Weird Florida: (or How I Spent Christmas With The World's Oldest Firebreathing Dwarf.....)

 
I always wanted an elephant when I was a kid……….


 
Ok, so we're putting together this sequel to the Steckler film Incredibly Strange Creatures. As it stands, now, the bulk of the story's action takes place in a hypothetical "carnival town", where the scenes are populated much like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit", where the animated characters mixed it up with the live action peeps. In this instance we want to have an oddball small town with sideshow people, freaks, carnies blending in with the standard townsfolk on the streets, in the backgrounds, grocery stores, whatever. So, on a whim, I decided to Google …"carnival town", to see what might happen.Much to my surprise…. something came up…. it described a small town in northern Florida called Gibsonton.
 


 


 



According to the story the town was founded in the 40's or 50's by carnival sideshow performers. Needing somewhere to reside in the winter off-seasons they set up their own town.
As fate would have it (Irish Luck), the town sat 10 miles away from where I was originally headed to in the first place for the holidays I made plans to check it out while I was there, even though all the reports were that there wasn't much left in the way of circus folk.After the holiday festivities, I packed up a camera, tape recorder, and notebook and headed down highway 41.When I crossed the small bridge into Gibtown, the very first thing I encountered to my right was the Giant's Camp Restaurant. This building has sort of become the centerpiece of legend in the town, because the
Tomaini family owned it. Al Tomaini was the 9ft. tall giant of the title, and his wife Jeanie was only half that size, because she had no legs and walked around on her hands. I overshot the target, cause it comes up real quick, and had to backtrack a bit. When I reach the door of the establishment, it turns out that it is abandoned. The door was swinging open but the signs were all still there, a perfect indication of the rumors of what the town had become. I start taking photos of the place. Behind the building are rows of identical looking…. shanties…or "cottages", if you're wealthy…these people clearly weren't.



The structures all had seen better days, and it looked like most of them were as empty as the giant reataurant. I notice that someone is watching me. I turn and I see a woman probably in her forties but looking a lot older, standing in the distance in front of one of these places, and staring me down. Thinking that I should probably explain myself I picked up my gear and walked over to her. I tell her who I am and what I'm doing…"Hey I'm making a movie…..blah,blah,blah"…. she didn't give a shit…good for me, let's play "dress up" ….GET OFF MY LAND.
She tells me that her grandfather was Al, and her grandmother was Jeanie, and that she "didn't want anything to to do with no movie", that she just wanted to sell her property and get the hell out of town. As we're talking, I see out of the corner of my eye, the biggest fucking raccoon I have ever seen, crawl out from under the "cottage". She keeps talking to to me, and this thing aggressively moves towards us. I cut her off in mid sentence and say "excuse me, is that your pet?" (while mentally preparing for the future possibility of shots in the stomach)…."Yeah…that's my pet raccoon"…"uh…. ok, well can I take a picture of you?"….. "No I don't like that"…..fine
.After a few more minutes of talking I ask her again if any of the carnival people are still around. She just tells me to go a few blocks over through some of the neighborhoods across the way, that there might still be some left.

I get in my car and drive across the highway and start to get into the town. It's street after street of weather-beaten mobile homes and trailers.
The yards are equipped with sun bleached plastic Santa's and/or chipped birdbaths, but nothing that looked very carnivally. I start to think that this trip is a bust. In front of one of these homes, I see a couple sitting on lawn chairs with their kids. I roll down the passenger window and ask them if they can help.
" I'm making a movie…blah, blah.."I ask them about the carnies…. The woman calls her husband over." He wants to know about the carnies", she says to him…"Take him over to Rod", she says…."Yeah", he agrees ("Is this going to involve a probe?", I ask in my mind). They get in their truck and pull around to me and tell me to follow them. I snap a picture of them through the windshield. Figuring, y'know, if I get "Deliverance-ed", or something, there'll be proof.



They take me back through the back streets of the town, and gradually…it reveals itself. A rusted 'Tilt-A-Whirl' in a front yard, here…A tipped over Ferris wheel against a tree, over there….



We keep going for about a mile until we get to a big metal gate. The man gets out of the car and opens it. He motions for me to follow them through. I do.We drive down what almost appears to be a carnival ride in and of itself. A small dirt road surrounded by miles of swamp. I drive past trees loaded with Spanish Moss and old carnival signs with intimidating clown faces on them, the paint peeling off of them and covered with dust and dirt, making them all look rather like alcoholic clowns. Animals and old carnival rides are everywhere.



A llama runs past in front of my truck. Flocks of chicken and geese populate the woods…'Jackpot.'We get to the top of the hill and I see an older man with a big Brylcreemed pompadour shoveling hay into a truck. This must be Rod, I think, and I park and get out and go join the couple that brought me here. The sound of geese and storks honking is almost deafening. I was right, it's him. They introduce me to Rod, and he talks to me as he's working. He never looks at me, but we converse." I'm making a movie…blah, blah"He tells me that he can get me anything I want in the way of carnival stuff, and by the looks of his land, I figure, he's right. I ask him if I can wander around and take some pictures, he says sure.

I walk through a veritable graveyard of circus history. A hollowed out bus sits off to one side functioning as a chicken coop, now.' You must be this tall to ride this ride' signs creep up out of pits of mud. I snap pictures right and left.



Just then, I hear a sound behind me, and I turn around to see a 6ft. ostrich moving in my direction. It's big. It's close and it's got its eye on me. I snap a couple pictures before I take off back up the dirt road.



I pick up my pace…. it picks up it's pace…. I turn around and it's gone. I go back to what I'm doing. It finds me again…. same thing…."Rod!?"…. I find Rod…. he's still shoveling…"Is it safe?"…. He laughs and says, "She won't hurt you"… I go back to what I'm doing and she follows me around for the rest of my stint…. but no pecking."....Good girl.
 


 


I talk with Rod some more before I leave and kind of tell him what my plan is, and he looks at me and says…."You wanna see the freaks, don't you?"…"Well…yes, Rod, I wanna see the freaks…" He pulls out his cell phone and dials a number…"Hello, Ward? I gotta guy here who's making a movie….blah,blah……well I thought you'd be the guy to talk to….okay, I'll send him to you…"Rod gives me directions to a house at the end of one of the streets back off the highway.Appropriately,I guess,he tells me it's the Last House on the Left.I tell him thanks and that I would definitely be in touch with him in the near future,and I get in my truck and leave.I make it across highway 41 and I turn down the residential side street.

There are carnival wagons in most of the yards,now.Trailers,rolling grills,etc. in one yard,there is a big fence with a whole pack of sharp looking,well groomed dogs,sitting in front of the gate and staring out at me like Village of The Damned Dogs,and in the background I can spot hanging hoops and little doggie stages with little doggie carpeted steps.I finally get to the end of the street,and I pull into the driveway of the destined house.There are two guys on the front lawn unfolding something that looks like big tarps or tents in the grass.

 


 


They watch me as I pull in,and as I get closer,I can see what it is they're unfolding: 3 or 4 large,beautiful,old time freak show banners,with sword swallowers and half people painted on them,and the tell tale bright orange borders and painted letters shouting "Alive!" and "Strange But True!".



I get out and call out the name Ward to them and they motion me to go to the house.I turn to go towards the porch and I see a short figure in silloughette on the porch duck into the house…..must have kids,I think and make my way up to the door.
The door opens and I am greeted by a kindly looking old man in his late 70's or early 80's."Are you Rob,who's making the movie?" he asks…..I say yes….."I'm
Ward Hall,King of the Sideshows" he says…."welcome"…….

 


 


I get inside and and Ward introduces me to his "kids".I meet Chris Christ,who's slightly younger than Ward and is a sideshow promoter,performer,animal wrangler and expert knife thrower.

 


 


I'm then introduced to Little Pete Terhune,the world's oldest living dwarf (it's in the Guiness,look it up),who is a juggler,snakehandler,and fire eater.He's also the only living dwarf from the cast of The Wizard of Oz left.

 


 


"Pete's been with me for over 40 years….you can call him Poobah…",ward says.I call him Pete (frankly,I don't feel comfortable calling a 78 year old man 'Poobah'….I don't care how tall he is).
I'm offered a
cold drink and then shown into the adjoining room.
Ward takes me into his "Hall of Fame".which is basically a comfortable enough sun porch,with chairs a couch glider,a taxidermied midget horse,complete with broken ears,and sequined outfit,and walls covered with old news clippings,and posters that depict Ward and Chris' career together.



Ward Hall,started sideshow-ing at an early age,when he ran away with a traveling circus at 14 to escape a stressful home life out west,and out of necessity learned to eat fire and tame animals.he broke away from the circus eventually to purchase his own traveling sideshow,and subsequently becoming the most legendary sideshow promoter,producer in the business.i mention some of the most famous performers like
Mignon,The Penguin Lady,who had limbs that resembled fins or flippers,Johnny Eck,the half man,and Prince Randian,the living torso,who could roll cigarettes and light then with nothing but his lips and tongue.

 


 


I ask Ward if he's worked with them,and he replies that he was the one who hired most of them ( ok...be fair….exploited them…but ,in truth,it was a different time,and at the time not many other people would hire them,let alone let them co-exist peacefully,and Ward always had respect.)

Over his 50 plus career,Ward tells me that he's done every type of entertainment production work,from performing,to producing,to promotion in live shows,to television,to motion picture production (low budget and studio features).

Ward proceeds to tell about how he worked with legendary exploitation film directors, like,
Kroger Babb,who was THE original real deal Grindhouse huckster.Ward told me that he helped Babb in his most famous sensationalist ploy: the promotion of a boring sexual hygeine film called "Mom and Dad",where they segregated the audience on purpose,sold blue sex ed. Manuals to the boys,aand red ones to the girls(even though they were exactly the same book),and promised that the viewers would witness an actual on screen birth .Ticket sales boomed and so did the returns.Ward also worked with close friend and low budget schlockmeister K.Gordon Murray,another Floridian, who was known mostly for presenting some of the most bizarre kiddie movies ever made (check out his weirdo Mexican import: "Santa Claus"-he fights a pasty Satan in addition to delivering presents…).

We talk for an hour or two,and he says that we'll go inside to check out some old photos and promotional items that he has.I stop and tell them that I need to run to my truck to get another tape.I run out and fumble through the front seat.pop a tape in my recorder and start back for the house.Just then,Ward comes out of the house and asks me if I'd like to meet his sweetheart.Thinking that his wife must be nearby,I turn and look around to see if anyone's coming….nothing.then I see Ward open the adjoining garage door,and as he slides it open,I see a big bright yellow and orange box sitting on the floor,next to the garden tools and workbench.



Ward opens the top of it and I come over and look in to see a gigantic 9 or 10 ft. python residing there.She lifts her football sized head and wangles her tongue at me."That's hot",I think, as Ward tells me that he's about to feed her a rabbit or muskrat or something.
Back when Gibsonton was being formed,the government altered the laws specifically for it,so that the performers could function a little easier from day to day,by lowering the post office windows so the little people could get their mail,or changing the zoning laws so they could keep strange equipment and cars in their front lawns,or allowing them to keep their animal counterparts right on their property.There's no other town in the country where you can drive down a residential street and glimpse a tiger in someone's back yard(really),or a bear having it's midday salt lick on the front porch.

"We used to have a gorilla living with us here",Ward tells me….Here!?"….."Yeah….right here"……."Tony…..Tony,The Gorilla……but his stage name was
Garagantua The Second"………I ask him what it's like living with a gorilla.he tells me that the gorilla is the most docile animal you could ever live with,he says they're messy as hell,but very docile…so are orangutans,according to Ward.Chimpanzees are a different story.He told me that as chimps get older,they get meaner,and that they would tear you apart as soon as look at you…no thanks."Tony used to love to watch the trains go by…" There is a set of railroad tracks flanking Ward's house,and everyday the trains would come by hauling freight.Tony apparently would know when the trains were coming and would go down through the yard and sit and wait for them.When they came by,he would motion for them to blow their horns,which they would always do.



After we talk for about another hour or so,Chris says to Ward,"Why don't you take him down to the Showman's Association",a large organization set up expressly for all the carnival performers and workers.Ward says ok,but they both tell me not to let the folks inside the building know who I am,or that I'm making a film.I ask why,and they tell me that they don't let outsiders in.He tells me that if anybody asks any questions,that I should tell them that I'm related to Ward….."Ok Pop,let's go check it out"…….

We get to the place and it's huge building set on a large gated property.we go inside,and Ward greets an office full of people,who are glad to see him.I don't say a word,and just shadow Uncle Ward.
We go through some long halls and get to a big room with walls that are totally covered with old,rare sepia photographs of every sideshow freak imaginable."Do you mind if I take pictures?",I ask…in a low voice,Ward replies,"I won't tell if you don't…",so I shut my flash off and keep the camera at half mast,as we walk down the aisle.
Ward points out every sideshow performer he's had work for him,and most all of them resided here.Grady Stiles,
The Lobster Boy,Grace McDaniels,The Mule Faced Woman,and Frances O'Conner,who was born armless in 1917.She taught herself to perform everyday tasks,like sewing,eating,and even loading and firing a gun with her feet.



After awhile we decide to leave and we get into Ward's car and he tells me that he's gonna show me around town.We drive down every street and side road and Ward points out where everybody lives and what their fuctions are in the shows.food vendors,The Bird Lady,acrobats,etc. all live on these streets,(peppered with the local nearby chemical plant workers) and they are all ready to go on the raod at a moments notice.



"In the summer,this place is a ghost town",Ward says,as their busy season goes into full effect.

As we're driving we spot a really large man on a motorized cart moving very quickly down the sidewalk. "That's 'Howard Huge'….he used to be my Fat Man…..but nobody pays to see a Fat Man anymore…..or a Tattooed Lady,either".
The times,they do,in fact,change and the carnival sideshow/freak show/midway slowly sinks into the landscape and becomes a thing of the pastWe finally end up at the famous Showtown Diner,the central mom and pop restaurant that serves as the lunch counter/late night bar for the world's strangest clientele.The walls and exterior have been decorated over the years by the banner artists,and at any given time you can go in and see The Human Blockhead performing bar tricks by hammering nails into his ears and nostrils.

 


 


I tell Ward that the meal is on me. It comes to ten fucking dollars,including tip…are we not still in 1956? A small offering for his generosity of inviting me into his world for a day.

We talk about Incredibly Strange Creatures,and it seems like all systems are go.We have the full cooperation of the town,and the greatest tailor made location.
Ward says that if we shoot the film here,he would get all the carnies to be the crew…"We've all worked on films,we were the background in the 70's film "
Carny",and we all know how to work as a team…"…..can you imagine? The craft services tent being raised by a team of elephants,or the tallest man in the world holding the boom mike? There's the extra dvd right there….

 


 


Finally we get back to the house and it's time to wrap up the day.Ward tells me not to go just yet,and he disappears into another room.
Just then,little Pete shuffles past me,and disappears behind a counter,into the kitchen….a few seconds go by,and I see him shuffle into another room,and immediately shuffle back out with a wooden stool in his hand.He suddenly springs up from behind the counter and begins washing dishes,in the now reachable sink.I laugh silently to myself and think of how weird and great this all is.
Ward finally comes back and hands me two books .

 


 


The two books are ones that he wrote himself.One in the sixties when he was doing a show in France.He couldn't speak French so in between shows he wrote an obscure novel about gypsies.The other a personal reflection on all of the 'freaks' he's worked with and what they meant to him. I tell Ward that it's been a real pleasure and that I would be in touch with him soon.

I get in my truck ,leave the property,and head back up highway 41 towards Tampa.I reflect on what had transpired over the last 24 hours and I feel good about the fact that I got a trench view of a world that is slowly fading away.Most of the performers are rarely seen now,or are ex post facto altogether .I leave with the conviction that they are behind me 100 percent on the project,but am also hoping they'll be there when I return…


…..think I'll have a word with someoneabout that elephant,now….it IS Christmas……….



 


 





 

 


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