The Gibtown Showmen’s Club
IISA making plans to open American Carnival Museum
By Pamela Sherborne
Every February, thousands of folks working in the outdoor amusement industry gather in Gibsonton, Florida, for the International Independent Showmen’s Association (IISA) trade show. Known as the “Gibtown Showmen’s Club,” the IISA is a non-profit organization created by and for people in the outdoor amusement industry. It boosts a current membership of about 4,500.
Even though the club is open year round, February is a big month with the trade show traditionally kicking off on Super Bowl Sunday with a social event. The trade show opens on Tuesday and runs through Saturday. It provides those in the outdoor industry a look into what is new for the 2012 season. Manufacturers of portable amusement rides, amusement games, plush and novelty items, and food equipment are on hand sporting their new products in hopes of making a sale to a carnival owner, a games operator or a food concessionaire.
This is the part of the carnival industry that few outside the industry see or even know. To that vein, the IISA has been raising funds over the last several years to construct the American Carnival Museum across the street from the club grounds.
The museum’s mission is to preserve the history of the carnival industry as well as tell the story of the carnival industry to the general public. The building is now complete and holds a menagerie of exhibits. But the doors haven’t swung open to the general public as yet and those on the IISA museum board don’t know when that will open.
“We need to figure out what story we want to tell,” said Jim Elliott, a member of the museum board. “Then we need to figure out how to tell it. If we could just get everyone on the same track, we could make some of these decisions. But we may have to wait now until everyone gets back off the road.” That will be in the fall, because the 2012 season is now underway for the industry and they have hit the road to play state fairs, county fairs, and festivals.
Yet, for the February trade show, they come from all over this country, Canada and Mexico. It is one of the few times throughout the year when they are even able to gather together. When they do, they want to do business after first finding out about their friends and the families of their friends. Then they want to find out what’s new. They want to know how business has been for other carnival operators. They want to know what rides are doing well. They want to know what fair contracts might be coming open or who has inked a new fair contract. It has become an intensely competitive business. With ever-increasing costs to operate, such as higher fuel prices and insurance premiums, it has become survival of the fittest.
Carnival owners keep much of their business information close to their vests. Ron Burback, who owns Fun Time Shows carnival, based in Portland, Oregon, said at the first of 2012: “It’s not what is said by other carnival owners — it is sometimes what is not said that tells me how they are doing. It’s what they leave out.”
The carnival industry is an intensely family-oriented business. Carnival companies are so many times passed down generation to generation. There are second generational owners. There are third generational owners. There are fourth generational owners. Families in this industry grow up together, work together and grow old together.
Take, for example, the young family of Jarrod, Catheryn and Emma Thomas. They were on hand at the IISA event this year. The young family has now taken over the operation of Thomas Amusements, based in Newfoundland, Canada, from Jarrod Thomas’ parents, Bill and Gayle Thomas. He is the third generation now. Mary Talley, owner of Talley Amusements, a carnival based in Fort Worth, Texas, is fourth generation.
Strates Shows, a carnival based in Orlando, has a history dating back to 1923, when James E. Strates, a Greek immigrant, began his first show. He acquired Southern Tier Shows and in 1932 changed its name to James E. Strates Shows. He managed the carnival until his death in 1959. At that time his son, E. James Strates, began operating it and still does today, a second generation.
This is also an industry full of tradition and those still working it are proud of their heritage. It is hard work, but they say it gets in the blood and there it stays. The clubrooms are full of photographs of yore – old amusement rides, scenes and stars from sideshows, industry legends. The club cafeteria alone has one entire wall full of photographs. Carnie Priest John Vakulskas of Sibley, Iowa, will sit there for hours discussing how he began serving this business in 1969 as well as his favorite stories.
Of course, there have been changes over the years. Technology hit the midway years ago with new marketing and ticketing options, as well as with the new rides and games. Gibtown is certainly a mix of the old and the new.
When the carnival museum does open, the public will be able to see such things as a 1900 Conderman Ferris wheel, an Allan Herschell American Beauty carousel, a 1950 vintage King Tugboat, manufactured by King Amusement Company, other vintage rides, trailers and signage. There is a research area where thousands of photographs and written information may be viewed. Also in the museum is a 65-foot long carnival model built by Ray Gentry of Muskegon, Michigan. It took him 20 years to build it, with miniature replicas of about every carnival ride imaginable.
And, across the street, members of the outdoor amusement business will continue with their business as usual surrounded by family, friends, colleagues, and the past, present and future of an industry most of the nation has very little knowledge about.