For nearly a year, the lights stayed off, the Ferris wheel sat still, and a warehouse of wonders waited to delight and terrify guests in Riverview.
The International Independent Showmen’s Museum closed, like the traveling shows it celebrates, because of the pandemic.
But it exists because a few people spent years, raised millions and refused to let the fascinations of the carnival fade away. Ivan Arnold was one of them — a carnival lifer. (Not a carney. “We in the business do not like to be called carneys,” said friend Jim Elliott. “Carnival people is fine.”)
Mr. Arnold discovered his people when he was 8 years old, after a carnival set up in a field behind his house in Traverse City, Mich. He started working for the HappyLand Show, first as a stake boy, helping earn money for his family, which struggled after his father’s death. He peeled onions. He worked the games. And he started traveling.
“He just lived for the carnival,” said his daughter, Sandy Schmidt.
Mr. Arnold, who served as president of the museum since its inception, died Feb. 4 from complications due to the coronavirus. He was 84.
In his late teens, Mr. Arnold met his future wife, Agnes, and soon, she joined him on the sawdust trail, seeing the country along the way.
In 1966, Mr. Arnold bought his first ride. By 1980, he had started his own business, Arnold Amusements. The three Arnold kids, Tom, Sandy and John, put up with school during the week, son Tom remembers, and got to work carnivals on the weekends and all summer long.
Even when he ran his own traveling empire, Mr. Arnold kept filling popcorn machines, changing trash bags and hosing off the midway
“I think it’s a great life,” he told the Petoskey (Michigan) News-Review in 1985. The family had, by then, relocated to Florida. “You get to see the smiles on the kids and everybody having a good time.”
Traveling carnivals have a long history in the United States, and nearby Gibsonton, known as Gib Town, has been the winter home for generations of carnival people. But the work isn’t easy, Tom Arnold said, and when the kids don’t want to join the family business, it’s hard to find help.
“Carnivals are slowly disappearing,” he said.
So Mr. Arnold and fellow members of the showmen’s association started collecting pieces of the past — wagons, flyers, costumes, rides, tiny and elaborate miniatures. They found giant lithograph ads, that Ferris wheel, an American Beauty carousel, a Gypsy Rose Lee costume, the mammoth boots of the 9-foot-tall Viking Giant, the bible of the Carney Priest.
In 2013, the museum opened in a towering, 54,000-square-foot space. It’s a din of band organ music, clanking bells and recordings of carnival “talkers” beckoning revelers. Lights blink. Clowns are … everywhere. So are memories, tucked into displays of old games and prizes.
The last year has devastated the carnival industry, said Doc Rivera, the museum’s executive director. It can survive one year closed. Not two.
“Most carnival folks are resilient,” he said. “They suffered a lot through the history of the carnival business.”
World wars, depressions, recessions — they always came back.
“And they’ll come back from this,” Rivera said.
The museum will, too.
“In our heart, that museum is our dad’s legacy,” said Schmidt, who, by the way, runs a carnival company, too.
The museum plans to reopen in March. For $10, you can see yourself in the funhouse mirrors and discover, among other things, a two-headed prince, a two-nosed cow and a tattooed lady.
Until then, here’s a look at the wonders Mr. Arnold and his friends worked to save.
Poynter Institute researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.