GIBSONTON — Despite measuring 7 feet, 4 inches tall, sideshow entertainer Al Tomaini could not lay claim to being the tallest resident of Gibsonton when the town along the Alafia River was home to a community of traveling carnival workers.
That distinction went to Johann “The Viking Giant” Petursson, who was 7 feet, 8 inches tall.
But Tomaini had Gibsonton’s largest presence.
He owned a restaurant and television repair shop, gave the town its first ambulance and served as fire chief and a deputy.
When he died in 1962, his wife, Jeanie, placed Tomaini’s 35-inch boot on a pillar outside their home as a memorial.
The boot eventually deteriorated and the community replaced it with a replica sculpture.
But the sculpture also deteriorated and, a year ago, fell from its pedestal. The damaged monument was taken home by the daughter of the woman who led the charge to have it erected.
She fixed and returned it to the pedestal in July.
“We couldn’t let it disappear,” said Athena Philips, who restored the sculpture. “The boot is this iconic piece of Gibsonton that reminds us of how it was.”
Philips would not share her age but said she is too young to have met Tomaini. As a child, she met his wife in passing.
Still, through stories, “I feel like I knew them,” she said.
The history of Gibsonton’s sideshow community, according to the Showmen’s Museum in neighboring Riverview, goes like this:
In the 1920s, Eddie and Grace Lemay stopped in Gibsonton while on the road to South Florida with their portable restaurant, which traveled the carnival circuit. They caught a fish so quickly that they decided to make Gibsonton home.
They told carnival friends about the town, and in a short period it became known as Sideshow Capital of the World.
Residents included 138 entertainers known back then as human oddities. They included a Monkey Girl, an Alligator-Skinned Man and Tomaini and his wife, Jeanie, called The Living Half Girl due to being born without legs and being 2 feet, 5 inches tall. Together, they were billed as The Strangest Married Couple in the World.
They were also entrepreneurial. In the early 1940s, they established Giant’s Fish Camp, which included a restaurant, bait house and cottages, one of which was their home.
Jeanie died in 1999, but Tomaini’s boot remained out front “until it just disappeared one day,” Philips said.
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When the Tomaini property was sold to phosphate company Mosaic in 2008, “the pillar and boot remains were found wrecked, presumably by a car plowing into it,” said Philips, who was raised in Gibsonton and in the sideshow business. Her parents, Carol and Don Philips, had an animal act that included trained wolves and unicycle tricks.
“My mom kept hearing people say, ‘What happened to the boot?’ and thought something of its obvious significance should be maintained for posterity,” Philips said. “So, she spearheaded a campaign with the Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton to install a new monument honoring Al and Jeanie.”
Artist Lew Stamm crafted the replica boot. Its base was engraved, “Al & Jeanie Tomaini, Gibsonton Civic Leaders.” And, in 2010, Mosaic allowed it to be placed on the property in front of the former camp’s last cabin.
“When they commemorated the new monument memorial, they presented the sole from the real boot, framed and mounted, to the Tomaini family,” Philips said.
Meanwhile, Philips remained in the sideshow business, most recently running a snake show with her husband, Pete Kolozsy. The pandemic halted that show, so they are now seeking to start a Traveling Museum of Historical Attractions.
“Kind of like a ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not!’” she said. “I’m into the history. It’s why the boot matters to me.”
In August 2021, Philips, who now lives in Citrus County, received a call from her sister, Diane Philips, informing her that the boot had been knocked over.
“My husband and I swung by and, sure enough, it’s on the ground and it was banged up,” Philips said. “It’s possible it was vandalism, but I think it was just age and deterioration and eventually a good wind came and knocked it over. We were worried it could get more damaged, so we took it home.”
With Mosaic’s permission and financial support, Philips repaired the cracks and chips on the sculpture and replaced the interior sculpting foam that had been eaten by ants.
Then, on July 3, Philips and her husband remounted the boot.
“It’s back where it belongs,” she said.