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Showmen's Museum shows off carnival history

Old carnival and state fair posters are seen on the walls of the International Independent Showmen’s Museum.
Old carnival and state fair posters are seen on the walls of the International Independent Showmen’s Museum.
Published May 1, 2015

When the carnival came to Doc Rivera's hometown, he could hardly contain his excitement.

For the teenager living in La Porte, Ind., the traveling show represented two things: opportunity and freedom. So much so that when the carnival left his town, the 14-year-old with a troubled family life left with it. Carnival workers became his family. That journey was the start of a lifetime affinity with the business, one that raised him from a carnival worker to owner to museum curator.

More than 50 years later, Rivera stands in the middle of a 52,000-square-foot, two-story warehouse on the outskirts of Riverview. It's here that his passion for the carnival business of yesteryear still smolders. Rivera is the organizer and curator of one of Tampa Bay's most interesting attractions. The International Independent Showmen's Museum might just be the area's best-kept secret.

The museum offers visitors a chance to view carnival artifacts — from 1893 photos of the first Ferris wheel at the Chicago World's Fair, to a life-size working carousel.

Rivera and a small group of volunteers build every exhibit from scratch with whatever wood and other supplies they can get from do-it-yourself hardware stores.

"Something someone would throw away, we take and through imagination make an exhibit of it," Rivera said as he showed off an elaborate glass-cased miniature carnival town display.

"All we save now in this generation is all we're ever going to preserve," Rivera added. "As we pass away, our relatives see no value in this and haul it away as trash. Or people sell it on eBay and it winds up on a restaurant wall and we lose the historical significance of it."

• • •

In business for a little more than two years, the museum has been decades in the making. In the 1980s, members of the International Independent Showmen's Association started gathering mementos and memorabilia and storing them in a small house across the street from the current museum site.

Rivera and his colleagues dreamed of creating a permanent home for the collection and started raising money for the project. Little by little, they funded the purchase of the land, then built the foundation and exterior until the money ran out. During the economic downturn, the building was left boarded up and vacant.

When more funds were raised, organizers had to replace all the copper wiring that had been stolen by vandals. Had it not been for a $1 million donation by the late Jim Frederiksen, a Tampa carnival owner, the museum might never have opened.

• • •

For four generations, Gibsonton has been the winter home for dozens of carnival workers who are attracted to the area, in part, because of a unique zoning ordinance that allows rides, exotic animals and other attractions on be housed on an individual's property.

The museum honors this local history with a video and rail car from the largest touring carnival, Royal American Shows. Carl Sedlmayr founded the company, which moved its headquarters to Tampa in the 1930s. In its heyday, the show employed nearly 1,000 people, many who traveled in the 96 railcars from city to city. Royal American closed in the mid 1980s and was auctioned in the '90s.

"Whole generations of people lived on that show and were married on this show, and had children on that show and died there," Rivera said. "It was said when the show went to auction, grown men wept, and I believe it."

There's also a tribute to sideshow talent such as Johann Petursson, "The Viking Giant." In the glass display, visitors will marvel at the size 24 boots worn by one of the world's tallest men at nearly 9 feet, and the enormous gold rings he would sell as part of his act. Petursson has a local tie, too. He retired to Riverview until his death in 1984.

• • •

Other hidden gems inside the museum include elaborate, beaded Las Vegas-style costumes, headdresses and feather fans worn by burlesque dancers in the "Girl's Shows."

During the Jim Crow days, Tampa's Leon Claxton, an African-American entrepreneur, produced "Havana in Harlem," an alternative show featuring black women of Cuban heritage, which appealed to men of both races. And black-and-white film reels offer early minstrel shows, which led to the development of an entire of genre of music.

"Carnivals were instrumental in providing black entertainers a venue to practice their acts," Rivera explained.

"We would not have blues music today if it weren't for these shows, because blues music developed in the minstrel shows."

• • •

As one of the only cultural museums in the SouthShore and Brandon area, Rivera and his volunteers want more residents to know about their efforts.

It's a goal that the Riverview Chamber of Commerce supports.

"We don't have a lot of tourist attractions, so it's very beneficial to the area," chamber assistant director Debbie Kirkland said. "We were impressed with what they've put together."

Like other industries, the carnival business has changed dramatically over the years. The way Rivera sees it, carnivals are nothing more than traveling theme parks, and it's clear he longs for the old days.

"The thrill is gone," Rivera said. "I don't find the magic out there that I used to. It was wonderful when I was a young man, and if it were that way today, wild horses wouldn't drag me off that midway."

But with this museum of memories, Doc Rivera can share and preserve that way of life for a new generation.

Contact Candace Rotolo at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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