'Gibtown' Tries To Keep Curtain From Falling On Its Carny Past
GIBSONTON - Even, say, a generation ago, a hapless visitor taking the U.S. 41 bridge over the Alafia River south into Gibsonton might wonder where the tornado went that dumped him in Oz. The first thing he would see is the red neon CHICKEN sign, beckoning the hungry to the Giant's Camp diner. Inside, he might catch the giant, Al Tomaini (8 feet, 4 inches), placing his fussing wife, Jeanie the Half Girl (without legs, at 2 feet, 6 inches) high on a shelf where she couldn't get down. It was a gag that never grew old for the gang. Better if there was a stranger to shock. Melvin Burkhart, the Human Blockhead, might shove spikes up his nose over breakfast.Percilla the Monkey Girl, covered in fur, and her husband, the thick-skinned Alligator Man, might stop by for a bite, while Bea Fee and Garland Parnell fed something to their crew, who were, well, real monkeys. Gossip might turn to the randy Lobster Boy, killed by a hit man hired by his abused wife. You could pick up some Ruskin tomatoes from the fruit stand operated by the Siamese twins. And what would Oz be without the dwarves, who had their own low counter in the post office. Today, that traveler wouldn't see so much. Last year, the Giant's Camp - once the social center of town with its diner, 12 mobile homes, bait house, 15 wooden cabins, TV repair shop, boat slips and 30 green rowboats - was torn down. The Tomainis, Burkhart, Percilla and her husband, and the monkey-loving Bea and Garland - all dead. "Gibtown," colonized in the 1940s by carnival workers and freak-show stars, slowly is going that way, too. It's still the winter home of those who run the traveling amusement parks that show up in dusty country towns, Wal-Mart parking lots and giant state fairs. Drive on its back streets and you'll still see carnival rides in backyards, cotton candy kiosks and a performing elephant or tiger or two. But the business just isn't what it used to be. "It's a sign of the times," says David Starkey, who co-owns the traveling Myers International Midway, home of such stomach-churners as the Yo-Yo, the Orbiters and Slime Buckets. "Kids didn't have video games when we were kids. We had to find our fun outside. Now, to get a kid to go to the state fair for four or five hours out in the sun - people just aren't in that frame of mind anymore." Starkey grew up in the amorphous Gibtown, which includes a chunk of Gibsonton and bits of Riverview. His parents owned Starkey's Lounge, once a popular bar on U.S. 41. He spent his childhood counting peanuts for a monkey show and scrubbing the algae-slick flamingo pond next door, the home of monkeys, a python, lions, alligators and other animals in a Jungle Land extravaganza. Perhaps the only freak-show star left is Pete Terhune, known as Poobah the Fire-Eating Dwarf, who still tours at age 80. Terhune, his voice like rubber tires on gravel, shuns attention when he's not on stage. Even when he ran for honorary mayor of Gibsonton last year, he had someone else do the talking for him. Other freaks aren't stepping up to take their places. Political correctness teaches it's not nice to stare, and besides, you can see the world's largest man and a family of dwarves on cable TV. For someone covered in tattoos or piercings, go to the mall. Better prenatal care, genetic counseling, corrective surgeries and amniocentesis have contributed to the decline. A Dying Way Of Life Joseph "Jody" Hilton, a former animal trainer, trapeze artist and girls show manager, remembers living in the Giant's Camp and meeting up with buddies out back. "It hurt me when they tore down the restaurant," he says. "Everything's gone. You go back and think what it used to be. There wasn't no one besides us. Now we got a lot of outsiders here." The carnival workers had an easy truce with the farmers, about the only other people who shared that part of the county. Otherwise, the Gibtown folk, a close-knit group, liked to keep to themselves. The Tomainis first visited in 1936 and fell in love with the area's remote charm. In 1941, they bought the 3 1/2-acre site on a little inlet of the Alafia River covered with Australian pines and palmetto. Al Tomaini became the city's first fire chief and civic leader. Soon, carnival workers, freaks, strippers, drag queens, fire eaters, spike pounders and others ostracized from society followed, attracted to a place where no one gave them a second glance. "It was the wild wild west out here for a while," says Richard Bennett, a Brandon broker and land-use consultant. In the 1970s, Hillsborough County became the only place in the nation to grant its citizens a special zoning use - Residential Show Business. RSB allowed the carny folk to keep their rides, travel trailers, games, concessions and animals at home from November to March, when they once again hit the road. The explosive growth in south county took awhile to reach Gibtown. Despite its scenic spot along the coastline, two ugly bookends helped shelter residents from intrusive subdivisions: the phosphate mountains of Mosaic Inc. to the north and the stacks of Tampa Electric's Big Bend power plant to the south. Nevertheless, the building boom of the 1990s and early 2000s saw nearby farmers selling to developers. Although some of the planned subdivisions since have withered because of the housing bust, hopes run high that they will be revived when the economic climate improves. The county, meanwhile, is casting a discerning eye on carnytown. Its rusty mobile homes, garish rides in need of ear-splitting repairs and potentially dangerous animals aren't everyone's idea of the ideal suburban neighbor. So the carnival workers, most of them members of the Riverview-based International Independent Showmen's Association, are keeping a close watch on an upcoming zoning case. Arnold Amusements Inc., a huge traveling carnival, was cited by county code enforcement for failing to have the RSB designation. Manager Joey Even says the family has been there 25 years, not realizing they came two years too late to be grandfathered in. The county says it doesn't fit in with surrounding land uses, although the site is in the heart of Gibtown. On April 13, the showmen's association plans to pack the zoning hearing master meeting with Gibtown residents and petitions from those on the road. If that doesn't work, says Bennett, who is working with them, they will forge ahead to the county commission. Starkey, the midway co-owner, fears the county wants to get rid of them all. "If this can happen to the Arnolds, it can happen to any of us," he says. Even says he understands that people moving into new subdivisions in south county might be shocked come winter, when the show people return. Some of the newcomers already avoid the U.S. 41 corridor and the iconic Showtown Bar & Grill after dark. "Maybe they look out at us and say, 'Eek!' But we're really not a bunch of gypsies and thieves. We pay our taxes. We shop here and spend lots of money here. These are our families' homes." Preserving The Past Before the carny life slips away forever, some are working to preserve it as an important part of history - not just of south county, but of the United States. In the 1920s and 1930s, more than 100 sideshows toured the country. Cheap admission gave Depression-era families a bit of needed entertainment. The University of South Florida is working with the showmen's association to create a photographic archive of the nation's carnivals. More than 200 photos have been saved online, and hundreds more await identification. Additionally, the showmen's group hopes to finish a museum across the street from its sprawling property on Riverview Drive. The building, just a shell now, can accommodate its Ferris wheel dating from the late 1800s. A makeshift building nearby is crammed with artifacts, including monkey racing cars from the turn of the 20th century, a 1940s bean-bag toss featuring the faces of Hitler and Mussolini, and game prizes popular throughout decades on the midway. There's even a travel trailer filled with costumes, programs and sets from a girls show - every piece intact and waiting for display. Frequently, people bring in artifacts priceless to Chuck Mayo, a former carnival glass blower who volunteers with the photo project and museum. "A woman who was maybe 80 just brought by two tiny top hats, canes and costumes that belonged to her father when he was a little boy in his vaudeville act," he says. The tricky part is finding the money - more than $1 million for the museum alone. Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton, consisting of carnival workers and other history-minded residents, also is working to erect a memorial at the site of the Giant's Camp. Mosaic, the fertilizer company that bought the property, has agreed to set aside green space. A sculptor is ready to rebuild a giant boot that was a camp landmark. "People keep asking what happened to the boot," says Athena Philips, a member of Concerned Citizens who traveled the carny circuit with her family as a child. "It got into an accident going down 41 and pretty much fell apart. But all these people felt a connection with the boot." Philips, who began as a child juggler, did acrobatic stunts on a bicycle and helped her mother with a live wolf show, says a granite tower would include information about the history of the place. The group also plans to renovate one of the wooden cabins remaining on the site and display a slab of concrete with one of Al Tomaini's footprints. Again, the holdup is cash. The group needs $10,000. Helping Their Own Most carnies aren't rich. Few paid into Social Security during their working days, and retirement brings its own concerns. To help out, the showmen's association created a small retirement village on its property, charging aging residents 10 percent of their income. Betty Midkiff, who once worked concessions, lives in an apartment there with her French poodle, Baby. Her place is decorated with clown portraits and poodle statues. "It's really nice here," says Midkiff, 80, who lived in a nearby mobile home park for 35 years. "We help each other out." The showmen's association also provides college scholarships for children of carnival workers. "A lot of people want to go to college now," Philips says. "A lot of people have moved away." For those who stay forever, the carnies have a home for them, too. The final road trip takes them either to U.S. 301 in Thonotosassa or North Boulevard in Tampa, where two cemeteries have been set aside just for them. Paul Jeonnotte is the volunteer president of both places. One is run by the Gibtown showmen's group, the other by the Greater Tampa Showmen's Association. "I'm the president of the dead people," deadpans Jeonnotte. "But none of my people complain." Many of the graves and mausoleum slots at the Tampa site, which features a large elephant marker, are filled with circus people and adorned with flowers in riotous colors. The cemetery was created in 1950 and has many of Tampa's elite circus performers, such as the Zucchinis and Sedlmayrs, resting there. Jeonnotte has his spot picked at out the Garden of Memories in Thonotosassa. Every November, carnies gather there to tend to the graves. The site is a little less neatly plotted, but has character. Among the dead are carnies, their families, even the former owners of the Showtown Bar. "We even have Grady Stiles, the Lobster Boy," says Jeonnotte, with an eye roll. "Even though he was a little devil, we still take care of him. Everybody is equal here." Jeonnotte buys silk flowers, arranging and selling them to raise money for cemetery upkeep and markers for carnies who die penniless. If no one buys, he puts the baskets on lonely graves. "It's sad, because some of them have nobody," he says. "But I make sure everybody gets flowers." Jeonnotte, who knows the back story of just about everyone resting there, visits at least once a week to make sure everything is tidy. At 65, he still spends a few weeks in the summer touring with his games and concessions. No one knows how much history has been lost in this Garden of Memories. "To see all these names of people I know, gets a little sad, especially as I get older," he says. "There's so many names that are close to me. But we are a tight family. He hasn't put his name on his mausoleum slot yet. With no children, he plans to donate most of whatever he has left to this peaceful little place in Thonotosassa. "For so many of us," he says, "this is our extended family now."
Reporter Donna Koehn can be reached at (813) 259-8264.