The best showtown on Earth

National Post, May 27, 2017

There’s a little orange cat with big white ears that are grey with dust. He’s scruffy, and a little wild, and he’s crouched in the shadow of a carnival trailer.

The trailer is bright red, and painted on the side is the giant face of a fierce tiger with clean white stripes.

Welcome to the best showtown on earth.


Gibsonton, Fla., better known as Gibtown, was a fishing town near the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros. circus in the 1920s, with a restaurant run by The World’s Strangest Married Couple — 7-foot-5 (or 8-foot-5, depending on who you ask) giant Al Tomaini and his legless wife, Jeannie, who was 2-foot-5.

Their restaurant, and the town they called home, wasn’t a tourist attraction. Nor was the post office, which was the only one in America to have a counter just for dwarves.

“We settled here to be among our own without the prying eyes and vacant stares of outside society,” says David (Doc) Rivera, executive director of the International Independent Showmen’s Museum and an expert on travelling shows in America. He says outsiders would warn against visiting after dark. “ ‘Stay out of Gibtown, those carnies will steal your children.’ We perpetuated the myth to keep them away.”

Inside the museum, canned carnival music echoes off the rafters and lights flicker over sideshow exhibits and games of chance and skill. A full-size Ferris wheel, one of the first to operate in the U.S., spins slowly under the watch of a mannequin ticket-taker. There is a child-size carousel from the 1950s and funhouse mirrors to crush or stretch or split visitors in half. And there are stories of mutants and marvels.

Here is Ashley Braistle, otherwise known as the Four-Legged Woman. The placard in front of her mannequin, which has a full set of of perfectly formed legs between her other set of perfectly formed legs, claims she is the result of a condition wherein a conjoined twin is partially absorbed before birth. It has become socially taboo to display one’s mutation in travelling carnivals, the plaque says, and Braistle is said to live in a small town and does not perform.

Here is Percilla the monkey girl, who had a full black beard and whose parents moved her to the U.S. from Puerto Rico to earn a living on the back of her hypertrichosis. She met and fell in love with The Alligator Skinned Man and they also billed themselves as The World’s Strangest Married Couple.

There are many others. Father Mac, the Carny Priest. Burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. Here in Gibtown, it’s like they never left.


The carnival’s rich cousin, the circus, calls this part of Florida home, too. The Ringling Bros. set up their winter headquarters 90 years ago in Sarasota, where John Ringling had invested heavily in real estate and culture, saying one could not have a great town without a great museum.

The circus and sideshow acts would soon part ways, says Deborah Walk, assistant director of Legacy & Circus at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

“In the 1830s, circus owner J. Purdy Brown realized the population of the country was moving westward and the idea of a circus (in a permanent wooden structure) in every town was just too expensive. A canvas tent made it more flexible,” Walk says. But that innovation meant there were fewer places to put sideshow acts.

Much later the gap further widened when the circus became “high-minded,” Rivera says. “The circus has always had a caste system. … They were even segregated in the cookhouse tent.”


The Ringling winter quarters became a place where magic lived, Walk says.

Sarasota was the home of performers like Emmett Kelly, better known as the sad-faced Depression Era clown Weary Willie, who never cracked a smile but brought smiles to thousands of faces during his decades-long career.

And others: “Madam Rasputin would have two tiger cubs, walking down Main St. The giant would be taking art classes and playing basketball, and the midgets had their own bowling league, and the sound of animals filled the night air.”

The siren call was powerful, she says. The John Robinson Circus visited the Ohio hometown of John Ringling’s wife, Mabel, in the 1890s and over the years more than 70 residents joined the circus, including the mayor.

“You used horses for plowing, and at the circus you saw these high-stepping, beautifully groomed animals that did all sorts of things,” Walk says. “We were just so tied to the land and tied to work that this magical entertainment institution that just floated from one place to the next would have appeal.

“And for those people who loved it, it was a lifetime connection. They say you never forget that ‘clickety clickety clickety clickety’ of the circus train.”

Rivera is less romantic on the idea of running away to join a travelling act. “There are only two ways you get into this business: misfortune in your personal life or you were born into it. Any wannabes who think this life is glamorous soon find out the hard way it’s a hard, dirty, and personally uncomfortable life most of the time. It takes grit and personal fortitude to stay the course on a traveling carnival. … We call them ‘First Of Mays’ and until they have spent at least a full season —  April to October — we view them with mild contempt.”

Born to it or called to it, the magic has shifted. The Ringling Bros. circus is shutting down this month with a final show May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y.

Human oddities are almost never seen, except in learned acts like sword swallowing, says Rivera, who blames television and the “hyper PC-conscious general public.”

But Walk promises: “The circus will be with us. People love the daring of the human spirit and the core values — striving for perfection, dedication, perseverance.

“That’s where we are right at the moment: the circus is ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. You can have circus schools, you can have circus yoga. But the circus itself as a performance, you know, so much of its pieces have gone to theatre.”


In Gibtown, a slow drive along the edge of town reveals whispers of whimsy: colourful flags, a dwarf-size train on a front lawn. But the “freaks” are gone, except maybe Man Who Walks Oddly Because His Pants Are Too Baggy. Down the road from the showmen’s association is the Showtown Lounge. The paint is peeling and the sign is sun-bleached and hard to read.

The shine has come off it, too.

The giants, the fat girls, the tattooed lady, dwarves and midgets are gone.

“The Giant’s Camp has been torn down,” Rivera says. “The highway where it stood will be widened again this year and the main street has morphed from a twisty, two-lane street where dogs used to sleep peacefully in the afternoon sun into a six-lane highway.”

When asked what else there is to do in town, the lady who answers the door at the association’s headquarters shrugs and looks bemused.

“I mean, it ain’t like it was in the ‘70s,” she says. “You might see someone fixin’ up a old trailer in their front yard, maybe they’ve got some equipment or something out there. But it’s just a normal town now. It ain’t like before.”

IF YOU GO

The International Independent Showmen’s Museum is open from Thursday to Sunday. 6938 Riverview Dr., Riverview. Admission is $5 for students, $10 for adults. 813-677-3590. internationalindependentshowmensmuseum.org

The Ringling Museum and Ca d’Zan, the winter headquarters of the circus, is one hour south of Gibtown, in Sarasota. Admission is $5 for children and students, $20 for seniors, and $25 per adult. 5401 Bay Shore Rd., 941-359-5700. ringling.org.


A MARRIAGE OF GIANTS

The Barnum & Bailey Circus was founded in the 1870s, just ahead of the Ringlings’ 1884 founding. But Barnum & Bailey drifted off to Europe for a decade.

“Their first performance back in the country was in 1903 and lo and behold here was this huge Ringling Bros. show, which was much smaller when the show left to go to Europe,” recounts Deborah Walk, assistant director of Legacy & Circus at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. “When they came back, here was this massive force.”

When John A. Bailey died, the Ringlings made the financially bold decision, in the middle of a global economic downturn, to purchase the circus for $410,000. For another $100,000 they bought the title to go with it: The Greatest Show on Earth.

Renowned circus ringmaster Fred Bradna called the Ringling brothers “the five-headed hydra,” a powerful human machine, each doing very distinct tasks that allowed them to run the circuses separately. When three of the brothers died between 1911 and 1919, Charles and John Ringling combined the shows for efficiency.

OFF THE BEATEN PATH

If you’re looking for more offbeat things to do in the Sarasota area, here are two spectacular suggestions.

A tour of Mixon Farm is more than a tram ride through the orange trees. The citrus growers 20 minutes from downtown Sarasota have partnered with Wildlife Inc., a rehabilitation and rescue organization. Visitors have a chance to learn about local wildlife and hold and interact with alligators, pythons, and turtles, among other unique rescues. 2525 27th St. E., Bradenton, Fla. 800-608-2525, mixon.com.

Solomon’s Castle is a hour’s drive away and well worth the trip on the backroads of inland Florida. The palace is the creation of author, sculptor and junk-collector Howard Solomon, who built his home, then covered it in old silver typesetters’ plates, news-side in. Inside is a host of curiosities, sculptures and terrible puns, and outside is a full-size Boat in a Moat restaurant. 4533 Solomon Rd., Ona, Fla. 863-494-6077, solomonscastle.com.

GIRL SHOWS

When sideshows were at their peak, girl shows were at their peek, ranging from “posing shows” where the ladies did little more than stand and look pretty, to revues and burlesque. They could be little “Single-O shows” or huge affairs with 60 girls and a full orchestra, according to information at the International Independent Showmen’s Museum.

Such vaudeville stars as Gypsy Lee Rose and Sally Rand launched their careers in carnival tents.

Many carnivals had separate black and white shows, and “arguably the best of the black revues was presented by renowned impresario Leon Claxton, whose magnificent Harlem in Havana and Havana Revue, which travelled on the giant railroad caravan Royal American Shows, set the hallmark for all girl show revues, both black and white.”

Now that there are “gentlemen’s clubs” in every town and city, plus HBO and the Internet, the economics of putting together a travelling girl show don’t make sense for most companies.

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