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GIB TOWN

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Throw out the rules.

In this rural community in southern Hillsborough County, people willingly share their landscape with lions, tigers, bears, elephants, llamas and what is reputed to be the nation's only pack of domesticated wolves.

The residents practice high-wire acts in their back yards.

They store carnival rides on the side streets.

Millionaires sip beer with minimum-wage employees and discuss marketing strategy. A visitor can't tell one from the other judging simply by their clothes.

Living quarters tell a different story.

Lush estates stand next to mobile homes and lawns strewn with torn-down midway rides and concession stands _ the sort of clutter that would send most homeowners screaming to city hall.

But not in Gibsonton.

This town of contrast and contradiction is home to thousands of carnival and circus people from November through March, when the circuses and carnivals are off the road for the winter. They more than double the population _ to almost 16,000.

The show people of Gibsonton are fiercely proud of their profession. But they are deeply aware of and defensive about outsiders who might view them as relics of simpler summers, before midways and sideshows were overshadowed by water slides and MTV.

That combination of pride and wariness coalesces the show people, even as it raises barriers to most of the rest of the world that doesn't understand the circus lifestyle or the carny language.

Judy Godek was once an outsider.

Godek grew up in Rutland, Vt., in a classic small-town environment. After she graduated from high school, she ran away with the carnival.

"I love it," Godek said. She has been on the road 12 years and works a concession stand. "I wouldn't think of doing anything else."

She says she isn't bothered that her profession offers none of the amenities of more traditional jobs, like a pension plan.

"My retirement will be the day I die, and that will probably be on the road," Godek said. "I like what I do, and if you can't understand that, you can't. My family still doesn't. My father still asks me, "Are you still sleeping in trucks?' I don't sleep in trucks," she said, laughing.

A drive down U.S. 41 S between Riverview and Apollo Beach reveals little of what's special about Gibsonton. There are a lot of closed storefronts and many small businesses that look as if they are just hanging on economically.

But there's also Showtown Plaza, Showtown Muffler and Brake, and Showtown USA.

And on the side streets, a visitor might find a trapeze act or high-wire artists honing their skills, a wild-animal trainer exercising his charges or an artist appraising the paint he has just applied to a carny ride.

Bill Myers says he wouldn't want any other way of life. He owns Myers International Midways, and his entire family works for him.

Myers was president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Jackson, Tenn., selling radio advertising, when the carnival bug bit him. That was in 1960.

"A fella named Bob Boling came to town and wanted us (the junior chamber) to help sponsor his carnival," Myers recalled. "No one else wanted to do it. So me and this other boy said okay and helped him out. We set up a hot dog stand, too. Three years later, we had our own show."

Myers now owns, or is a partner in, several show industry-related businesses. His restaurant and extensive real estate holdings in the area, along with his carnival midways, semitrailer truck, ride design and remanufacturing businesses are probably worth millions, although he won't acknowledge it.

"Yeah, well, I started this business with no money and a lot of guts," Myers said. "I still got no money, but I still got a lot of guts."

Gibsonton was "born on the earie," in the jargon of the area. It means people who live there tend to listen attentively. As a result, most Gibsonton residents know almost everything there is to know about everyone else.

A sideshow owner named Grady Stiles Jr. was killed there earlier this month. Stiles called himself "Lobster Boy" in the sideshow because of congenital birth defects that caused his truncated arms and legs to resemble flippers and claws.

Hours after the slaying, Myers told a reporter that Hillsborough deputies "should look close to home" for Stiles' killers. Myers added that if deputies couldn't solve the crime, the community would.

Stiles' wife, stepson and a 17-year-old neighbor were arrested the next day. All three were charged with first-degree murder.

George Sanders, local historian and unofficial curator of the Showmen's Museum of the Carnival on Riverview Drive, dates Gibtown's beginnings to 1924, when Eddie and Grace LeMay, carnival cookhouse operators, first wintered in the area.

They built a single-story structure with a restaurant inside and a few cabins where Williams Park is now. They dubbed it Eddie's Hut. Word about the ideal weather and fantastic fishing spread among the show people, and year after year, more of them trickled in to spend the winters.

If the LeMays and an abundant supply of free fish spawned the community, it was sideshow attractions Al and Jeanie Tomaini who gave the area its first major growth spurt, in 1936.

Al was an 8-foot-4{-inch giant, and Jeanie was billed as "The World's Only Living Half Girl." Together, they built the Giant's Camp, which still stands on U.S. 41 S. The camp, complete with a 24-hour restaurant and bait and tackle shop, is still operating, and Jeanie Tomaini still lives there. Al died in 1962.

One of the keys to Gibsonton's survival and the reason it attracted so many show people is a special _ and perhaps unique _ zoning classification termed "residential show business."

It allows residents to keep on their property their carnival rides, food and game booths, and circus animals that elsewhere probably would be deemed too dangerous for residential areas.

Andy Osak, a carnival veteran of 22 years, came off the road in the early 1960s and opened Showtown USA, a thriving restaurant and lounge on U.S. 41 S. It is the hub of much of the winter activity in Gibsonton.

Osak has since died. His son, Chuck, runs the business now, and much more.

Behind the restaurant is a mobile office where Chuck Osak runs a real estate business and Western Union office and helps show people work their way through the bureaucratic mazes of licensing bureaus, insurance companies and the over-the-road permits required of those in this highly mobile industry.

Osak is an enabler.

"If a guy gets stuck on the side of the road someplace with a broken axle and he needs some money to get going again, I'll get the cash to him," Osak said. "If someone had a tough season and needs a little something to carry him over 'til he goes back out again, I'll help if I can.

"If these people went into a bank and asked for money, they'd get laughed at. But I pretty much know I'm going to get it back.

"I'm never sure when, though," he added, laughing.

Osak probably never will have to loan Bobby Pugh any cash. Pugh, 47, has a magnificent home on the widest part of the Alafia River. He's been in and out of show business since 1967 and is now general manager of Interstate Amusements, based in New Smyrna Beach.

"We're on the road from April to October, and we feel as if we deserve something nice to come home to," Pugh said of his home. "We work a minimum of 12 hours a day, sometimes up to 20, seven days a week. If we're not already working a spot, then we're either setting up, tearing down or on the road to the next spot."

In fact, it's a point of age-old and good-natured debate here about who works harder, carnival or circus people. Carny folks say the circus workers don't labor nearly as many hours as they do.

Circus people scoff and say that while they're laboring, the carny workers are sitting around the midway "staring at the pretty townies."

But let trouble threaten either segment, and the carny and circus people unite.

Bill Morris, a circus owner, animal trainer and performer, recalls several years ago when his son, Lee, was seriously burned when an aerosol paint can exploded after being tossed in a fire.

Morris does not appear to be overly sentimental. But when he talked about how quickly the International Independent Showmen's Association responded to his family's problem, he swallowed hard several times.

A few circus people belong to the IISA, but its membership is overwhelmingly composed of carnival people.

"When trouble comes, the first ones who come to help out are other show people, no matter what end of the business they're in," Morris said.

The association arranged for expert medical care for the boy in Boston and Philadelphia and paid thousands of dollars after his recovery to fly him around the country to be with his family.

The flights avoided road trips that might have been painful for a recovering burn victim, Morris said.

Joe Frisco, a protege of Morris', said it irritates him that outsiders don't know about the good that show people do, for themselves and for others.

"My greatest peeve is the misconception the public has of show people," he said. "Too many people judge simply by what they are looking at.

"Let me tell you something: If you see a guy in showbiz who's clean all the time and never sweats, you're looking at someone who's not working too hard. We work hard."

A point with which Judy Godek agrees.

"Hey, there's good carnies and bad carnies," she said. "We're like everyone else. It's too bad people have never figured that out. It's really not that complicated."