Advertisement
  1. News

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.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Robert Eugene Koehler, a 60-year-old registered sex offender from Palm Bay, was arrested Saturday. Authorities believe he is the notorious “Pillowcase Rapist,” who was blamed for attacking over 40 women in South Florida during the early 1980s. [Miami Herald]
    Authorities say the man who spent five years attacking women from South Miami to Deerfield Beach is a 60-year-old registered sex offender from Palm Bay.
  2. Gibbs High School drum major Tahlia Trehl leads a performance while participating in St. Petersburg's 34th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dream Big Parade on Monday. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  TImes]
    An estimated 40,000 attended the annual parade downtown. There were beads and music celebrating the message and mission of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  3. FIE - In this Feb. 5, 2019, file photo a ramp worker guides a Delta Air Lines plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. Delta Air Lines says it earned $1.1 billion in the fourth quarter by operating more flights and filling a higher percentage of seats.  The financial results beat Wall Street expectations. Delta and other U.S. airlines are enjoying a prolonged period of profitability thanks to steadily rising demand for travel.   (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File) [TED S. WARREN  |  AP]
    The annual ranking from the Wall Street Journal placed Delta in first place for the third year in a row.
  4. [Getty Images] [[Getty Images]]
    You should look out for your own interests, the advice columnist writes.
  5. A photo of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sits on a pedestal at the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020  in St. Petersburg. Guests enjoyed music, spoken word, dance and musical performances and concluded with a candle light vigil and song.  [LUIS SANTANA   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  6. Greek-American musician Demetri Kousathanas, band leader of Demetri and the Islanders, plays the Bouzouki at the 2014 Hernando County Greek Festival, sponsored by the Chris the Savior Greek Orthodox Church. This year's festival will be Jan. 25, held on the church's new grounds on Spring Hill Drive in Spring Hill. [JONES, OCTAVIO  |  Times (2014)]
    Things to do in Pasco and Hernando counties
  7. Sea rise is pushing inland and amplifying the threats from hurricanes, wiping out one of the rarest forests on the planet in the Florida Keys. [MATIAS J. OCNER  |  mocner@miamiherald.com]
    A recent study has found that the Gulf Coast has lost 57 square miles of forest over just more than a century.
  8. Hernando County community news [Tara McCarty]
    News and notes from Hernando County
  9. Kumquats that are yet to be harvested in the groves at Kumquat Growers, Inc. in Dade City. The local agriculture business provides fruit for the annual Kumquat Festival to be held Jan. 25 in downtown Dade City. [MICHELE MILLER  |  Times]
    After years of crop decline, there will be more fresh fruit at this year’s annual Kumquat Festival.
  10. Pasco County community news [TMCCARTY80  |  Tara McCarty]
    News and notes from Pasco County
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement