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Carnival & Fair News
Carnival & Fair News
Doc Rivera Brings Carnival History to Life at the IISA Carnival Museum
Monday, March 19, 2018
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Doc Rivera has been the curator of the International Independent Showmen's Museum for 5 years. He has dedicated his time to the museum in order to preserve the storied and exciting history of the carnival industry and achieve the museum's mission of telling the history of the carnival from its inception in 1893 through today. Now boasting over 100 exhibits, 1000s of artifacts, and countless photographs, the museum is poised to expand further and continue its important mission. 

The museum, located in Gibsonton, Florida, had humble beginnings in the 1980s. The museum of those days would be unrecognizable compared to its modern-day counterpart. "The museum originally began in a little green house across from where the museum is now. It was house on a piece of property the club had purchased," says Rivera. The museum lasted for a while in the little green house but it was old and the structure didn't hold up well to mildew and termites alike. And, "as artifacts were coming in we began to outgrow it," says Rivera. 

Now, the museum lives in a 54,000 square foot building and even this building is bursting at the seams, "It sounds like a lot of space but we're running out of room," says Rivera. "There are some artifacts that are not on display for the public solely because we don't have enough room for them, and that's a shame." Rivera says they're in the middle of a capital campaign they started this year to build a 20 x 60 steel building that will be attached to the main museum. Rivera plans to house the many rare carnival wagons they have at the museum in the new, steel building. Currently, the carnival wagons are outside of the museum, exposed to the elements and harsh Florida weather. Rivera estimates they need $100,000 to construct the new addition. 

He doesn't expect the fundraising or construction to happen quickly, though. When the 54,000 square foot main building was erected, it took time and was done in stages as money was raised. They overcame several hurdles during the piece-meal construction such as nasty weather and vandals. "The building was exposed during construction and some people went in and stole all the copper wire out of the conduits so that caused a delay," says Rivera. Finally, Jim Frederiksen donated the last $1 million needed to finish construction. Now, the building has been open since 2011. "It started out with stuff scattered around, it took time to get it to where it is today," says Rivera. 

The museum features exhibits about the history of traveling shows such as Royal American Shows, Strates Shows, Medicine Shows in America, and Wild West shows. Rivera explained that in the formative years of the carnival industry, a big show would only have 3 or 4 rides but would have 15 or 20 shows. "Each exhibit tells its own story," says Rivera. There are many interactive exhibits throughout the museum such as information about the Wild West Shows of the past. A monitor in that area is constantly playing a slideshow and guests in the exhibit can see artifacts such as Geronimo's top hat and Buffalo Bill's 6 gun. 

Other interactive exhibits include the American Beauty 1950 Alan Herschell Carousel, information on Father Mac the Carny Priest,  A Sideshow Exhibit, a Strangest Couple in the World: Al and Jeannie Tomaini Exhibit.  A Viking Giant Exhibit will be coming soon. Rivera is working on a life sized replica of the Viking Giant, Johan Petrussen. He will be dressed in different outfits and used as a photo opportunity for guests as well as an opportunity for them to take in his unfathomable 8ft 8in height. Rivera revealed he is also working on a two-headed baby exhibit. 

One of the most important parts of carnival industry history are the Minstrel Shows of yore. While Rivera believes it is important to share this pice of history with the public, he also acknowledges that the shows are an extremely racially sensitive topic. "We work really hard to handle that part of history in a diplomatic and respectful way," says Rivera. Minstrel Shows got their start in 1841 when workers would perform on Sundays when they were not working in order to entertain themselves. "These shows were an important part of industry growth. And, performances in Minstrel Shows actually led to people of color getting more performance gigs in the entertainment industry," says Rivera. 

In addition to these exhibits, Rivera has constructed an area dedicated to wood carving. It explains how carousel horses were hand carved out of wood and beautifully, painstakingly hand-painted. The upstairs portion of the museum has space dedicated to the history of carnival games as well as an extensive library which, among other things, houses Billboard Magazines from 1902 onward. Other notable items in the museum include a 1903 ferris wheel which still turns and a Royal American Shows office wagon that museum visitors can go into and look inside. "We have the office wagon set up like it was back in the day. It's set up just how an office was set up on the road," says Rivera. 

Rivera is hoping to modernize the museum by digitizing reading material and records from years ago. He also hopes to digitize the countless photos which are kept in the museum. "I get a lot of calls from people who are looking for information about their relatives who may have traveled with a show. Geneology is a big thing now," says Rivera. Just this week, Rivera was able to help a man who was looking for information about his mother, Rivera was able to point him in the right direction thanks to the artifacts in the museum. 

Digitizing the magazines and records will help preserve them and make them more readily available to those who are interested. Rivera says he has thousands of old photographs which are not dated or labeled. Whenever people look through them and have any new information, Rivera encourages them to write it on the back of the photograph in pencil as the lead does not fade or damage the picture. 

Rivera says the Showmen's Club is dedicated to preserving and expanding this museum not for their own interest but so that the artifacts and stories they tell will be helpful for generations to come. "Eventually, the time of the carnival will come to an end and when that occurs, people will want to know about this industry and what was so great about it," says Rivera. Preserving the past is hard work, though. Rivera says the exhibits are largely based on the artifact donations they receive regularly. A lot of things have to be fixed up or restored a bit before they can be on display. 

Rivera is dedicated to making the museum available to the community. Once a month a support group called "compassionate friends" meets in the upstairs area of the museum as do circus model groups. "We use the museum as a public service whenever possible," says Rivera. 

The International Independent Showmen's Museum has a Facebook page which Rivera manages himself. "I'll post a picture that would be of interest to someone in our industry but also to the public and tell a little story about what's being shown or going on in the picture," says Rivera. He attempts to post every day but sometimes is too busy with museum upkeep as he is a team of one. 

March 22nd-25th the museum will be hosting the 1st Showmen's Riverfest featuring Arnold Amusements. The carnival will be set up at the Showmen's Club. Arnold Amusements will provide rides, food, and games. The proceeds from the event will go toward constructing the new, steel addition to the main museum. 

Currently the museum is only open on the weekends although Rivera would love to see it open during the week as well. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for students, and children are free. 

Carnival History Videos Featuring Doc Rivera

courtesy of Chad Griffith

Part 1:

Part 2:

Hollywood Meets the Traveling Carnival:

Museum Photos from the MCW Gallery

Doc Rivera


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