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'Gibtown' goes home with the freak show


© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 26, 2001

[Photo: Decoy Films]
Melvin Burkhart, 95, shown in this publicity postcard from Decoy Films, is one of the sideshow performers featured in Gibtown. The documentary film focuses on the community of side show and carnival people in Gibsonton in southern Hillsborough County.
People thought Melissa Shachet was just another gawking "towner" when she visited Gibsonton 10 years ago. Residents get suspicious when strangers ask where to find the legless lady or the guy who hammers nails into his head.

Shachet, an independent filmmaker, was drawn to the southern Hillsborough County community by a New York Times article about Gibsonton's claim to fame. For decades, the town has been where carnival workers escaped the stares, a place where illusionists, two-headed cows and fire-eating dwarfs went after the touring season and lived happily ever after.

The last thing Gibsonton needed was an intruder with a camera. So Shachet left hers at home.

"They were wary, wondering what someone from New York with a film crew wanted to do," Shachet said recently. "For a long time I didn't bring any cameras to film anything. I think they respected that I was down there to meet them one-on-one and gain relationships with people before I shot a frame of film."

Before long, longtime resident and aspiring filmmaker Diana Philips stepped forward to offer liaison services for no pay and an associate producer's billing. Defenses melted and suspicion became openness.

The result was Gibtown, a one-hour documentary airing on public television stations nationwide. Tampa Bay's WEDU-Ch. 3 will present Gibtown twice next week, Monday at 9 p.m. and Tuesday at 11 p.m.

Gibsonton's storied residents will be watching, many of them Monday night at the Showtown Restaurant on U.S. 41, the center of carny society for decades. Two TVs will show Monday Night Football as usual. The other two will be tuned to WEDU.

What viewers will see is a nostalgic valentine to a dying industry, now replaced by more economical thrill rides and games of chance. Carnivals today are mostly bright lights, violent rides, corn dogs and cheap prizes.

Gibtown, co-directed by Shachet and Roger Schulte, celebrates a time when customers were awed by freaks of nature and good-natured frights. Midways were packed with curiosity seekers, beckoned by barkers to see bearded ladies and raging, caged motorcyclists.

Florida in the 1920s was where, as one interview subject says: "You could buy land for a pretzel." That made it affordable for carny workers on seasonal shifts. Zoning for "residential show business" made it safe for mobile equipment and menageries. Gibsonton was the place where for five months each year the world's strangest couple, a woman born without legs and an 8-foot giant, could just be plain old Mom and Dad.

[Photo: Decoy Films]
The traditional human oddities once found in every carnival are now dying out. Gibtown director Melissa Shachet says, “We got it on film, it’s there and it’s archived forever. It can be shown in 20 or 30 years when kids won’t know what a real carnival looked like because they’ll have cybercarnivals.”

The legless woman, Jeanie Tomaini, and the deformed cow's caretaker, Barbara Moody, are two performers profiled in Gibtown who have died since Shachet started filming in 1993. Others, like 95-year-old Melvin Burkhart, the man with the hammer, have settled in for their last hurrahs. Shachet calls the elders of Gibsonton her "alternative grandparents."

"This is definitely a work from the heart, a labor of love," she said. "The more we heard about stories from Gibsonton, the more we knew that these stories have to be told. We got it on film, it's there and it's archived forever. It can be shown in 20 or 30 years when kids won't know what a real carnival looked like because they'll have cybercarnivals."

Roy Huston might still be performing then. At 60, he still works daily perfecting illusions such as burning she-devils for occasional performances as the Great Huston. He saw Gibtown last spring at a Florida Film Festival screening in Orlando where he "felt like a movie star all over again."

Huston praised Gibtown for depicting the communal feeling among carnies. "I don't even know how to talk to towners at all," he said. "If we had parties or we'd go to bars, it was only show people. We wouldn't talk to anybody else. We all know what we're talking about, like a mentalist act. Not to be cliquish; that's just the way it is."

As Burkhart says in the film: "We were a society apart in the places we visited. We came in as strangers and we left as strangers, and we had to stick together."

On the other hand, Huston feels Gibtown didn't pay enough attention to more affluent residents of Gibsonton and institutions such as the Showman's Club.

"(The filmmakers) didn't touch on any of that," he said. "Instead, they showed too much of the ride jocks and trailer parks. The carnival is a have and have-not business. Either you're a millionaire showman or else some poor greasy bum running rides who's always 3 cents short of a pack of cigarettes. I would have liked the movie better if they showed more of the legit part of the business."

Shachet is content to simply know she wasn't another gawker. She admits that was an immediate attraction, but soon it became clear that her profession and that of a contortionist or a pig racer aren't very different.

"They're artists with an alternative lifestyle," she said. "It's like you're a freelance person doing what you love to do because you don't get it back in money. It's so tough in the carnival world and the film world that you really have to love what you're doing and be passionate about it. That's what I saw in these people, and that's what I filmed."

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