P.T. Barnum’s 200th: Circus fans plan year-long celebration

July 5 is the notable day that circus lovers around the world will commemorate the 200th birthday anniversary of P.T. Barnum, the man who founded the circus that became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

Along the way, Phineas Taylor Barnum, who died April 7, 1891, also was a shrewd businessman, publisher, entertainer and promoter of hoaxes.

He was born in Bethel, Conn., and in his twenties founded The Herald of Freedom, a weekly newspaper in Danbury in 1929. Five years later, he moved to New York City to start his entertainment career, first with a variety troupe and soon after with Barnum’s American Museum.

It was through his museum that Barnum first introduced awestruck people to human curiosities such as General Tom Thumb and the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, and began promoting hoaxes. By 1846, the museum played host to 400,000 visitors a year.

Peggy Williams, education outreach manager at the Dime Museum in Palmetto, Fla., credits Barnum with “being the inventor of bombastic advertising,” and also gives him credit for “creating work for people who needed it when there was no Americans With Disabilities Act” to protect them. She specifically named Barnum’s employment of the diminutive Charles Stratton (Tom Thumb), as an example.

Barnum’s first major hoax, through his museum, was the “Feejee” mermaid, which, instead of being a mythical denizen of the deep, actually was the tail of a fish and the head of a monkey. While he would promote many other hoaxes, Barnum maintained they were merely “humbugs” designed to attract attention to the museum.

In 1848, Barnum promoted the American singing tour of Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale, paying her the then-unheard-of price of $1,000 a night for 150 nights, paid in advance. Barnum, always the promoter, turned out nearly 40,000 people to greet Lind when her ship docked, and another 20,000 people at her hotel. Barnum is said to have recouped his investment four times over.

Economic troubles dogged Barnum in the 1850s because of bad investments in real estate, but by 1860, after a lecture tour as a temperance speaker, he built a mansion and was out of debt. Five years later, he was elected to the Connecticut legislature, where he served two terms. He twice ran unsuccessfully for the United States Congress.

Barnum got into the circus business at the age of 61, and it was his traveling circus, museum of freaks and menagerie — P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome — that would bring him much fame and fortune. By 1872, Barnum, never one to be reticent in promoting himself, was calling it “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Barnum also brought more modern methods to circus management, being the first circus owner to move his circus by train, and also the first to purchase his own train.
As part of the commemoration of Barnum’s birthday anniversary, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey put together Barnum’s FUNundrum, featuring 130 performers from six continents, nearly 50 tons of performing Asian elephants and a wide assortment of performers and exotic animals that it still bills as “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Performers include the Flying Carceres, who will attempt a quadruple somersault on the flying trapeze; the Puyang Troupe, trampoline artists from China; Mighty Meetal, billed as the strongest man in the world, who can lift 1,200 pounds; the Sky High Ice Gliders, a high wire act; and the Torres Family, seven motorcyclists blasting around the inside of a 16-foot diameter steel globe at the same time.

The FUNundrum is scheduled to play Hampton, Va., April 21 to 25; Providence, R.I., April 29 to May 2; Hartford, Conn., May 5 to 9; Trenton, N.J., May 13 to 23; Hershey, Pa., May 26 to 31; Omaha, Neb., June 4 to 6; Colorado Springs, Colo., June 10 to 13; Las Vegas, June 17 to 20; Phoenix, June 23 to 27; Tucson, Ariz., June 30 to July 4; Fresno, Calif., July 7 to 11; Los Angeles, July 14 to 18; Anaheim, Calif., July 28 to August 8; and Everett, Wash., August 26 to 29.

Kathy Maher, executive director and curator of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., said the museum is sponsoring a year-long succession of events, but that the major event is Barnum’s birthday celebration on July 5.

“We celebrate it every year, but this year we’re ramping it up quite a bit,” Maher said. “We’ll have a stage performance, and a professional clown and re-enactors will interact with the visitors.”

Maher pointed out that while Barnum was a showman, he was never a clown or performer himself.

“He was the genius behind the scenes,” she said.

Besides a Barnum re-enactor at the birthday celebration, the museum also will feature a Mark Twain re-enactor in honor of Twain’s 175th birthday anniversary in November, Maher noted.

The Barnum Museum also will give visitors a sneak peek at its new exhibition, P.T. Barnum — The Man, the Myth and the Legend, which is scheduled to open officially on July 15.

Maher added that the city of Bridgeport has a Barnum festival each year, and the 2010 event will culminate in a street parade where the floats will line Main Street in front of the museum.

“There will be stilt walkers, face painters, a Wing Ding mini-parade for the children, crafts and other events, including a birthday cake and a sing-a-long,” she said.

Maher said the P.T. Barnum exhibit currently being shown in the museum will have new components introduced to it that will add to visitors’ understanding of his character beyond what they know of him from the circus.

“Getting involved in the circus enterprise was a way for Barnum to revive the interest in his museums,” Maher pointed out. “And you must remember that he didn’t get involved with the circus until he was 61. However, he was able to offer an educational component to his circus by having museum components travel with it.”

Other Barnum celebration events sponsored by the museum include “tons of children’s programming over the summer,” Maher said, “as well as lots of lectures at the museum and in various locations around Connecticut and in New York.”

The Barnum Museum also will open a sculpture exhibition, Energy in Motion, in July, that features Hamden, Conn., artist David Millen and his acrobatic and circus-like work. Another highlight of the celebration year will be the museum’s annual gala in October, timed to coincide with a clown convention and when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is in Bridgeport.

“This will be an exciting year,” Maher said. ?

Alan Petrillo is a Tucson-based freelance journalist who has written for the Associated Press, among others. A former dealer and constant collector, Petrillo last wrote about appraisers for Antique Trader.

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