Welcome to Gibsonton, Florida
Just about twenty minutes south of Tampa on U.S. Highway 41 lies the small town of Gibsonton, Florida. On the surface it appears to be yet another non-descript, backwater town; a town frozen in time since the Interstate system replaced the original U.S. highways. But Gibsonton has a secret, a hidden identity to be discovered if one ventures down the side streets of town. Down these streets you may discover monkeys or elephants in a front yard or a variety of carnival rides. You may have once even ran into Aunt Dotty "the Fat Lady." (Gibton, 2001)
Gibsonton, also known as "Showtown, U.S.A., has been the winter home for a large population of circus and carnival sideshow performers for nearly 70 years. And it's probably the only place in America where your local police chief was once a dwarf and your former fire chief was over 8 feet tall. (Gibton, 2001)
Here Come the Carnies
Gibsonton became a popular winter fishing destination for many carnival and sideshow workers in the 1940s. (Gibton, 2001) During this time, Al and Jeanie Tomaini opened a fishing camp and restaurant called "Giant's Fish Camp." Some might call them an atypical match. Al stood at over 8 feet tall while his wife Jeanie was approximately 2 and a half feet tall and toured the carnival sideshow circuit as the "half-woman." But to Jeanie, the size difference was never an issue. (Gibton, 2001) Soon after the Tomaini's settled in to town, many carnival folks seeking a sense of community and acceptance, followed. (Gibton, 2001) As carnival folk spent more than half of the year on the road and were strangers in every town they passed through, Gibsonton was the natural choice for many carnival folks. (Gibton, 2001) And the town embraced them, even enacting special zoning laws known as "Residential Business Zoning" which still allow for people to keep show animals and carnival rides and exhibits on their property. Roy Huston, an illusionist and Gibsonton resident says, "It's the only settlement in America classed as RSB: a Residential Business Zone which gives the locals the right to train grizzly bears or store dodgem cars in their gardens." (Schneider, 2004)
The carnival sideshow business has been in constant decline since the heydays in the 1920s and 1930s. (Gibton, 2001) Back then, carnival sideshows were one of the few forms of entertainment for small-town America. (Gibton, 2001) Post-WWII, people's tastes gradually became more sophisticated and alternate forms of entertainment such as movies and television became significant forms of competition. (Gibton, 2001). It also became increasingly politically incorrect to market people with deformities and many found it to be a form of exploitation.
The last group of sideshow "freaks" from the past are slowly dying off. Jeanie Tomaini died in 1999 and Melvin Burkhart, the man once famous for hammering nails into his nose, passed in 2001. However, the carnival life survives in Gibsonton. On a visit in October 2007, I ate at the Showtown Restaurant and Lounge and saw a carnie dwarf known for eating fire on stage. I also found that many residents are still storing their carnival rides and animals in their front yards and there are many old, broken-down pieces of circus equipment scattered about. Such lawn decorations are actually a sign of pride in Gibsonton. Indeed one of the biggest status symbols in town is to see how much circus junk you can pile up in your front yard. (Gibton, 2001)