Gibsonton was an ordinary backwater before one married carny-circuit couple retired there to open a bar-restaurant in the '30s. Others followed, figuring, "This place is still small and obscure enough that we're left well enough alone." Public contempt toward freak show, carnival and circus workers made a self-contained community attractive. Eventually the town passed zoning laws geared to their needs -- accommodating giant roller coasters that needed to be stored for the winter, as well as between-gigs elephants, tigers and other animals. At one point "Gibtown's" fire chief was 8-foot-4, its police chief a midget. Rather than hone in on the bizarre, pic offers a respectful if slightly wide-eyed portrait of very normal, close-knit working-class lives beneath the unusual surface. Archival stills, newsreels and promo clips recall this vanishing subculture's 1920s-30s heyday; atmospheric color lensing and ditto soundtrack music lend a raffish, Tom Waits-like nostalgic flavor to modern-day segs.
Opening shot: the rear of a large trailer, doors opened wide to show a red velvet curtain at the tailgate and lining the rear wall, with four large, shiny, uneven vertical pipes just inside. A tall, wiry, balding man walks up, steps over the red velvet front, sits down, and begins to play. Yes, it’s a calliope, and he pumps out a sweet, jaunty tune.
As the scene slow fades and the blurred images of children on a carousel replace it, a voice says, "I saw the ferris wheel for the first time when I was a kid and I knew … I wanted to chase ferris wheels until they threw the dirt on my face."
Although carnivals today strike most of us as tacky and low-class, we can probably remember when we were children and they meant magic and thrills. But where did they go when they left town? The makers of Gibtown visited the refuge of the people who staff and star in traveling carnivals. From the beginning of May to the beginning of December, many of them are on the road, but Gibsonton, Florida is where they go to relax and unwind for the winter (or retire from the road altogether).
On the surface, the subject looks odd, even garish—like a painted face and the colorful, raucous rides—but Gibtown turns out to be warm and affectionate, even familiar, with just a touch of bittersweet.
Background history is brief. A couple named the LeMays set up a restaurant and bar in these parts early in the 20th century, and soon other show people accreted. The town had a giant fire chief and a midget chief of police. (Brief video footage shows his forehead barely reached the sill of a Chevy station wagon.) Someone recalls he would blow his horn and hold up a sign that said "Police, Pull Over!"
Illusionist Ray Houston explains that Gibsonton is the real Show Capital of the nation, not Las Vegas, because it actually has RSB (Residential Show Business) zoning. People in Las Vegas keep their wild animals and other exotic belongings illegally, having to pay off someone for the privilege, but in Gibsonton it’s legal for folks to be in show business, to have a boa, leopard, or elephant on the premises, and the authorities won’t hassle them.
Gibtown ambles from one personality to another, letting each of roughly a half dozen individuals explain and reminisce while historic stills and stock black-and-white footage of carnival performers from as far back as the 1930s and ’40s play under their voices. We glimpse chunky beauties lounging in camisoles inside Airstreams, bare-chested codgers playing poker, a guy putting his head in an elephant’s mouth, two women in a wagon drawn by four peccaries.
The contemporary footage is grainy and soft, and none of the speakers is identified by an onscreen title, so the effect is domestic and personal—like home movies of a distant relation, or neighbors you’ve occasionally glimpsed but don’t really know.
Houston shows us his equipment, and videos of past performances festooned with scantily-clad babes. A mechanic explains how state law requires an engineer to certify the Octopus and the Gravitron every seven years. Barbara Moody, a widow who purchased the Freak Animal Show with her husband, displays stuffed, two-headed goats and cows. Melvin Burkhart, a charming fast talker ("It’s a dirty laugh; I’ll have it dry cleaned"), shows how he smiles on one half of his face while frowning on the other, and pounds a large spike up his nostril.
The film’s handling of Jeanie Tomaini, who started working in a carnival at the age of 3, is particularly sensitive and subtle. She says people thought her employment at the carnival was a horrible thing, but since they thought she was cute and brought her presents, she found it grand. She ended up marrying the Giant, Al, who was 8 feet, 4 and a half inches, and together they were "the world’s strangest married couple." We see photos of them together, and of her doing acrobatic tricks, and it is only when video footage of a torso topples off a low diving board into a swimming pool and paddles for a moment that we sense something’s not quite right: the woman has no legs!
Now that the viewer already knows and likes Jeanie, Gibtown answers the inevitable questions. One of her four adopted daughters says she had a normal life, except all her friends fought about "coming to visit me and stay with my parents ’cause they were more fun than their parents."
Then there’s Bea Fee and Garland Parnell, an elderly couple who live with a pack of monkeys. "They’re family. You love ’em like kids. They grow on ya." As a working professional, she had a monkey trick show, then a speedway where the critters raced miniature cars.
The ominous undercurrent to these lovely portraits is that these people probably had nowhere else to go. "We were a society apart from the places that we visited," one explains. "We didn’t know anybody there, we went in there as strangers, we left as strangers, more or less, and we had to stick together in that respect."
A young man who calls himself "Joker" and looks like he’s in his twenties alludes to escaping a home with an abusive father. Gibsonton was "the only place I really felt safe," and a lot of young people find acceptance and love in the carnival that they didn’t have "back there." He’s still not sure what he’s going to do or where to go, ultimately, "but I’m alive at least, and free."
Fee and Parnell—a sweet and white-haired couple stuffed into a single easy chair together and skritching a cat—cheerfully recall how her family thought show people were terrible and her grandfather wouldn’t speak to her after she married. His father’s family wouldn’t let him in the house until he had gone into the cellar and bathed.
These tales of great personal pain are shared lightly, often with chuckling, much the way my mother recalls her years in the Japanese-American internment camps on her native soil during World War II, while her brothers fought in the U.S. Army in the Pacific. Parnell cracks: I can’t do tricks, so I make the animals do them. You can cook, his wife says. Sure, he allows, "but only with a microphone—uh, microwave. I gave up the microphone cooking." This cracks her up and he comments, "She gets the giggles."
There is a firmly elegiac tone to the movie as well. Burkhart says he knows some tricks he can never teach to anyone else, because no one wants to devote the time necessary to master them. People who used to come in to replace the old timers aren’t showing up anymore. Chris Christ remarks: "When I was 19 years old, I was the youngest owner-operator in the business, and now I’m 48 and I’m still the youngest. So, what’s wrong with this picture?"
This is director Schachat’s first feature. Co-producer Solomon founded Decoy Films with Harms, and worked with writer Rostock on Calling the Ghosts, the prize-winning 1996 documentary about tortured and humiliated women in the prison camps of Bosnia and Herzegovina directed by Mandy Jacobsen and Karmen Jelincic. Cinematographer Cooper’s first feature job was the award-winning Brother’s Keeper, and he has done many TV ads and music videos.
One must congratulate the filmmakers for preserving this small but unique slice of 20th century American culture that wedged itself into the brief era roughly between vaudeville and television, and is almost gone.