Sold out crowds turned out for all three performances of the 40th annual circus of the International Independent Showmen's Association on a sunny Saturday, Jan. 11, in Gibsonton, Florida.
“It was perfect fair weather,” said Lee Stevens, who has been chairman and host of the spectacular event for the last 24 years. Stevens, who was club president in 2004, and will be again in 2021, said, “This is the one day that the Circus and Carnival Worlds join together to make something very good happen.”
One of the highlights was the appearance of a 37-piece Circus Band that included April Ink, Stevens's contact, who plays trombone, and Don Covington, who flew in from California especially to perform. “Les Smout was in charge of a fantastic model builder exhibit.”
Food concessionaire Larry Habeck, unofficial historian for the club, was nice enough to put Don Regan, the leader of the band, on the phone, and have them play a rousing tune for me and Christine, just as all the action was about to begin. It sounded superb.
Current Club President Jeff Richards began the proceedings by presenting the Reverend Mac Clements and his wife, Pat, Lifetime memberships in the club. “They have always been big supporters, and he has helped more kids keep out of trouble, or help get them out of trouble for many years,” said Stevens.
I reminded Lee that I still have the whistle that I blew to start an official performance of a Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus during my 34 years as editor of Amusement Business. It was quite a thrill, especially after having my picture made with Gunther Gebel Williams, perhaps the greatest lion tamer of all time.
The whole scenario came about because of Don Sandefur, who spent years in charge of the Harlem Globetrotters. Sandefur, now retired and living in the Villages in Florida, is one of the most avid Kentucky Wildcat fans you'll ever find. Harold (Pee Wee) Reese, the late, great shortstop of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and a fellow Kentuckian, always referred to him as Vine Grove, in honor of the town where he was born. Sandefur never forgot his roots, even during the many years he spent on the West Coast while being in charge of the PGA West.
To get back to how I became a whistle blower, it occurred because Sandefur and I became the best of friends. My son, Kevin, and I even stayed at the home of him and his wife, Jan, when they were living in Conyers, Ga., when the Tennessee Titans lost in a titanic tussle with the St. Louis Cardinals in the Super Bowl.
I helped Don sell tickets to a Trotter contest in Nashville when Promoter Lon Varnell didn't anticipate the crowds, and more windows had to be open. I took a picture that night of a crowd outside Municipal Auditorium that stretched for a mile.
Varnell, by the way, should have known better since he exclusively booked perennial sellouts by such artists as Lawrence Welk, The Carpenters, and Garth Brooks. Ben Ferrell, who worked for Varnell, still handles all of Garth's bookings. Ben's dad, Kirby, was once manager of the Cleveland Indians.
Sandefur gave me an official Globetrotter jacket and had me coach Red Klotz's traveling loser team against the legendary touring team that was founded by Abe Saperstein. At the intermission break, when the players went into the dressing room and played cards, I remained on the bench—big mistake. A small kid asked for my autograph and when I tried to tell him he really didn't want it, he began to cry. His dad pleaded and a couple hundred people later, I was still signing. About the 15th guy in line asked if he did that every night. It was Frank Curry, a vice president with Ringling, who then said if I could do that, I could blow the whistle for the circus, which I did.
Continuing with Gibtown, Stevens said Philip (Pee Wee) Hoskins, a two-time club president, was selling his famous Pee Wee Burgers, with the help of Sue Cook and Scotty and Peggy Oakes of Canada. Ronnie and Kim Netterfield again provided their popper. Tammy Long set up a bounce and tickets for that were sold by Jennifer Habeck, Joey Givens, who worked for Kevin McGrath's Best Around, and Jo Ann and Doug Perkins, who sold pizza for years on Strates Shows. Mark and Linda Popovich and Archie (Hawk) and Becky Lidey, Wilbur Cooke, and their crews cooked a great spaghetti dinner for all the performers and volunteers. The Shriners were present, as usual, taking care of the parking, and driving fans on golf carts from the lot to the scene of the circus tent, near the water of Alachua River. “They are invaluable,” said Stevens.
Serge and Stevie Coronas of Circus Hollywood provided the tent and most of the performers. With The Great Devon as ringmaster, the opening act was dueling hula hoops by Crystal Coronas and Volvo Kim. Six camels from Lletsira Coronas and two elephants from Brian Franzen were on hand for rides by children. The camels had been purchased when Ringling Brothers went out of business.
Johnny Rocket, whose real name is John Daley Jr., had a comic act and a Straps act was performed by Christian and Nick Bilea.
“We couldn't have done anything without lights and all of that was thanks to Gary Zack and Jay Christman of Christman Amusements. Rachel Plunkett did her Butch Ugly act, which is juggling with her feet,” explained Stevens. Plunkett also did a Roman Rings aerial act. The Wheel of Death was done by Ulysses Ojeda and Brandon Ford did Liberty Horses, while on horseback. The Cybertron Motorcycles were presented by Johnny Rocket and Galaxy Girl, Tina Winn.
Clowns included Christian Vedella as Ruloeto, Gloria Myers as Checkers and Gloria Wilkerson as Moonbeam. Bruce Guttila and Doug Perkins were in the box office from noon until 9pm.
Contortion was presented by 13-year-old Arianna Coronas and her 11-year old sister, Fabianna Coronas. Ashley Winn provided a dazzling Lira aerial act and Christian Bilea of Rumania did a chair balancing routine.
Chris Christ, who was partnered with the late Ward Hall in the best sideshow in the world for more than 40 years, handled all the advance publicity, and Helen Robeke handed out posters from Gibsonton to Sun City, and also took free kids tickets to schools. Admission was $12 in advance and $15 at the gate.
Asked if PETA was present, Stevens scoffed and said, “those idiots were across the street, off the club property.”
Stevens and his wife, Judy, the club's bar chairman, start their season with Ju-Lee's Concessions at the DeSoto County Fair, Arcadia, Jan. 31-Feb.8, which is during the club's 51st annual trade show, Feb. 5-8. Other Florida dates to follow are the Florida State Fair, Tampa; Central Florida Fair, Orlando; Collier County Fair, Naples, and Hernando County Fair, Brooksville. They have three stands, one with funnel cakes, lemonade and elephant ears; another with lemonade, strawberry lemonade, and iced tea, and the third with shaved ice, which was added last year at Tampa.
Stevens, who spent 10 years with Ringling, cracked, “I was one of three monkey acts in the world at one time, and now I'm one of 8,000 people from Hillsborough County who sell funnel cakes.”
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Have all great days, and God Bless!