Right in the heart of South Shore’s quaint little hamlet of Gibsonton, Florida is a place that could easily be awarded the title ‘World’s Most Entertaining Museum.’ It’s the International Independent Showmen’s Association Museum (I.I.S.A.), aka The Showmen’s Museum, aka The Carnival Museum. Strangely, while known nationally and internationally, it may also be the least known destination among local South Shorians.
Admittedly, this next bit is a tad awkward.
I’ve lived in Apollo Beach for 13 years and only came across this museum two months ago. Out of curiosity, since finding this treasure, not only have I visited multiple times I have also done some rigorous un-scientific polling and the results were both reassuring and alarming. I am not alone. Many of us South Shorians had no idea this amazing destination existed right in our back yard.
But, rather than hide behind my embarrassment for my complete oversight that this truly amazing place was a mere 11 minutes from my home (similar to asking a local where the Empire State Building is as you are standing at its front door), I thought the better route would be to tell you about it so you can get as excited as I am about this wonder that South Shore gets to call its own.
The Showmen’s Museum – Carnival Heaven
I’ve already mentioned this place is a world-class Florida entertainment destination. Guess what? That’s not all. The Showmen’s Museum is also possibly the world’s most perfect museum. Why? Ask yourself these three little questions:
- Do you like acting like a child no matter what your age – and, it’s considered appropriate behavior?
- Does the idea of visiting ‘a museum’ secretly make you cringe, evoking memories of the eternal visit to the art museum during your third grade field trip?
- Do you like to be taken completely by surprise?
If you answered yes to any of the above then you simply need to visit The Showmen’s Museum.
Before I move on to tell you about the museum itself, I also want to mention one additional, somewhat less obvious, benefit that only Floridians can relate to. The next time you have house guests (which never happens in Florida in February, right?) you’ll have yet another place to show-off to the in-laws, the cousins, and your long lost friends from the north. The Manatee Viewing Center and Top Golf won’t be the only tricks up your sleeve.
On to the museum….
It’s almost difficult to describe the museum because it’s an explosion of the senses and completely unexpected. The Showmen’s Museum showcases everything from colorful train cars from the late 1800’s that transported carnivals from town to town to a 1903 Conderman Ferris Wheel (soon to be operational again). Right alongside, you’ll see the ‘Daisy the Two-nosed Cow’ exhibit as well as extraordinary hand-painted vintage carnival advertisements. You just don’t know where to look first.
The museum is 54,000 square feet of color, fun, memories, history and smiles. I guarantee something here is going to make you say, “Oh gosh, I remember…..”
A mini-museum inside the museum….
If 54,000 square feet of mammoth museum sounds a bit daunting ease yourself into the experience and simply head upstairs to see the WORLD’S LARGEST 87’ HAND-CRAFTED MINIATURE CARNIVAL MODEL that is truly not to be believed. Carnival enthusiast Ray Genter has spent 26 years making this extraordinary piece of history, every tiny detailed piece by tiny detailed piece, and is still at it.
Of course, if you’re up for it and ready to tackle the whole museum there is a lot to see. The Showmen’s Museum has collected and refurbished an incredible variety of exhibits, artifacts, photos, games, and vintage rides. A few of the most popular exhibits include:
- The Sideshow and Human Oddities World of Wonder – where you can see Daisy, the Two-nosed Cow
- The 1950 American Beauty Allan Herschel Merry Go Round
- The Wild West Show Exhibit
- The Wall of Death Display (ouch!)
- A 1947 Popcorn and Cotton Candy Trailer
- And on and on….
New artifacts arrive every day. You never know what you might see that you didn’t see on your first visit. Just last week the museum received two new carousel horses and an antique cotton-candy maker that pre-dates electricity. We’re talking kerosene, flame blowers and a sewing machine treadle that was manually pumped while someone hand crafted your mound of cotton candy. It’s likely one of the oldest cotton candy machines of its type in the U.S. And, who doesn’t love cotton candy?
By definition The Showmen’s Museum is a historical museum so you get that ‘culture credit’ to your name when you visit (yet one more benefit I forgot to mention earlier), but it’s not like any museum you’ve ever been to. It’s a history lesson and wild ride down memory lane all rolled up in a ton of fun. Every corner of this museum is going to make you smile.
Museum visitors can’t help telling you their own childhood carnival memories. One recent visitor from Southwest Michigan said, “I remember we’d save our money all year long to go to the carnival. It came to town near the end of every summer. We had seven kids in my family and we’d make a whole day out of it. This museum just reminds me of summer!”
The heyday of carnivals
‘You have to understand,” says David ‘Doc’ Rivera, the museum’s curator, “at the heyday of carnivals in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, most people didn’t have televisions. If you wanted entertainment you had to go to it.”
Carnivals were entertainment, social gathering places and reflections of the culture of the time, both innocent and more hard hitting and The Showmen’s Museum captures it all.
In the early days, especially before electricity was mainstream, a carnival may have had a few rides, but it was the games and sideshows that were the big attraction. You could spin a wheel and win a box of chocolates for your Sweetie for 5¢, watch a boxing match or a girlie burlesque show (a bit risqué for the time, but completely tame by today’s standards); or, visit a Korean War Atrocities sideshow.
Incredibly, this museum is entirely privately funded through donations, tickets and fund-raising events throughout the year, including a major fundraising drive during the annual International Independent Showmen’s Association’s Trade Expo, at which 15,000-20,000 carnival industry people gather from all over the world at the museum and the Association’s headquarters across the street.
The museum is also fully staffed by volunteers, including long-term volunteer Helen Robke, who you can find at the museum on most Saturdays – when she is not on the road helping with her own family’s carnival.
Prior to building the museum some carnival artifacts were on display at the I.I.S.A. Clubhouse, directly across the street from where the museum now stands, but it’s the museum that gives us unlimited access to all of the incredible treasures.
The museum that almost wasn’t
Museum construction began in 2000 and was built in ‘fits and spurts as our funds would allow’, says Doc, “and we ran in to our fair share of problems during construction.” At one point the construction permits expired and the I.I.S.A. had to start the process again. Vandals also took advantage of the sporadic construction to strip the partially constructed building of all its copper wiring. In the end a generous benefactor, Jim Frederiksen (a renowned Carnival business man), saved the day with a million dollar donation and the museum was completed.
Doc Rivera – a curator, historian, carnival man and social media promoter
Since its opening Doc Rivera has been the museum’s curator, historian, handy man, artist, restorationist, exhibit builder, and social media promoter. His wife Debbie built and manages the museum’s Website, so it’s a family affair.
So, why is it many of us locals have not heard of The Showmen’s Museum while those from further away have? Doc speculates the museum’s off-the-beaten-path location may be one reason. It’s neatly tucked away on Riverview Drive between U.S. Route 41 (Tamiami Trail) and U.S. Route 301 in the heart of Carnie Town (Gibsonton’s nickname). The marketing budget is tight, too, so it’s hard to get the word out with conventional marketing, but this does not keep Doc from trying. In the past year alone, Doc and volunteers have put out 30,000 rack cards along I-75 and I-4 to attract more visitors.
Doc and his wife Debbie are also harnessing the power of the internet and social media to bring attention to The Showmen’s Museum. In addition to The Independent Showmen’s Museum’s Website Doc maintains a separate website, Doc’s Midway Cookhouse, also dedicated to preserving carnival history, and an extraordinary Showmen’s Museum Facebook page.
If you do nothing else, please follow The Showmen’s Museum’s Facebook page. It averages 20,000 hits a day. Doc posts new carnival photographs daily, writing about the history of each. It’s not uncommon for Doc to get comments from as far away as Dubai and Tokyo and it’s never uncommon for him to get thousands of hits, dozens and dozens of comments and hundreds of shares a day.
National and international exposure has grown organically from The Showmen’s Museum’s website, Doc’s Cookout website and exploding social media presence, but this museum has hit the big time, too, in television. The Showmen’s Museum was featured in the ‘American Pickers’ series in June 2013 and was just featured (April 24, 2016) on the CBS Sunday Morning Program. You can see the clip here.
Talking with Doc Rivera is a treat and a privilege. His enthusiasm and passion for carnival history is infectious. During my most recent visit (but certainly not the last) I asked him this question, ‘What do you most wish everyone knew about this museum?’ Here is what Doc said, “Naturally, I wish everyone knew the history of the carnival business filled with eclectic people. I would not have wanted to live my life without these characters, from the nefarious crooks to the wonderful and heroic characters. These are the people that are the spice of life. These are the characters that found themselves outside the mainstream society and found a home in this carnival business.’
In closing, I can only encourage you to visit The Showmen’s Museum. It’s a treat and a treasure, right here in South Shore. You will not be disappointed.
6938 Riverview Drive, Riverview, Florida 33578
SUMMER 2016 HOURS: Saturday and Sunday only, 12:00 – 3:00PM
Open Thursday – Sunday 12:00 – 5:00PM (except holidays)
Admission is $10.00
Private group tours available by appointment (by Doc himself by request!)
For more information on The Showmen’s Museum
Lastly, PLEASE watch this space for more stories on Doc, other local Carnies, Carnie Town and this truly unique, one-of-a-kind treasure we have the gift of hosting in South Shore.