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The Final Stop for the Sideshow

With Their Carnival Days Long Behind Them, Midway Performers Form a Community Where No One Bats an Eye at the Accidents of Nature

June 24, 1997|DAVID LAMB | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IBSONTON, Fla. — Out by Bull Frog Creek, among the trailers and wood homes of Gibsonton, is America's last best place for a vanishing band of retirees whose careers were cut short by medical science and cultural sensitivity--the sideshow freak.

Ever since the 1940s, carnival people have come to Gibsonton, south of Tampa on Highway 41, to winter and ultimately retire. Over the years, the little community has taken on the character of an extended family--tolerant and protective of its own, unbothered by the mistakes of nature in its midst that other towns might consider odd, be it a five-legged cow or a lady with a full beard.

"People here are accepted for what they are," says Chuck Osak, who runs the Showtime Lounge, where regulars swap tales of lives on the road and speak of the midway as a sort of spiritual altar. "It was never, 'Hey look at that lady! She's got no legs.' Or, 'Hey, that guy weighs 700 pounds!' To show people, this isn't anything new or unusual. They don't look twice at someone who is different."

Gibton, as the locals call it, is a nondescript place, and its residents, including those from the world of carnivals, are as a whole anatomically undistinguished. Still, the town has gained a certain notoriety for having a population that at one time or another included Otis the Frog Man, the Dog-Faced Girl, the Siamese Twins from Dayton and goiter-covered Knotty Knots, all part of freak shows that in their heyday were advertised as "the pornography of disability."

Their performing days ended with the demise of the shows in the 1960s. Some, like Lobster Boy, with fingers fused into pincers and tiny legs resembling flippers, made their final curtain calls in the Showmen's Rest section of Gibton's cemetery, relics of an era when Americans found no shame in paying 50 cents to gawk at misshaped human bodies displayed alongside jars of deformed fetuses that carny operators called "pickled punks."

"The word 'freak' was never offensive to me, if you used it in the right tone of voice," says Jeanie Tomaini, 80, once "The World's Only Living Half-Girl."

Born without legs in small-town Indiana, she began her career at 3 when her father, a struggling carpenter, charged people a few cents to look at her in a tent he set up in the backyard. Later, she married a giant from Italy, and the 2-foot-6-inch Jeanie and her 8-foot-4-inch husband teamed up to tour the country as "The World's Strangest Married Couple."

"I loved what I did, loved performing, loved being around people," Jeanie says. "I never felt handicapped."

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Few people except a handful of the old-time performers mourn the passing of freak shows. They were done in by medical science, which eliminated or mitigated many genetic conditions causing deformities. Another factor was changing public attitudes--increased awareness in a country where the U.S. Census says 46 million Americans older than 14 have some form of disability. But Tomaini, for her part, never understood what all the fuss was about.

"Do-gooders were always coming around trying to close down the freak shows when we'd set up in a new town," she recalls. "Sometimes they'd succeed in getting the pickled punks removed, but they never got us to stop performing.

"These little old white-haired ladies would say, 'Oh, my dear, isn't this awful the way they display you?!' and I'd say, 'I love my work. I have a wonderful life.' Where else did they think I was going to work? I'd apply for a regular job and what are they going to say? 'Hey, no legs! Forget it.' "

On this day, Tomaini--Gibton's most beloved senior citizen and a Mormon who never drank or smoked--is sitting in a cabin at Giant's Fish Camp, which she and her husband built on the banks of the Alafia River. She has white hair, a gentle and pretty face, abundant charm, and the confidence of a person who has triumphed over great odds to move as anyone's equal in an unequal world.

"I never ever felt sorry for myself because, sure, I wasn't much of a dancer, but I could do everything else," she says. "In fact, when my husband and I went into business and started hiring our own sideshow performers, I realized how lucky I was. We hired a three-legged man--he had a full third leg that he could kick with--and an 800-pound man, and a man with rubber skin that he could stretch out like elastic, and I'd see them and figure I was better off than they were."

In the corner of the room, Judy Rock, 51, who designs and sells monuments for cemeteries and is one of four adopted daughters Tomaini and her late husband raised during 26 years of marriage, is typing data into a computer. "I had the most normal, loving upbringing in the world," Rock says, "and being around my parents was a lot of fun. My friends loved coming over and always felt cheated if Daddy wasn't around to play pool with them."

Rock reveals an additional bonus to her upbringing: "There was never any of that 'my father is bigger and stronger than your father,' because nobody was bigger than Daddy."

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