RIVERVIEW — Production is nearly finished on The Beast Comes at Midnight, a movie with a fictional story set in modern times that also tells the true story of Gibsonton’s history as a residential hub for the sideshow workers who traveled the nation and performed locally each year at the Florida State Fair.
“We have only a few small things to shoot,” producer Ed McKeever said during a recent visit to Riverview’s Showmen’s Museum, which preserves the history of American carnivals and serves as a primary location for the movie. “Then it’s a wrap.”
But that is not a wrap on his efforts to tell Gibsonton’s sideshow story.
The Beast Comes at Midnight was initially slated as a standalone project.
But, after learning more, McKeever and his production partners decided to produce more feature films, all set in a “Gibsonton Cinematic Universe,” with the next tentatively scheduled to begin shooting later this year.
“There are so many stories,” McKeever said. “It writes itself. We’re calling it the Gibtown Chronicles.”
Those future movies could include giants, a monkey girl, an alligator-skinned man and a giant python that allegedly killed its handler’s husband, all of whom were actual Gibsonton residents.
This concept was born during McKeever’s 2019 visit to the Showmen’s Museum, which features a banner for the attraction known as “Wolf Boy,” called such because he was covered in hair from head to toe.
McKeever’s now-15-year-old son, Michael, wondered aloud what the Wolf Boy would be up to today.
“That sounded like a movie,” McKeever said.
The Beast Comes at Midnight, starring Michael Paré and Eric Roberts, is about a teenager whose family owns the Showmen’s Museum and who hosts a podcast about the supernatural. He believes a series of unsolved murders is the work of a werewolf.
“He’s the outcast,” McKeever said. “But he has to band together with the popular kids to take on the wolf.”
It’s Goonies meets Monster Squad, producer Todd Oifer said.
Their next feature film will be Bitter Souls, which McKeever described as a “teenage girl revenge story where voodoo is used as revenge.” They hope to begin production in the summer or fall.
There isn’t a known voodoo component to the real Gibsonton, but McKeever said they will again tie in the community’s legitimate carnival history.
“It will display the flavor of the town,” he said. “I can’t say what aspects yet.”
Wolf Boy was a real attraction, but not a real person, said Showmen’s Museum curator and executive director David “Doc” Rivera. It was a handmade attraction that the sideshow tried to pass off as legitimate.
But there were plenty of real-life sideshow attractions, many of whom lived in Gibsonton, and each could be featured in a future project.
As the story goes, Eddie and Grace Lemay, who owned a portable restaurant that traveled the carnival and fair circuit, were on their way to Miami in the 1920s when they stopped in Gibsonton for the night. They went fishing in the Alafia River and caught dinner in 15 minutes. They then decided to make Gibsonton home and suggested their carnival friends do the same.
“They all came down here because of the warm winters and another factor,” Rivera said. “They could live in a community where they weren’t ostracized. They could be among their own.”
Those at risk of being ostracized were known as “the human oddities” who performed in carnival and fair “freak shows.”
“At one time, 138 human oddities lived in this little town of Gibsonton,” Rivera said.
Among the most famous residents were “the world’s strangest married couple,” he said.
The husband was Al Tomaini, who was billed at 8 feet 5 but was actually 7 feet 4, according to Guinness World Records. His wife, Jeanie Smith, also known as “The Living Half Girl,” was 2 feet 5. Tomaini was also the Gibsonton fire chief and owned The Giant’s Fishing Camp restaurant.
There was another giant.
Johann Petursson, “The Viking Giant,” was promoted as the tallest man alive at 8 feet 8, but was closer to 7 feet 8, according to news archives.
During the holiday season, Rivera said, the Iceland native portrayed Santa Claus at events for the area’s less fortunate children. “You would think that children would be terrified of an 8-foot, 8-inch Santa Claus, but Santa Claus is larger than life anyway.”
There was another unique married couple too, Rivera said. They were wife Percilla “The Monkey Girl” Lauther, whose body and face were covered with thick hair, and husband Emmitt Bejano, also known as the “Alligator-Skinned Man” due to a condition that turned his skin hard and scaly.
“In the in the wintertime, Percilla would shave her hair off her body so she could go into the stores and not be recognized,” Rivera said.
And then there was Bruce “Harold Huge” Snowden, who weighed over 600 pounds.
What does a 600-pound man eat, asked Rivera with a laugh? “Anything he could put in his face.”
And what was his act?
“He wasn’t going to do any dancing,” Rivera said. Most of the human oddity sideshow acts took the stage “and would give a recitation, perhaps a little brief life history, talk about the difficulties they would encounter in life. Each story lasted about 10 minutes.”
But there were performances.
There was a “tented midget show,” Rivera said, during which the performers would sing, dance and compete in mock boxing matches. Most of those performers “immigrated from Europe after Hitler decreed them a subspecies” to be sent to the gas chambers.
One, Casper Balsam, retired to become a deputy.
“The Alafia River Bridge used to be wooden,” Rivera said. “Anytime a car went over too quick, you could hear the bridge give off a certain noise. Casper would sit at the bottom of the bridge in his 1955 Oldsmobile with blocks wired to the pedals and a cushion on the seat, and when he heard somebody speeding over the bridge, he would drive out and hold up a sign telling them to pull over.”
Another performer was Alfred “Sailor Katzy” Henley. He operated a wild animal show that included a 22-foot python.
Henley died of a heart attack while sleeping in his backyard, Rivera said, but a neighbor thought the python killed him. The police were about to destroy the snake when Henley’s wife, Irene, informed them of the real reason her husband was dead.
Still, realizing the potential in the false narrative, she allowed the press to run with it and then promoted the python as “the snake that ate my husband,” Rivera said. “She’d even dress in the widow’s garb.”
The human oddities sideshow acts were eventually phased out due to a mix of political correctness and a lack of wonder, Rivera said. “The fat man was once unique. Now you see him every day standing in the checkout line.”
Still, McKeever and Oifer believe there will be enough interest in The Beast Comes at Midnight when it premieres at film festivals later that they will successfully raise capital for the other projects.
“We won’t be limited by stories,” Oifer said.
Rivera told Oifer how the sideshow performers would sometimes gather for group meals at a local eatery.
“Can you imagine being a tourist who stopped for coffee and they’re all at the restaurant?” Rivera said. “How fast do you think the tourist got back in his car?”
Oifer laughed and replied, “That will make a great movie scene.”