Last night I watched a movie about Phineas Taylor Barnum. The name I remember him by was P.T. Barnum. I may be old, but I am not old enough to have seen P.T. Barnum since he died in 1891. However, I do remember one of his legacies.
I remember as a small boy, maybe in 1950-1952, seeing the Ringling Brothers/Barnum and Baileys Circus. I remember the huge tent with three rings. I remember that there was so much action going on that you almost couldn’t keep up with it. The elephants, lions, tigers, trapeze artists and for a kid the most important was the clowns. I remember seeing Emmett Kelly who was maybe the most famous clown doing his act of sweeping the spotlight until it disappeared. I remember sitting in the stands with my dad eating a ten-cent bag of popcorn and thinking that this was really “The Greatest Show On Earth”.
So with my memories in hand, I watched the two-part movie about P.T. Barnum on the Hallmark Channel last night. I did a search on the Internet this morning and see that the movie was panned by many that watched it, but for me it was really worth watching. Barnum was the consummate promoter. He knew how to separate people from their money. He is remembered by many for his freak show tactics. He promoted Chang and Eng who were conjoined twins from Siam. He promoted the ultra-diminutive General Tom Thumb (real name: Charles Sherwood Stratton). He exhibited the “The Feejee Mermaid” which was really a monkey that had been sown to the tail of a fish. He is often quoted as saying “There’s a sucker born every minute”. He created Madison Square Garden form his famous Hippodrome.
You may be wondering about the title of this post. This is a good example of how he could read and motivate people. According to the movie, Barnum was extremely successful at drawing people into his freak show halls and arenas. However, once they were in, they didn’t want to leave, and that kept the next group of paying customers outside. To solve this problem he painted a large sign over the exit door saying “This Way To The Egress”. His customers passed through the door expecting to find some new exhibit only to realize they had been given an English lesson. You have been given a Spanish lessen – salida is exit.
P. T. Barnum is a complex person to look at. He was part con artist, part entrepreneur, part visionary and he made the world love him. He is a person that one can find much to admire and much to deplore, but certainly a person one cannot forget. I really never knew anything about his life until last night. But I do know that he was the force behind some of my best childhood memories. There is nothing better than seeing “The Greatest Show On Earth” with your dad.