Ladies and gentlemen, your attention, please.
The International Independent Showmen’s Association proudly presents one of the few carnival museums in the country. Location? Across the street from the group’s headquarters in Riverview.
It has been years in the making. With more money to complete the project in the organization’s coffers and the right zoning in place, the professionals who travel the country setting up Ferris Wheels and Tilt-A-Whirls look forward to having a place to document their own past.
“A lot of people call carnivals the circus,” said Ivan Arnold, president of the showmen’s group. “But it’s not. The circus has a big tent. We’ve got the rides.”
In a world where the luster of winning giant stuffed animals has dimmed, the organization thinks it’s more important than ever to preserve the past.
This gang of carnies plans to get back on their way to completing the museum, located near Palmer Street and Riverview Drive. They have been working on the building, now a concrete shell about 52,000 square feet, for nearly seven years.
The goal is to have it finally complete in another two years. Visitors can expect to pay some sort of nominal fee to enter the museum, but the showmen still have to make a final decision, said Jim Elliot, the association’s secretary.
Elliott said the group has spent about $900,000, and needs another $2 million to finish it. With about half that amount raised, they continue seeking contributions.
They’ve been paying for the project as donations are received, which is one reason it has taken so long to complete.
The group also experienced setbacks when past project leaders passed away.
“We’re back on track with some money in our hands,” Elliott said. “It’s going to be beautiful.”
Arnold and Elliott, both in their 70s, have been busy sorting through thousands of donated carnival items from across the country. Right now they’re trying to figure out what should be displayed and where. The donations reflect nearly a century of carnival experiences.
There’s one of the first Ferris Wheels in the country, which will be assembled upright inside the museum. There’s also one of burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee’s slinky black beaded costumes, which turned many a head back in the day.
And don’t forget the outfit worn by the “Viking Giant” himself, Johann K. Peturson. He was nearly 9 feet tall and weighed 425 pounds.
“Those were his boots,” Arnold said, pointing to a pair of giant black boots in the corner. “They’re the size of a small child. And here’s one of his rings. You could fit a half dollar through there.”
The museum will also feature photos of carnival setups throughout the years. Visitors will also be able to walk through carnie trailers, which open to transform from a dull-looking compartment into brightly lit and ornate facades.
Since starting the museum project, the association has also been working with the University of South Florida to document the collection.
For Arnold, a finished museum is the ultimate dedication to a business he has been in for 58 years. He still travels with his carnival, Arnold Amusements.
“We just love it,” he said. “My favorite part is putting smiles on the kids faces.”
He misses the excitement he saw in crowds before TVs and video games became staples over live entertainment. Arnold remembers when people used to line up as the carnival pulled into town, ready for the fun to start.
“Back in the old days, it was a little more exciting to get on the road,” he said. “There’s more competition now. That’s why the museum is so important.”