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The Greatest Showman: How PT Barnum Changed American Entertainment

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
August 25, 2022 3:00 am

The Greatest Showman: How PT Barnum Changed American Entertainment

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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August 25, 2022 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, In a big and memorable way, PT Barnum changed how all Americans lived. Our movies, television, and whole entertainment-saturated culture is what it is today because of what he started. Here to tell this story is the Executive Director of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT, Kathy Maher.

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This is this is our American stories we tell stories about everything here on the show for the arts to sports and from business dentistry and everything in between including your story. Seven hour American Some of our favorite Phineas Taylor Barnum was to the show business, what Andrew Jackson been the politics and like Andrew Jackson he became one of the representative Americans of his time expansive entrepreneur in the great age of entrepreneurs in a big and memorable way.

He changed how we all lived gave us something to talk about something to dream about our movies, television entire entertainment saturated culture is what it is today because of what PT Barnum started. He seems almost a fable now but then he did in his own day to you to tell this story, is an expert among PT Barnum experts. Let's take a listen. My name is Kathleen my director Barnum Museum in Bridgeport Connecticut. It's bad in our outside of New York City and it was the home of PT Barnum and the museum that I worked for was actually inspected by PT Barnum before he passed away. But sadly it took two years to build, and he did not survive to see it completed what I typically love doing on a regular basis is talking about how he's impacted our lives today.

How he is completely designed popular culture the way we move through the world through the theater through gaming, everything possibly think of, actually has some form or some fingerprint of Barnum because he was brilliant and genius promoter. Most people go back and they think today because of the success of the greatest showman movie that you Jack did a couple of years ago. Some people think of Barnum. In that context. Fascinating thing is the movie absolutely catching his spirit but himself actually is 18 Bethel Connecticut farming community. When you think about 1810, in the context of American history. Napoleon is still current event. King George is still alive founding fathers are still alive. So America is really a very new nation struggling with what the Constitution means in their lives. This is something very very new and born was born into that now when we all think about Barnum. We think of the circus fact of the matter is the greatest show on earth was Barnum's retirement project. He was 61 years old before he really embarked on what we think of the circus.

Today he had decades of struggles and triumphs to really come to this goal of his life which lingered as the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus until a few years ago, so his legacy really began. Barnum's brand began long before his circus endeavor. So like you said he was born in his account in Connecticut called Bethel on July 5. We did not celebrate Fourth of July the way we do today, but he was born on July 5 the truth of the matter is that Barnum's maternal grandfather was actually well-to-do family owned much of the town shops in the town and Barnum's mother and father owned the shop so they were working class people, most certainly, but they were not destitute, and interestingly, Barnum was one of children, so he had siblings and half siblings. So it was, it was a robust family that work the farms. He did not like our marquee like head work. He was always calculating even as a very very young boy so they realized he was not the kind kid that was can help in the fields with his family he was going to work in the general store and learns arts bartering tree that it was Yankee ingenuity.

At that moment in time and it was all everything is in negotiation in New England, so it was really the moment where he learns the art of the deal. He learns ingenuity. He's witty and he's humor, and he was charming as young as he was to people in the community.

His schooling only went to lose about eight years old when he had to go and work in his family's general store. He did grow up and it was a very religious community.

Protestant beliefs didn't push against not necessarily.

He was a staunch Christian believer. He believed that all of the challenging things that happened to him through the course of his life was divine prop that he learned he could be that when he lost all of his money in the 1850s.

He felt that was the lesson he needed to have learned from now what he wound up doing in Bethel, he realized shop keeping was like I make in the amount of money that he lied and he embarked on the lotteries they were sanctioned by the church at that time they were sanctioned by the state and he was making quite a bit of money for his family, conducting lottery operations. It's not until the very Calvinistic out ideologies of the church wanted to really and through legislation.

Lotteries in Connecticut that Barnum recognized a he was not going to make enough money living in Bethel anymore and that's really when he brings his family to New York City to start a whole new life, but what he does do in Bethel, which is remarkable.

He's a young man is in his early 20s, and he recognizes that the idea of the Democratic community. If you had a voice had an opinion, you had an obligation and and most certainly a right to speak your voice, and he started writing letters to the Danbury newspapers and nobody would print any editorials. Nothing that he would write so he decided to embark on his own newspaper at 21 years old and he produces a paper called the Harold of freedom and gospel witness and newspapers that at that time were huge, just loaded with words it winds up that time and he refers to it as his arrogant youth. He sued three times for libel and the last time it landed him in jail and you're listening to Kathy Meier Executive Director of the PT Barnum Museum in Bridgeport mortgage remarkable story drivers up in a small farm community and ends up in the big city New York City is like story continues be doing volunteer on our American story. Here, the host avail American stories everyday on the show were bringing inspiring stories from across this great country stores were big cities and small tombs, but we truly can't do the show without our stories are free to listen to what they're not free to me if you love what you hear go to L American and click the donate button a little give a lot to L American and give you here with our American stories with Kathy Meier Executive Director the PT Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut telling the story of PT Barnum. Let's continue and pick up what we last left off.

He sued three times for libel and the last time it landed him in jail. He made a comment about usury by a Rev. in town and he was thrown in jail for libel for two months. People were outraged.

They felt it was freedom of the press. He had the right to say what he said so they had his jail cell decorated there was a parade for him when he got out of jail, he continued to print the newspaper while he was just so so if you have to talk about a shift in a moment in time, there it is, and he really finds that that's the moment in time where there's power in understanding what's happening political world and life. It shows out that he feels that if you have a voice in your living. You know with the freedoms that we have today that it is your obligation to have a voice and that's really how he conducted the rest of his life. So back to New York City. It's the late 1830s early 1840s and work doesn't develop like a colonial city of Boston and Philadelphia industrial city and the harbors are extremely active with commerce. Barnum finds this to be extraordinary moment in time. He might fit into the never works in an office he's always working in some type of town or trade. He tries it hands at promoting different kind of technologies. It just doesn't work until he discovers scatters American Museum lower Broadway in New York and late 1830s in New York. Remember there there is a financial crash in a businesses word just going under left and right, and the scatters Museum which had been around since 1810 was dramatically family, you know, the idea of being an Institute of science and scientific advancement was falling out of favor. People didn't have the money.

It was old was tired and saw an opportunity in it, and because the price had been dropped $15,000. He devised a way to actually acquire it.

He is a child he was told he owned property in Bethel Connecticut it was called by the island.

He was all excited about it when he realizes that it was nothing but swampland and virtually useless. He feels duped by his own community and family help her going back to his ingenious ability to think of how you can negotiate this during the negotiation for scatters Museum didn't have enough money and he literally told the bankers property the island and this is December know in New England in 1841 nobody was going to take the days long journey up to Bethel Connecticut to evaluate the property so they accepted the collateral so he was to seal the deal for the American Museum using his charm using his written using his ingenuity extraordinary by today's standards, but when he purchases the American Museum.

He opens it. On New Year's day in 1842 and again it was it was a tired institution. There was nothing alive, nothing charming, nothing innovative that will attract people and so he realized he needed three things needed a major renovation and needed an asset publicity campaign and literally an injection of sheer personality arms personality so he did everything that you can possibly think of to clean it up and make it something that you couldn't walk they put huge banners of different types of animals outside. Literally, they put a calcite drum on the roof, it becomes the first but a call to those thing spotlights in the sky that would attract people. He opened early in the morning.

It didn't close till 10 o'clock at night and it was available to everyone. The institution was not for just the wealthy and educated and traveled. It was open to anybody and everybody who could pay their $0.25 because when you think about New York City in the 1840s. It's a tough place. There's intense immigration coming into the city. It's the Irish immigration Irish were not allowed into many establishments.

That was not the case with the American Museum. So it was nip and cane quickly became a vibrant part of the developing metropolis.

It was an enormous traction with people go and feel safe and have entertainment and nothing that's interesting to think about at this time. Any kind of theory was not deemed as moral and wholesome ways of spending your time predominantly theaters were attended by male audiences. There was drinking to sin, even violence, Barnum would have none of that in the American it was a place for family entertainment and any kind of music he had security guards serving all of the floors and if there was any questionable activity or language you are escorted out.

Now Barnum actually was buying the New York pills Museum. He operated the Baltimore pill Museum later integrating the scientific specimens and objects into the American music. So it really became our first science majors public science institution. Interestingly, there was everything from well tanks in the base they were pumping water in from the East River's first aquarium. Barnum knew about the national aquarium in London one bring one back to his homeland and also there were living animals inside the museum as well. So it's the first suit now some of the things he exhibited were truly curiosities and wonders, and again in a democratic America you had your reading of your voice. You can decide if it was real if it wasn't real. It didn't matter if the American Museum. If there was truth in anything the opportunity was you could make up your own mind. So Barnum actually has a friend and colleague, and at one point Barnum borrowed Moses Kimball staging Mermaid, you know, exotic mermaid, but he didn't bring it to the American Museum of right-of-way only devised a method to get people excited about it sent letters to newspapers publishing a story about a naturalist from London coming over with this extraordinary specimen. After weeks of Barnum peppering cities across the East Coast ultimately brings the mermaid to the American Museum types it all out. People pay the receipted people pay to come into the museum and they come to find out that it's just this hideous Calvin fish body of an orangutan and it's just detestable it's it's horrible and people like really, you know and believe it or not, defeating mermaid is Barnum's line in the set. He felt that that's the place. Throughout the course of his life. The place where he went too far. People were expecting something from him. At this point in the future mermaid took advantage so he said never again that is literally were Barnum sees the line can be drawn and absolutely would not embark on something that he felt would betray the trust of his public now. People use the word humbug today probably differently in Barnum's definition of the work humbug is in my opinion the true meaning of humbug is management tacked to take an old truth and put it into an attractive form so we don't really think about humbug in modern context. That way, didn't see it as necessarily duping the people.

It was about bringing people in on a story on an object to take the journey of what this is. Together, but making it understandable by today by that moments know list of expectations that interestingly, when you think about the great showman movie that came out is precisely what they did.

They took Barnum's old story, and they put it into a form that would be relatable by modern standards.

So it's it's a million. Humbug the marriage is director PT Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

When we come back more of this remarkable story. The story of PT Barnum and so much more here on our American stores that we continue with our American stories and more of the remarkable life story of PT Barnum.

The rest of the story. In case you see in the movie as we like to say Mr. Gray Paul Harvey… Each and every day.

Let's return to Kathy Mayor, Executive Director.

The beauty Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. So a lot of people often ask Tom fun was a humbug and interestingly, Tom Thumb was most certainly not humbug at all.

He was a real a real person born by the name Charles Sherwood Stratton here in Bridgeport kind of discovered him a lot of things that Barnum you know actually showcasing out his life was not discovered by him even invented.

But he found brilliant at promoting it. So what they did working together. By the 1850s Americans were in pursuit of refinement cultural engagement. We did not have Americans did not have any kind of definable no fashionable culture.

At that time we were looking back to England and France to create our own perceived sophistication and Barnum knew he needed something that was going to sort of elevate his standing when he was in Europe with Tom Funk. He attended classical performances and Opera and he liked that he felt that he did himself for higher grade of entertainment than what the American Museum was offering to the masses so we had heard of the coloratura soprano Jenny went the Swedish Nightingale while he was traveling with Tom and never heard her sing and he decided her kind of entertainment would not just be a wonderful and you know type of performance for just the higher classes in America because we have always had different levels of classes, but she would actually be a blessing to America will not. The trick was he had to prepare the public mind so would Barnum had to do is saturate American newspapers with with wonderful stories about Jenny Lind not about what a brilliant musician.

She is about what her you know extraordinary character is like I she was so kind and benevolent. She was enormously generous she to struggle with the fact that she had such a remarkable God-given talent that it was her obligation to share that with people so she would give thousands of dollars away to everything from orphanages to establishment of fire departments all over Europe and knew that Americans love that more so then she sings, so I mean that's a real again.

It was really the travels who had experienced her type of entertainment, but they were over thousand people waiting to get off the Atlantic when it sailed into New York Harbor.

It was Renzi people did with his ingenious marketing got people excited Barnum actually sailed out to the ship so he could disembark with her. The first concert was actually on September 11, 1850 and probably some listeners might've been there. She performed at Castle Garden. It's the building where you would get under normal circumstances, a boat to Ellis Island. So that's literally where the concert was it really made Barnum the first American pop Osorio they actually open Jenny Lind Hall was later renamed New York Metropolitan opera house so I'm think he even brings the operatic artistry to note all people, but it absolutely transformed entertainment in this country. Now Barnum during all of this, he remains very into politics. He was a Democrat.

At that time and he refused candidacy for the governor of Connecticut in 1852 because he was completely opposed to the expansion of slavery.

West bought it's not until the later part of that decade were Barnum does become one of the first Republicans with Horace Greeley and Lincoln lot. Barnum also at this moment in time decides that he cannot perform the way he wants to run his businesses keep things moving, keep things growing if alcohol was involved, he was horrified to see prominent New York businessman out of sorts from drinking at an event they were at and he goes, my God, if I look like that. I I cannot accomplish what I want to in my life. He signs the teetotalers pledge he comes back home to Bridgeport he literally cuts the heads off of all of his wine and champagne bottles and never again allows any kind of drinking in any of his establishment. So again, my favorite scene in the movie is that fantastic bar scene where there banging down shots. Barnum just rolling over in his grave because his American Museum. He enforced if you want to drink or if you wanted to smoke you had to leave go outside.

Do your own business and then pay full price to get back and so he he walked the walk.

What Barnum actually uses as a mission statement for the American Museum is instructive entertainment. Today we came up with the terms edutainment, whatever it might be, but the barn Museum today my Barnum Museum readopted that mission statement because it is so relevant to his time and so relevant to us as a society. Now we want to be enthralled and educated at the same time and Barnum was doing that 50 years ago the American Museum is a place for family entertainment. There were all types of wonderful exhibits and dioramas that you could walk through, including the Last Supper. There were wax figures at a wax figure department that would create these venue's that you could look at. I mean you and think about it this is a lot what what Disney is doing today when you see these anima Tronics now. There absolutely were human performers. It wasn't just the idea that you know freaks the idea of freaks actually happens much later in the century.

Barnum does not refer to the people in his American Museum as freaks their natural wonders. Their marvels of nature.

So with the language in the words that we use have to reflect the moment in time or else they fall out of context for that. The marvels of nature. There were bearded ladies Mrs. Myers and it was more than one there was the Irish giant of the Chinese giant. There were people that you don't think associating them to the country they were from made it even more exotic because not many people could travel beyond American shores. At that time, but even the Civil War spy Ms. Maj. Pauline Cushman would come.

She was captured by the southern Army and was saved right before she was going to be hanged. Union troops swooped in and saved her life so she would tell that story of the American Museum but Barnum would bring families from all over the world with China or Germany or Japan to wear their traditional clothing and their costumes their music. There sounds that's Epcot.

When you look at the world showcase you have to be from one of those countries to work in that pavilion and we love dying and experiencing different cultures.

Even today, when the world is somewhat smaller and you're listening to Kathy Mayor told the story the life story of PT Barnum will we do a little bit of what Barnum was trying to do and that is, inform and entertain at the same time, and if we can enthrall you all my goodness were even happier when we come back more of this remarkable story. What promoter worlds in the underworld. At least America's first impresario and not just to showman himself promoter in the end to get 30,000 people who come to a ship coming into port in New York. 30,000 people. That's it. That's a feet still today.

It's like the Beatles just arrived the water.

What an entrepreneur and in the end, no small talent ability get people together and rally around something in understanding the technology of the day and at the time particular communications of the good newspaper central American life.

It was the social media of its time when we come back more of Phineas Taylor Barnum's life story here on our American stores will continue with our American stories with Kathy Mayor, Executive Director of the PT Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut that was picked up were last left off at any one given time there were over 800,000 exhibits at the American Museum, staggering from relics to animals estimate and American Museum's 23 year lifespan over 38 million people visited the American Museum is time, the population of America was about 32 million at that time so one morning Dick with the American Museum. He stretched people's ideas and imaginations to the furthest limits. He could possibly do you know he pushed the boundaries of curiosity and in doing so, he discovered the curious and people loved it. It was not successful at that time. Now when the American Museum burns down because it does in 1865 the New York Herald reported that it was burned by seven sympathizers, and that said that's a strong possibility because Barnum was so vocal and such component of the union because during the Civil War. He quickly regroups and creates a second American Museum just up the road and sadly only three years of boiler failure happens and that Museum burns down to and as sad as it is no Barnum only seem to rebound back, but his friend Horace Greeley basically said you take this as a sign. My friend and coefficient. It's time take a trip West Greeley was a huge proponent of westward expansion and Barnum. Does he. He decides okay and I can open it will take a little time he leases his name to another Museum proprietor in New York City goes West and he needs a couple of Midwestern circus promoters then Costello and WC Koop, and not to live in Wisconsin and they really approaching because they want to use me. They have a circus and menagerie, and they knew it this time before you know the the idea of the circus even comes Barnum is already an established brand and his name could sell anything and Barnum thinking a lot that would revive my love of my museums and my attractions so he signs with oscilloscope and they open the greatest show on earth. Now they don't open it back in Manhattan where Barnum had been performing all the time they open in Brooklyn because Barnum had leased his name to a Museum proprietor in Manhattan and there was no compete clause, so he couldn't compete with his own name, but it opens with 10,000 seats multiple tents there was everything from the museum turned to eating saloons, dressing rooms, hippodrome's and then the big top. Now it it was enormously successful under the tents but Barnum wanted a permanent home and creating certainly a winter quarters for all the props in the costumes and animals so the hip with the run was being established right on 14th St., New York City is moving up and sadly fairly before it's even opened the hip Theron burns as well so Barnum is really seen a lot of fires and a lot of devastation is life. It's another lost but again the show was successful enough that goes back to his idea of finding a permanent home for the shows and he leases a plot of land right at the corner of Madison and 26 Street and they reopen it so it is the Roman hippodrome Barnum's Roman hippodrome later. It's named renamed Madison Square Garden so that's where Madison Square Garden comes from originally, Barnum's hippodrome. He does meet James Bailey and ident Hutchinson also incredible circus promoters that had the great London show learning finally sees to enterprising management promoters that had steel of his own. He called this the great alliance and then they combine forces. By the time the 1880s come around and they start traveling the greatest show on earth and great London circus combined to enormous success.

Beautiful carriages pulled the shows into many towns.

Now the.

The idea of the shows I getting on the rails starts happening to where they could just traverse the entire country with hundreds of carriages and hundreds of train car so it was an extraordinary enterprise that needed in the ticketless management and that's truly where Bailey and Hutchinson come in at this point in time, you know, in the 1870s Barnum was elected mayor of the city of Bridgeport. There were only one year terms. In 1870. He's reelected to the Gen. assembly and was all about temperance and civil obedience and making sure all communities had accessibility to the amenities that were coming in. Gas lines, water, everybody had clean water not just the wealthy to the first time you hear the idea jungle jungle was in subtraction in London and Barnum tried to purchase jumbo to bring jumbo to America many times and they refused and there was huge public outcry when the deal was finally established that Barnum would bring jumbo to America that elephants was 11 happy times six and half times so truly the word jumbo comes into our modern vernacular based on this extraordinary coming in Barnum's remarkable genius and promoting jumbo was really probably the the single most impactful economic venture for Barnum and his partners at that time in six weeks.

Jumbo's appearances grossed $336,000 and jumbo would travel with the shows as well. On the train and sadly Sampley on September 15, 1885, the show was up in St. Thomas, Ontario. Traveling back to the trains and jumbos hit by a train and dies. Now common to late 19th century the idea of having this incredible animal become the specimen was very typical in Barnum actually had jumbos hide stuff and had the Stilton assembled into it and then literally traveled jumbo into different directions so they were actually toppling the gate because people still had the opportunity to see jumbo now. Ultimately, Barnum donated the skeletal assembly to the Americans seem natural history New York City and that's where jumbo still is but Barnum was also a founder of Tufts University in Massachusetts in 1852 and Barnum literally donates Barnum Hall the natural science Museum to tops and if anybody is an alum or a student of Tufts University. This is why you are the jumbos. Barnum donated the jumbo hide the Tufts University and their jumbo was known as a Turley mascot until 1978 wins laid building burned down to 1978.

So all that really remains of jumbo is just ashes in a butter jar that they have in their collection so he doesn't share the name you don't see no Barnum and Bailey greatest show on earth until barely 3 years before he passes away. It's really, in 1887 where she sees Bally as his peers. He was the person that can carry this legacy forward and really, in 1887 is the first time you saved Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earth it's not until 1919 that you see Ringling brothers Barnum & Bailey and I'll tell you why.

Family passes away in 1907 and the Ringling Brothers world's greatest show decided they wanted to buy the Barnum & Bailey show and they traveled them separately for years and it wasn't until 1919 where they decide to combine the shows and for economic reasons. At the time, world war one. At the time.

Remarkably, it's the Spanish flu. They combine the shows to create the bubble but that's my 28 years after Barnum's dad is the first time you see Ringling brothers Barnum & Bailey greatest show on earth. I contend if Barnum was alive he would not of taken second billing but this show his name lives on and he finally barely decided to retire by the time he was 80 always had an office in Madison Square Garden until the end but literally on his dying bed here Bridgeport. He is intrigued. It's like I had done all of this. I've written my life, I'm good to be the one to sum it up, and he convinced newspapers to print his obituary before he died. I don't think that was never done before and I don't think it's ever been done since but the newspapers did write Barnum's own words and it's reported that Nancy fish read his obituary to him. He wanted to be a part of very final chapter of his life and he was so with that, the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport Connecticut continues to spinal legacy, the last Museum that he creates for the Bridgeport community, the state of Connecticut and we are thrilled that we have so many of the objects that Barnum himself donated and we welcome people to even go online these days and explore the Barnum Museum can be putting up a virtual tour soon and when the day comes again, please come with and we love to visit them. A special thanks to Kathy Mayor Judge of director of the PT Barnum Museum in Bridgeport. Great job as always to Greg for the work he does bring these pieces together, America's first impresario story 50 Barnum dear on our American stores

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