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
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
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
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
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,
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.
Although he's never worked for
a carnival, David Loftus is known as a performer and a clown
among his so-called friends. He last rode a ferris wheel in
Okinawa in October 2000. Loftus does not particularly like rollercoasters
or cotton candy. David
Loftus, Writer - AllWatchers.com
Susanne Szabo Rostock—Writer, Supervising Editor
Loretta Harms, Roger Schulte, Maury Solomon—Producers
Diana Philips—Associate Producer
Loretta Harms, Maury Solomon—Executive Producers
1999, 64 minutes
Best Feature, Best Documentary, Best Directing/Documentary,
Editing/Documentary, Best Cinematography/Documentary; Florida
and Television Association Crystal Reel Awards
2001 Certificate of Merit for Film & Video, Society and
Culture, U.S., San
Francisco International Film Festival