TAMPA — As a child, Laura Sedlmayr attended Christmas parties where a Viking giant donned the Santa Claus outfit and a chimpanzee walked a high wire.
Still, she drew a blank when asked to cite her strangest experience. She didn’t even list those Christmas parties.
“I grew up around what you would consider bizarre,” Sedlmayr, 62, said. “It’s all normal to me.”
Her grandfather founded the largest traveling carnival show of its time.
Most of the workers, her family included, lived in the Tampa Bay area.
And when they gathered socially, they did so at the Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association clubhouse at 608 N Willow Ave. in downtown Tampa.
The social club building — for those who worked in the outdoor amusement, entertainment or affiliated industries — was razed last month.
They now gather at a building in Temple Terrace.
As Sedlmayr watched the wrecking ball tear into it, she was nostalgic for the days when downtown Tampa was the national epicenter for carnival workers — and when those showmen were economic drivers.
“Everyone was so lively and fun-loving," said Sedlmayr, a current member and past president of the Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association. “It was quite a time.”
It started with her grandfather, Carl John Sedlmayr, a native of Nebraska who founded a traveling carnival company called Royal American Shows in the 1920s. He built it into what he promoted as world’s largest midway and the “most beautiful show on earth."
The show employed nearly 1,000 people, many of them traveling in the 96 rail cars from city to city, according to Tampa Bay Times archives.
But the carnival got off the road when the weather chilled.
Tampa became Royal American’s winter home beginning in the 1930s.
“We’d repaint, we’d redo, we’d fix and get everything together to go back out in the spring,” said Sedlmayr, a Tampa resident who went into the family business.
Smaller traveling carnival shows, such as the all-black Harlem In Havana, and independent workers followed suit and made the area their winter home, too.
The “human oddities,” as they were called, such as the bearded lady and the dog-faced boy, famously built a community in Gibsonton.
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In 1933, according to Tampa Tribune archives, more than 3,000 carnival workers resided in the area.
The Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association was chartered in 1949. On Jan. 9, 1950, the Tribune reported that the social club dedicated its $65,000, 12,000-square-foot headquarters on Willow Avenue.
“We don’t want to be considered somebody who just comes down here for the winter and then leaves,” Sedlmayr’s father and then-club president, Carl Sedlmayr Jr., told the Tribune. “We consider this our home and we want to take our place here in activities just as other civic groups.”
More than 10,000 carnival workers resided within 75 miles of Tampa in 1965, according to a Tribune story that year, and they infused millions of dollars into the local economy.
“These folks made a good amount of money and that money stayed in the area,” the Tampa Bay History Center’s Rodney Kite-Powell said. “It wasn’t the same as having a corporate headquarters here, but it was not too far off either.”
Among the association’s most famous members were burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, whose memoir was adapted into the film Gypsy, and the Zacchini family, known worldwide as the human cannonballs, said Sedlmayr, whose mother was a Zacchini.
The clubhouse was strategically erected 1 mile from the University of Tampa, which, back then, hosted the Florida State Fair.
“It is the winter fair,” Kite-Powell said. “A place for the showmen to make money.”
Chris Christ, who formerly ran the Gibsonton-based World of Wonders oddities side show for over 50 years with its late-founder Ward Hall, said the Greater Tampa Showmen’s clubhouse was buzzing from dawn until dusk during the fair.
“It was the place to make deals,” Christ, 72 and still residing in Gibsonton, said. The subcontractors would book dates with the promoters.
Still, the social club’s primary focus was to support the community, Sedlmayr said.
Their largest such event was the annual Christmas party for more than 1,000 underprivileged children.
The association closed the surrounding streets and turned the area into a miniature carnival with rides and live entertainment.
Christ would bring his trained chimpanzee that could walk a high wire, perform backflips and even write his name — Toby.
The International Independent Showmen’s Association was founded in Gibsonton in 1965 for those residing in that area. Still, Christ said, those members supported the Tampa Christmas event.
Johann Petursson, for instance, the Viking giant billed as 9 feet tall, was Santa, Christ said.
Over the decades, the Tampa club lost membership, primarily because traveling carnivals and independent midways shuttered. Royal American closed in the mid-1980s.
The Tribune reported on the Christmas carnivals annually through 1978. There is no mention of one after that.
Membership was once in the thousands, Sedlmayr said. She doesn’t know the current total, but said the weekly meetings that once had 100 attendees now draw 20 to 30 people.
So, “it was time to move to a smaller location that needed less maintenance," Sedlmayr said.
The club sold the Tampa property to Wingspan Development Group last year.
A 192-unit apartment building with 4,000 square feet of retail is now being constructed there, according to Andrew Psenka of the development group.
The social club then purchased an 8,000-square-foot building at 12350 N 56th St. in Temple Terrace, spending $1.3 million, according to the property appraiser website.
“I don’t feel sad,” Sedlmayr said of the Tampa building being razed. “I see this as a new beginning."