background includes years in every phase of carnivals. He started out running rides at a carnival near where he lived, and then began to travel with shows. He ran food trailers and game concessions.
“Did you know that way before they made plastic or even teddy bears that the prizes were all made of plaster of Paris?” he asked me, pointing to a display full of them.
Of course, I did not.
Before he was finished traveling, he owned his own carnival: Metrolina Rides & Shows.
He’s also a painter, and in the museum collection are many of his works depicting things as they were in the “old days.”
Now he’s content to work with the International Independent Showmen’s Association running the museum across from the Showmen’s Club and grounds just east of U.S. 41 on Riverview Drive at the north end of the Alafia River Bridge.
He knows the story behind each and every piece, sign, banner, book, and photograph in the museum, and loves to tell them.
The museum had begun with contributions from the Showmen’s Club members, but was short of enough money to open.
“This has all been privately funded by the generous donations of the club’s members, especially the Showmen’s Shrine.”
I didn’t even know the Showmen had a chapter of the Egypt Shrine, but as it turns out, they have an active group. Whenever you see Shriners in local parades driving specially-built dodge-em cars instead of the “regular little cars,” they’re from the showmen’s group, David said.
Then, in 2011 Jim Frederiksen donated a million dollars and the museum was eventually put together. It is two levels, has many different areas, including the beginning of a library, a photo restoration center, and an area that is slated to someday become a theater.
“We’ve never had a whiz-bang Grand Opening,” he explained.
What they need are donations and grant money.
But the Showmen have come up with another way to make some operating money — by holding private tours.
David pointed out the learning experience that the museum offers for any group of individuals, or civic associations, or schools.
Riverview Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tanya Doran has become very interested and had taken the first tour.
“This will be a very big thing for Riverview,” she stated in an interview Dec. 4.
Having written about Gibsonton’s show people for many years, I thought I knew the history of the troupes that came here every winter to refurbish their rides and equipment, train animals and make new costumes and develop routines.
The museum tells a story that goes back much further than the late Al Tomaini, known as The Giant, and his wife Jeannie, who I interviewed many times before her death.
“Eddie and Grace LaMay had a cook house in the 1920s and they toured with carnivals all over the country,” David said. “They stopped to rest in Gibsonton and while Eddie was fishing in the Alafia, the town’s people came to welcome them. That was the first time show people decided to make Gibsonton their off-road home.”
By 1965, the Showmen’s Club had been formed, working out of a small trailer, and later, the county gave the show people special zoning so they could continue bringing their equipment and animals to their winter home.
At one point, while listening to David’s stories, I leaned upon a large marble stone.
Suddenly I realized it was a tombstone. “Oh yes,” David said. “Sam the Candyman Clark made fudge on the back of his tombstone for years. Nobody knew it was his tombstone.”
But there it was, with his name and date of birth, not death, carved beautifully into the white-and-beige marble.
Obviously, it was never used as one.
“Do you know the story of the Giant?” David asked me as I started to go. Well of course I did. I had written about Al Tomaini. In fact, my late husband’s father knew him well.
“No, no, the Viking Giant,” David said.
“What Viking Giant?” I asked, all ears and ready to type again, my small hand-held computer now balanced on my arm.
“He was Johann Petursson from Iceland. Much larger than Tomaini. Petursson was 8-foot-8. He performed with little people in Europe before the war. But so many of the little people — midgets — were sent to the gas chambers as inferior and he was sent to work in the shipyards. Forced labor of course. When he got out, he couldn’t bear to work there any longer. And he couldn’t find little people.”
If any were left, they had stayed in hiding.
So Johann came to America and worked with Ringling Brothers and later with Royal American Shows.
Okay, my tour had to end some time. But you can see and hear about all these things by arranging for a private tour with your friends, neighbors or social group. Teachers can bring their students in as a class.
For more information, call “Doc’s” cell (813) 765-7031. “I keep it on all the time,” he said. He prefers to be called just “Doc.”
You may also reach him by email at email@example.com.
It is a tour that teaches much that even those of us who have been here many, many years don’t know. I know I am still amazed, and someday, I will go back.