Gibsonton: Where Carnies Go to Get Away from Civilians
They come to your town. They are in charge of your children’s safety. You eat their food. You trust them, but you don’t know them—not in the slightest. You know them as well as your tollbooth operator. Seconds of interaction, not even a name tag. Show people.
The C word is a derogatory term in their book, but they are allowed to use it. The term carnie conjures up the image of a redneck with a Marlboro hanging from his lip, while he runs the milk-bottle game. It’s a caricature of these people who break their backs for your entertainment.
Kevin, a 26-year-old member of the International Independent Showmen’s Association, and I sat inside the association'a headquarters in the community of Gibsonton, just outside of Tampa, Florida. The Showmen’s HQ isn’t some concrete-block building within an office park. Gibsonton has long been a winter home to all the freak-show acts and show people. It was chosen for its proximity to the headquarters of Ringling Bros. in Tampa. At one time, Gibsonton had one of the only post offices in America that had shortened countertops for little people.
Before it became Showtown, Gibsonton was a small town of fishermen and employees of the local lumber company. In 1930, it only had 614 residents. By 1945, the town grew to nearly 1,100 residents. The first settlers—legends like Al “the Giant” Tomiani (who stood at 7'11'') and his wife, Jeanie “the Half-Woman” (two and half feet tall)—led a migration. They bought waterfront property to start a fish camp.
By the 1970s, the sideshow acts dissolved—rides and games were the new way of making a buck in this industry. And with that growth, a union of sorts emerged: the Association.
The Showmen’s auditorium has a capacity of 4,500 members. Every year, there is a tradeshow where the showmen companies show off their latest ride, food, and ticket designs. The main building has multiple themed bars, from the tropical style to a carousel bar. The bar top is made out of a used carousel ceiling.
A small group of people sat around the bar smoking and doing upside-down-pineapple-cake shots. I got to talking with the bartender, Teresa. She was like a wild-west saloon's bartender, taking care of her own and questioning of strangers.
“It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle,” she told me.
Everyone at the bar nodded their heads in agreement. She said the living quarters could be rough, like sharing a travel-trailer room with five others. Show people often work 48 hours straight, setting up the fair, then breaking it down. Then they drive cross-country from dusk till dawn to the next town and do the same thing.
A scruffy, large man in his late 50s walked in. He looked like a retired football player. He ordered a drink and introduced himself as Joe Royal. A former president of the Association, Joe said he started out as a ruffie—someone who sets up games and booths—and has remained in the business for more than 50 years.
“What do you want to know about Lobster Boy?” Joe asked.
I had heard the legend before I arrived. Lobster Boy, a.k.a. Grady Stiles Jr., was a performer and resident who had clawlike hands and was a famous freak act throughout his childhood. Stiles became an alcoholic and beat his kids and wife with his deformed hands. In 1978, he shot and killed his daughter’s fiancé on the night before their wedding. Because of his condition, the state only gave him a 15-year probation. A couple of years after his probation, he was murdered in a hit ordered by his ex-wife and stepson. They had paid $1,500 to have him killed. The wife was sentenced for 12 years, and the stepson was given life.
“I was there on the day of the funeral,” Joe said, “It was packed. The pallbearers all wearing red hats. I think the funeral was sponsored by Red Lobster,” he laughed.
Joe said he used to do cruise shows with Lobster Boy.
“Grady use to like to go in the hot tub on the ship,” he joked.
Joe was a born showman. His father Danny Royal was president of the Association, and he showed me his picture on the Hall of Fame wall.
“It’s a different way now—we went from a true subculture to mainstream,” he said, seeming distraught. To change the subject he took me on a tour of Gibsonton.
“You know we got a retirement village back here?” he said.
We walked out the back door to the outside area—a plot of land that looks like an empty fairground.
The retirement quarters had little porches with Hibachi grills outside of each unit. Dues from the Association pay for the living quarters for members. Joe told me anybody from divorced to just down-on-their-luck folks are allowed to stay there because of their membership.
We made our way back inside to the main building, through another door that led into a room that looked like the UN, decked out in country flags hanging from the ceiling.
This is where decisions are made.
“This is where we have our Friday meetings and dinners,” he said. “We fill it up every week.”
Above the head table were framed pictures of each board member, smiling away.
The adjacent wall was filled with old photographs of freak-show acts. He gave me a quick history lesson.
“This is Gargantuan, one of the first apes to appear at shows,” he said.
“This is Miss Purtie—she raised that lion since he was a cub,” he said. “That damn lion was scared to hell of that woman.”
“This man used to live in town—he did the monkey races.”
“Those people on the left and right are my great-grandfather and great-grandmother. They use to operate this show—she really wasn’t 603 pounds—she was big woman, though.”
“This is Al and his wife. The giant and half woman,” he said. “She was the boss in the relationship.”
He told me that Al wore size 27 shoes and was the fire chief and a cop of Gibsonton. Royal also mentioned the fish camp that they owned, but it seemed like a distant memory.
“It was bought out by Mosaic (a phosphate company), but they got his boot memorial down there,” he said.
We headed back to the bar. A bunch of new people had shown up. I met a guy named Buddy.
Buddy lives in Miami as the director of operations of Santa’s Enchanted Forest, but during the season, he hauls games and rides.
“I drive all the way from Miami to North Dakota, gone for three months or so,” he said. Buddy was a walking Florida-sports emblem, with almost every Florida sports team tattooed on his body.
He told me about one his favorites.
“Dwyane Wade came to Santa’s once, so I asked him for an autograph on my arm,” he said. “So, I got it tattooed on.”
I needed to go to the bathroom, and they pointed me in the right direction, but then stopped me.
“Head over to the ladies' room, there’s no one in there,” he said.
“Why would I go in there?” I asked.
“Just go over there, and head on in. Go,” he said.
The bartender egged me on.
I noticed right away that it was a fake front door, leading nowhere. I didn’t want to ruin their fun, so I played dumb. They laughed until they cried as I tried to open it.
These showpeople seem to be in it for the long haul. It’s a family business, even when you aren’t family. The Association takes care of its own, whether hooking them up with a beer or a place to stay. There are ranks of respect within this industry, from ruffie to show owners, and a true pride for those who stick with the life.
New Fiction by PEN/Faulkner Award-Winner Akhil Sharma
Photos by Donald Weber
This Short Is Three Smoked Cigarettes Long
My Archive of Unmentionables
Filmmaker David Ridgen Cracks Open a 40-Year-Old Cold Case