For over two centuries, circuses, carnivals, traveling wild west shows, and street fairs were common fixtures of Americana. Touring the countryside from spring to fall, they brought their unique line-up of fire-eaters, lion tamers, and high-wire acts to the far reaches of America while making showmen like Victor Pepin, P. T. Barnum, and Ringling Brothers household names. For many living in rural areas of the nation, these rolling venues elicited the excitement of a rock concert, Disneyland, and a trip to Time Square all rolled into one.
For over two centuries, circuses, carnivals, traveling wild west shows, and street fairs were common fixtures of Americana.
Touring the countryside from spring to fall, they brought their unique--and often, bizarre--line-up of fire-eaters, contortionists, lion tamers, and high-wire acts to the far reaches of America, while making showmen like Victor Pepin, P. T. Barnum, and Ringling Brothers household names.
For many living in rural areas of the nation, these rolling venues elicited the excitement of a rock concert, Disneyland, and a trip to Time Square all rolled into one.
While for many spectators it was the Big Top headliners most deserving the “oohs” and “ahhs” and adulation, for others it was the sideshows, or second acts, that offered the greater fascination. These so-called “freak“ shows, as they came to be commonly known, provided onlookers a glimpse of the world’s oddities; those individuals most unlike themselves (or so they appeared).
These strange individuals--billed as having come from the far corners of the Earth--came in two general types: natural born freaks, (people who were born with disfiguring or unusual qualities such as the 1000 lb “bearded lady“), and man-made freaks (people who caused themselves to be different like the “tattooed man”). But the one thing most so-called “freaks” had in common was that when they weren't on the road, they spent the winter months in one place: Gibsonton, a small town in Hillsboro County, Florida, long referred to as Showtown, USA.
Brought to national attention in 1997 by TV’s Jerry Springer, who filmed on location and interviewed a number of Gibsonton’s high profile, sideshow residents, indications of the “Showtown” mystique can still be seen today along US 41, just south of Tampa, at places like Showtown Saloon, which still displays its brightly painted panels of clowns and other circus-related imagery.
Still home to many “carnies” and traveling acts (who old-school sideshow performers describe as much different than the 30s and 40s breed), it was once home to many famous entertainers like “Percilla the Monkey Girl, the Anatomical Wonder,” the “Lobster Boy,” and several of the little people who starred as Wizard of Oz munchkins.
And as story has it, at one time the Siamese twin sisters living there even ran a fruit stand.
With the only known post office with a counter designed specifically for dwarves, Gibsonton even offered unique circus zoning laws that allowed residents to keep elephants and circus trailers on their front lawns.
Considered the founders of the “Gibtown” community, Al and Jeanie Tomaini (the giant who married the “half girl”), are remembered for their hospitality and friendliness as well as their restaurant, bait shop, and marina. Together they operated Giant’s Camp, an eatery offering southern style food and drinks to the local residents--wihich many locals still tout as having the best breakfasts in all Florida. (While both Al and Jeanie have since passed away, their daughter Judy now runs the restaurant.)
While it’s easy to pass through this tiny town without recognizing its unique history or famed residents, Gibsonton's place in American pop culture will forever hold a special place in US history for the unique insight into the Great American Sideshows of the past it holds.
If you do decide to visit, however, don't be surprised if you catch a glimpse of a tiger or bear in the backyard of one of the trailers, as the old zoning laws are still in effect.
And of course, don't hesitate to ask the locals about their wonderful history. They love to talk about what makes them different from every other town in America, and of the many celebrities who've graced their streets.
images via wikipedia.org unless credited otherwise
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