> Myth 1: Jumbo died saving a baby elephant from being run over by a train. On Sept. 15, 1885, the circus was preparing to leave St. Thomas, Ontario, and the elephants were headed down a hill to board their car when an unscheduled freight train roared through. As Barnum told the story (with more embellishment each telling), Jumbo grabbed Tom Thumb the baby elephant with his trunk and hurled him 20 yards out of danger before taking the brunt of the collision. In reality, Jumbo had misjudged where the opening to his train was and turned too late to reach it. Even in death the elephant proved a massive attraction since Barnum saved his hide (which weighed more than 1,500 pounds) and toured with a taxidermied Jumbo and his skeleton. Today only a peanut butter jar of Jumbo's ashes remains, along with a piece of his tail. >> Myth 2: The circus train carrying Barnum & Bailey's show was involved in a catastrophic collision that killed animals and performers. Not true. But in 1918, the Wallace-Hagenback circus train was rear-ended by an empty troop train in tiny Hammond, Ind. Scores were killed and injured, but the circus only missed two performances after Ringling Bros. and the Barnum & Bailey troupes contributed equipment and support. THE RINGLINGS JOIN THE FUN: The five Ringling brothers had operated a circus in the Midwest, but purchased the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in 1907. NO MORE BIG TOPS: On July 16, 1956, the financially ailing circus gave its last performance under the big top in Pittsburgh. Soon after that, rock 'n' roll saved the circus. Music promoters Irvin Feld and his brother, Israel, began booking it in arenas that they knew from their music acts. It wasn't until 1967, though, that the Felds purchased the circus. Today there are three U.S. tours of the circus: Red (Zing Zang Zoom), Gold (Illuscination) and Blue (Barnum's FUNundrum). A separate troupe tours Europe. THE FLORIDA CONNECTION: Each season the circus begins its tour in Tampa Bay. Why? Because the tour winters in Tampa, and has since 1992. It was in Venice before that, and in Sarasota before that, starting in 1927. John and Charles Ringling had purchased several thousand acres as an investment in the Sarasota and saw it as a good place to set up camp in the winter. After the circus left, the land became the subdivision of Glen Oaks Estates in 1963. The lore of the circus lives on at the Ringling Museum complex. The Museum of the Circus opened in 1948. In March, the museum will stage a retrospective of Barnum's life. Sources: ringling.com, tufts.edu, lostmuseum.cuny.edu,, ptbarnum.org, hammondindiana.com and the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn. Images of P.T. Barnum, Jumbo and Barnum's American Museum: courtesy of the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. This story has been edited to reflect the following correction: The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus winters at the Tampa Fairgrounds. Last week’s story about the history of the circus incorrectly said the troupe was still in Venice.">
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Fun and fascinating facts about the beginnings of the Greatest Show on Earth

This year's edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus uses the occasion of the 200th anniversary of P.T. Barnum's birth in 1810 to create a show that's set aboard a circus train. Called Barnum's FUNundrum, it will showcase some of the classic circus acts that audiences have long associated with the Greatest Show on Earth. But what you likely won't see is the tour giving you some of the fascinating facts behind America's most famous showman. So, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up to witness the amazing, spectacular and Jumbotastic world of PHINEAS TAYLOR BARNUM!! -- Compiled by Anne Glover, Times staff writer

BARNUM'S FIRST HUMBUG: In mid 19th century America, a humbug was a hoax or jest, and Barnum excelled at them. He got his start in show biz in 1835 by purchasing a blind and almost completely paralyzed slave woman, Joice Heth, for $1,000. He claimed she was 160 years old and had been the nurse of George Washington. In reality, she was 80.

THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS: In 1841, Barnum purchased an old museum in New York City and renamed it Barnum's American Museum. He had a knack for wringing money from visitors he lured into the five-story structure with freakish displays. "This way to the egress" signs actually fooled people into exiting the museum only to have to pay to get back inside. It became one of the most visited places in America, even through the Civil War. But on July 13, 1865, the entire complex went up in flames.

THE BIG TOP POPS UP: When he was 60, Barnum decided to take his act on the road, and P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus made its debut, grossing $400,000 its first year. He switched to rail travel in 1872 and packed in up to 10,000 for each show. After an on-and-off relationship with James A. Bailey, the "Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth" toured America in 1888. Barnum died in his sleep on April 7, 1891 — but not before reading his obit in the New York Sun. "Great and Only Barnum — He Wanted to Read His Obituary — Here It Is," the paper read, fulfilling one of Barnum's wishes.

THE REAL DEAL: Barnum was involved in promoting several acts that were, indeed, legitimate. Jumbo the elephant was probably the most famous. Barnum purchased the "Towering Monarch of His Mighty Race, Whose Like the World Will Never See Again" from the London Zoo for $10,000 in 1882. Jumbo's arrival in New York City (at a cost of $20,000 shipping) was met by a frenzy of press, promising Jumbo exclusives and Jumbo-sized entertainment (forever giving us a way to describe those massive TV screens in sports stadiums). Jumbo earned $1.5 million his first year and toured with the circus for four years before his tragic death at 24 (more on that below).

LET'S CLEAR THIS UP: Two incidents commonly associated with the Barnum & Bailey Circus deserve clarification. Both involved trains.

>> Myth 1: Jumbo died saving a baby elephant from being run over by a train. On Sept. 15, 1885, the circus was preparing to leave St. Thomas, Ontario, and the elephants were headed down a hill to board their car when an unscheduled freight train roared through. As Barnum told the story (with more embellishment each telling), Jumbo grabbed Tom Thumb the baby elephant with his trunk and hurled him 20 yards out of danger before taking the brunt of the collision. In reality, Jumbo had misjudged where the opening to his train was and turned too late to reach it. Even in death the elephant proved a massive attraction since Barnum saved his hide (which weighed more than 1,500 pounds) and toured with a taxidermied Jumbo and his skeleton. Today only a peanut butter jar of Jumbo's ashes remains, along with a piece of his tail.

>> Myth 2: The circus train carrying Barnum & Bailey's show was involved in a catastrophic collision that killed animals and performers. Not true. But in 1918, the Wallace-Hagenback circus train was rear-ended by an empty troop train in tiny Hammond, Ind. Scores were killed and injured, but the circus only missed two performances after Ringling Bros. and the Barnum & Bailey troupes contributed equipment and support.

THE RINGLINGS JOIN THE FUN: The five Ringling brothers had operated a circus in the Midwest, but purchased the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth in 1907.

NO MORE BIG TOPS: On July 16, 1956, the financially ailing circus gave its last performance under the big top in Pittsburgh. Soon after that, rock 'n' roll saved the circus. Music promoters Irvin Feld and his brother, Israel, began booking it in arenas that they knew from their music acts. It wasn't until 1967, though, that the Felds purchased the circus. Today there are three U.S. tours of the circus: Red (Zing Zang Zoom), Gold (Illuscination) and Blue (Barnum's FUNundrum). A separate troupe tours Europe.

THE FLORIDA CONNECTION: Each season the circus begins its tour in Tampa Bay. Why? Because the tour winters in Tampa, and has since 1992. It was in Venice before that, and in Sarasota before that, starting in 1927. John and Charles Ringling had purchased several thousand acres as an investment in the Sarasota and saw it as a good place to set up camp in the winter. After the circus left, the land became the subdivision of Glen Oaks Estates in 1963. The lore of the circus lives on at the Ringling Museum complex. The Museum of the Circus opened in 1948. In March, the museum will stage a retrospective of Barnum's life.

Sources: ringling.com, tufts.edu, lostmuseum.cuny.edu,, ptbarnum.org, hammondindiana.com and the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn. Images of P.T. Barnum, Jumbo and Barnum's American Museum: courtesy of the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. This story has been edited to reflect the following correction: The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus winters at the Tampa Fairgrounds. Last week’s story about the history of the circus incorrectly said the troupe was still in Venice.

Fun and fascinating facts about the beginnings of the Greatest Show on Earth 01/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 16, 2011 11:40am]

    

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