Showmen’s Museum is right in our own backyard

Published on: January 2, 2019

STEPHEN FLANAGAN JACKSON PHOTO
From the mezzanine balcony at the Showmen’s Museum, Doc Rivera peers over the contemporary delight of historical exhibits at the Showmen’s Museum in Gibsonton aka Gibtown.

‘Doc’ Rivera is resident historian 

Gibsonton museum packs the past

into lively, unique exhibition

By STEPHEN FLANAGAN JACKSON

They are affectionately referred to as “carnies” and “sideshow freaks.” In years past, Gibsonton, known by its moniker Gibtown, was inhabited, depending on the season, by these special types of people. Some still remain, but not nearly as many as in the pre-Disneyland, pre-television, pre-internet days of 75 or 100 years ago when the traveling carnivals and circuses brought thrilling, exotic, unbelievable and unusual live entertainment to the rural and urban grassroots America. First by horse-drawn wagons over dusty roads and rutted tracks criss-crossing the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then by mile-long trains and, later, by motorized trucks meandering over the rails and highways throughout the country. 

Doc Rivera in the museum with the one-of-a-kind ferris wheel circa 1903, and a famous carrousel.

Right here in the South Shore area you can catch a personal, up-close glimpse of this bygone era and what the awe and excitement were all about. 

Showcased as the International Independent Showmen’s Museum, this experience is a unique history of outdoor show business preserved for present and future generations. The strange, eclectic memorabilia from carnivals and circuses of midways of the past are all brought to life in an amazing array of artifacts, renditions, photographs and various chronicles. Over 54,000 square feet of fun, memories and enjoyment are artistically juxtaposed together under one roof in the middle of Gibsonton, just off the Tamiami Trail, known as U.S. 41 on a map, about 30 minutes east of Tampa and its urban sprawl. Here the world, its culture and low-brow pop art of long ago is preserved and enshrined “under the big top” of a large, modern two-story building, which is billed as a museum but is actually a fantasy trip back to the days of old-fashioned rides, sequined costumes, and colorful, quirky personalities of an era that will never come this way, or any way, again.

David Rivera, or “Doc” as his friends and associates know him, is currently the gregarious and encyclopedic executive director of the Showmen’s Museum. He hosted a special tour inside where the aura of the extinct or drastically morphed circuses and fairs of yesteryear, and the humans who staffed these itinerant, ephemeral traveling shows of Americana, still cast their magical spell over modern American tourists in an abstract, authentic style.

The museum is a veritable two-story time capsule, an eyes-on (look but don’t touch) close-up of America’s and Florida’s entertainment history.

Rivera acknowledges that thousands of show people who wintered in Gibtown, some of whom remain but most who have moved on to that great midway in the sky, have left behind additional memorabilia in the garages of their homes and trailers still scattered around this quaint, funky town nestled on the edge of the Alafia River and the giant Mosaic Company’s heaps and hills formed by the waste by-products of its phosphate and gypsum factories.

Doc Rivera was born in LaPorte, Ind., some 72 years ago. “I never knew my parents,” Doc tells me. “They did not want me. So I was raised by relatives, including a grandfather who was a clown for Ringling Brothers Circus.”

Doc says he hit the road at 14 years old, joining a traveling carnival as a merry-go-round mechanic. “Nobody gets in this business (carnival and circus) through choice,” according to Doc. “You are either born into it or get into it by some sort of misfortune.

“But I have never regretted my life as a showman. I have lived a good life,” adds Doc, who after finally retiring as manager of Metrolina Shows & Rides of Charlotte a few years back, has extended his showman’s career in Gibtown as resident carnival-circus lore expert and historian-pundit as incomparable manager of the Showmen’s Museum.

Walking into the museum, you can almost hear someone barking in a raspy voice, “Step right up! No minimum! No cover!”

Old-time sideshows usually featured a little adults-only spice, as The Paris Revue in the museum.

What awaits you includes hand carved, brightly painted wooden horses on a 1950 American Beauty Carousel, the only surviving 1903 Conderman Ferris Wheel, human oddities such as the Giant and his Half-Girl (with no legs), the Lobster Boy, Percilla the Monkey Girl, the Two-Headed Women of the Nile, Minstrel Show exhibits, Father Mac the carnie priest, and lifelike mannequins of the Viking Giant who stood 8 feet 8 inches with his size 27 boots, along with replicas of the “little people” assortment of midgets and dwarfs — standard fare of the traveling shows. A pair of separate finely detailed small-scale carnival models — one the world’s largest — grabs one’s attention on the second floor. Also upstairs is an amazing collection of books, magazines, newspapers, posters and other print material collected from over the years, which are available for students, scholars and anyone interested in reading about the history of the carnivals, circuses and the people who made it all possible.

 The fun, memories and enjoyment are open and available every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $7 for children with a school ID, and children under 10 are free. Group tours are available by calling Doc at 813-765-7031.

 No museum is quite like the Showmen’s Museum!

The sun-faded exterior of the Showtown Restaurant and Lounge on U.S. 41 in Gibsonton not far from the Showmen’s Museum has been a long-time watering hole and rendezvous spot for carnies and showpeople as well as the general public since 1972.

Ward Hall passed away on Aug. 29, 2018, at the age of 88. Hall was a legendary, innovative showman who moved to Gibsonton in 1966 and served as president of the Independent Showmen’s Association and on the board of the IISA. Known as the King of the Sideshow, Hall kept sideshow traditions and the sideshow itself alive.

Doc Rivera in front of one of the many exhibits of human oddities in the museum.

Carnies’ and roustabouts’ religious and spiritual life was attended to by Father Mac.

Doc Rivera with exhibit of the Viking Giant.

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