By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
Close your eyes; think back to your childhood and listen for a moment. Do you hear that? Yes, it’s the sound of your youth — a sound from a happy time when simple things like laughter and sunshine mattered the most. Can you hear the calliope? Can you smell the sawdust? Here, have some cotton candy…
On Saturday, January 7, the circus is coming to town. For the 28th year, the Gibsonton Showmen’s Circus will take place with three shows under the Big Top that will include one of the largest circus bands to be found in the world. It is an old-fashioned circus, without electronic special effects, but with real-time thrills.
“This is a year-long project,” said circus organizer and former International Independent Showmen’s Association president Lee Stevens. “This is our 28th year and we’re fortunate that most local merchants know us now. They are very accommodating when they see us coming with posters.”
This year, as with all past years, the Showmen’s Circus will donate all profits to charities — most of which are in this area but some are of national concern. Children in need have traditionally been a big focus.
“We have a committee of 24 people. We sit down and decide who needs what — maybe someone needs more this year than last year,” Steven said. “We’ve had years with 15, 16, 17 charities. Most of them are in the area.”
All of the performers, including Stevens as master of ceremonies, donate their time and talents to this circus. While virtually all performers want to take part, economics sometimes come first and that has made lining up acts an ever-present challenge. According to Stevens, however, this year’s circus will have an abundance of talent.
“The performers all really want to be in the show, but this time of year there are a lot of holiday shows and they have to make a living,” Stevens said. “This year there will be a lot of young people, so there will be a lot of second, third and fourth generation kids that are continuing on with their family’s traditions. They are still in the business. We have an abundance of acts this year, which is great. We have lots of animals, pony rides and a midway for kids of all ages. We’ll also have the circus models here, which is really neat — it is amazing to see.”
According to Stevens, the circus also involves an “army of back people” working in the parking lot, selling tickets and even making cotton candy. Few people can appreciate how many people and how much work is involved in organizing such a large-scale event and that, he said, is exactly how it should be. People come to the circus to have a good time.
When he walks out to open the circus on Saturday, Stevens is looking forward most to two things: seeing the kids in the audience and seeing people who have come from Sun City Center.
“The people in Sun City Center…I always start the show asking them to raise their hands,” he said. “They come here and feel like they are 10 years old again. They love the tents and the seats and the smells. They are so much fun to have here. It is wonderful.”
The march of progress has changed everything in America and around the world, and the circus is no exception. Even Gibsonton, formerly almost exclusively the winter home of circus performers, has changed. Once the town of giants and little people (the post office was once the only office in America with a counter tailored for dwarves), it is becoming more suburban as the years pass, although happy and unexpected sights still can lurk around any corner.
“It’s kind of bittersweet — there were a lot of circus people in Gibsonton at one time but many of them have passed away,” Stevens said. “Times change and it is a very hard business — and there are more and more rules and regulations. You have to be pretty self-reliant.”
But for those who remain, there are rewards that cannot be counted exclusively in terms of dollars and cents. Stevens is excited about having younger people take part in this year’s circus because he knows all too well the talent and dedication they have to their work and to their families.
“The young people are really impressive,” he said. “The education they have, with a sense of worth and self assurance that a lot of kids don’t grow up with. For most people, if you have both parents working, kids go to daycare or after school programs. The circus is just the opposite — you are together 24 hours a day. The kids work with their parents. And a lot of them are accustomed to walking out in front of 20,000 people to perform.”
The Gibsonton Showmen’s Circus isn’t mere virtual reality — it is the real thing, including chills, thrills and laughter, all playing out just feet away from where you sit. As the aerial ballet artists soar above you, the clowns will make you laugh, while the circus band brings forth the sound of youth. Reach down to touch the sawdust, have some cotton candy and for a few hours, simply enjoy being a kid again. Arrive an hour early to enjoy the midway with rides for children, a petting zoo, and plenty of food (including cotton candy, of course), along with the large and amazing display of circus models. There is something for everyone, of every age — the circus is just magic that way.
The Gibsonton Showmen’s Circus will take place on January 7 with three shows beginning at 1 p.m., 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Advance tickets are available at the Paradise Pet Salon in Riverview, The Observer News office in Ruskin, Fish 4 U in Gibsonton and the Showmen’s Club in Gibsonton. Free tickets for kids under 12 are available in this edition of The Observer News, SCC Observer and Riverview Current, the Great Wall Chinese restaurant in Ruskin as well as at all merchants listed above and other local businesses.
The midway opens one hour before show times. The circus will take place at the Showmen’s Club at 6919 Riverview Drive in Gibsonton. For further information, call 813-677-3590.