Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Showmen’s Rest Cemetery, Tampa, Florida

I was in Tampa, Florida back in 2010. Upon my return I learned, to my utmost chagrin, that I missed the opportunity to visit Tampa’s Showmen’s Rest Cemetery – a memorial park for carnies and circus performers. During my next visit to Tampa in 2016, I again forgot about it! Luckily, I made the acquaintance of Liz, proprietor of the Dysfunctional Grace Art Co. (aka Bobbypin Hair Gallery) in nearby Ybor City, Florida. Liz reminded me of its existence.

(There's a link at the end to my blog about my first visit to Tampa.)

Dysfunctional Grace Art Co.
Liz’ shop is on the main drag in Ybor City, a ten-minute trolley ride from downtown Tampa. The Dysfunctional Grace Art Company is nestled among the cowboy bars, Cuban cigar shops, tattoo parlors, and various restaurants of Spanish origin. What drew me into Dysfunctional Grace was the terrifying display in the front window (at left). Upon entering, I noticed the coffins, taxidermy, dead things in jars, bones, funerary items – my kind of place! But I promise to write a blog about that soon.

As we discussed dead things, I mentioned to Liz that I visit graveyards when I travel and that I write The Cemetery Traveler blog. Liz said, “So you’ve been to the Showmen’s Rest in Tampa?” I confessed that I had not and professed my sincerest gratitude to her for reminding me!

My flight back to Philadelphia was the following morning. I quickly changed my plans so I could check out of the hotel early and explore the Showmen’s Rest Cemetery while on my way to the airport. With my smart phone I could see that the cemetery was adjacent to Tampa’s much larger Woodlawn Cemetery, making it easier to find (the corner of North Boulevard and West Indiana Avenue).

Memorial park-style grave markers in the Showmen's Rest Cemetery
The next morning about 6:30 a.m., I took Uber to that northwest corner of Woodlawn. Not a creature was stirring. Several cemeteries are clustered around Woodlawn, including the Centro Asturiano Cemetery, Showmen’s Rest, and a small Jewish burial ground between Woodlawn and the Showmen’s. Being so early in the morning, I had to climb the wall into the Showmen’s Rest (I later climbed the wall into the Jewish cemetery in order to climb the fence into Woodlawn - for the record, these were low walls and fences!)

Community mausoleum, Showmen's Rest Cemetery, Tampa, Florida

Human Cannonball (Ref.)
Once up and over the wall and into the Showmen's Rest (with my suitcase in tow, as well as my carry-on - remember, I'm on my way to the airport!), I walked among the red granite grave markers evenly spaced on the lawn. The cemetery is of memorial park design, so there are no upright monuments or other grave markers. I was surprised at the dignified inscriptions on the stones - proper names, not stage names. So if you want to find "Lobster Boy" or "The Human Cannonball," you need to do a little research. (Grady Stiles, aka “Lobster Boy, is actually buried in another Tampa cemetery (see link at end), but the inventor of the process by which a human is shot out of a cannon – Edmondo Zacchini, is actually buried here (he broke a leg in his early experiments!).

"The Human Cannonball" (Read more here)
Early morning at the entry gate to the Showmen's Rest Cemetery

There are several hundred flush-to-the-ground markers placed in neat rows here on the well-manicured lawn, with two large community-style mausoleums at one end. The eight-inch-tall metal letters spelling out "Showmen’s Rest" on the wall outside the main gate were subtle, and the fact that the capital "S" was dangling loose gave the impression that the place might have a dilapidated, shanty town feel. I wanted to photograph the sign, which meant I would have to climb over the wall again - but wait, the gate is closed, but ... there’s no lock! Wait, its not locked! So out I went out through the gate, snapped a few photos, and came back in. The place is not at all like a shanty town and the "carnies," or rather, the men and women of the outdoor show world, are buried here in very dignified fashion.

So why here in Tampa, Florida? Why would there be a cemetery for circus and carnival performers here and not in, say, Los Angeles or New York? (There are actually three other “Showmen’s Rest cemeteries in the United States – in Forest Park, Illinois, Hugo, Oklahoma, and  Miami, Florida (click link to learn more about these). The one in Tampa is run by the Greater Tampa Showmen's Association.

Royal American Shows

A bit of history. Back in the first half of the twentieth century, traveling shows - circuses and carnivals - would tour the northern United States and Canada in summer (where it was cooler than the southern states) and the southern states in winter (where it was warmer than in the north). Remember, these were all outdoor attractions - no reason to set up a carnival in Minnesota in January! Tampa, Florida, became one of the nation's major centers for the traveling carnival and circus trade.

Royal American Shows, archival photo (Ref.)

The largest of the outdoor traveling midways, Royal American Shows, had its headquarters in Tampa, near the airport. RAS was more than a carnival – it was essentially the world’s largest traveling amusement park! Tampa was the annual end of the line for the RAS, the resting spot for the show after a grueling year of crisscrossing America by train. For many years (1925 to1985), Royal American was at the top of the carnival game, traveling through the United States and Canada on 96 railroad cars and playing the largest of the state fairs and Canadian exhibitions. They boasted four ferris wheels, freak shows, the human cannonball, and for six months in the late 1940s they featured Gypsy Rose Lee, perhaps the most famous stripper of all time (she, alas, is not buried here at the Showmen’s Rest.)

Vintage photo of RAS train (Ref.)

“At its peak, RAS boasted a 96-car train -- transporting the carnival staff, carnival equipment and the presidential cars for the owner Carl Sedlmayr Jr, and his family. This method of touring gave the carnival the upper hand on show movement, keeping down travel costs by capitalizing on the fuel efficiency of train travel.”

Carl J. Sedlmayr, Jr.
Royal American Shows was headquartered in Tampa. Carl J. Sedlmayr, Jr. (1919 – 2001), the “King of the Carnival,” was owner and mastermind of this long-running extravaganza. He is buried here in Showmen's Rest with his family. In fact, he donated the money to establish this cemetery in 1952, then the mausoleum in 1962. Large bronze plaques commemorate him and his generosity.

Other than the name on the outer wall and the bronze plaques on the front posts of the mausoleum, the only thing that might catch your eye that differentiates this from any other memorial park is the multi-colored elephant mural in one corner of the grounds (lead photo in this article). The Ladies Auxiliary of the Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association - still in existence (see link to their Facebook page at end) - donated this eight by ten foot grotto-type stone memorial in 1952.

What I have not ascertained is whether or not one must be a member of the Greater Tampa Showmen’s Association in order to be buried in the Showmen's Rest. I imagine the association is a beneficial organization for which burial insurance and a gravestone is a benefit of membership.

Besides the elephant memorial, there is not much here that alludes to the pomp and festivity that goes hand-in-hand with the carnival life. However, this small, mirthful can with plastic flowers did bring a smile to my face. As a child, I attended many circuses and traveling carnivals with my parents. We attended the annual Bloosmburg Fair in northeast Pennsylvania on a regular basis. This is the largest and longest-running outdoor fair in the state (started in 1855!). While its midway was run by a traveling show other than Sedlmayr’s, I did get a taste of those same sideshows, trains, and Ferris wheels.

It was peaceful here at the Showmen's Rest while I visited, restful, even. It is probably peaceful here throughout the day, and throughout the year. The large cemetery complex (including Woodlawn) is in a residential, suburban area of Tampa. There is little ornamentation here at the Showmen’s Rest – a few small cherubs scattered about  – but it does showcase an amazing era of Americana history. With a final nod to Sedlemayr and Zacchini, I hopped the wall into my next cemetery adventure.

References and Further Reading:

"The Graves of Old Tampa Bay" - The Cemetery Traveler blog post about Ed Snyder's 2010 visit to Tampa Cemeteries

Royal American Shows on Facebook

Traveling by Train