The Greatest Showman
By Ken Zurski
In a scene from the movie musical “The Greatest Showman,” Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum proclaims that he doesn’t need a building to put on a show, “All we need is a tent,” he says. The scene seems to suggest that Barnum came up with the idea of using a tent to house a circus-type show. Fair enough, especially for a dramatized movie script, but not entirely true.
While Barnum eventually did use tents to put on a show, the idea to stage circus acts under a temporary shelter actually dates back to 1825 by a man named J. Purdy Brown who used small canvas tents for shows. Although Brown doesn’t get much recognition, the canvas-covering stage idea, then a one-ring circus act, was a revolutionary one.
Eventually in the 1870’s, Barnum took his “Greatest Show on Earth” on the road traveling by train and setting up very large tents which became known as the “Top” or the “Big Top” as we know it today. Under the “Big Top,” there was room enough for three rings. “A crammed company,” as Barnum called it.
So for spectacle and invention at least, like the “three-ring circus,” Barnum gets his due.
Enter St. John Terrell.
Certainly not a household name, St. John (pronounced Sinjin) Terrell was a visionary and showman whose story may not be as fanciful – or as successful – as Barnum’s, but just as entertaining, especially to his audience. Only in Terrell’s case, it wasn’t acrobats, fire eaters and elephants that wowed the crowd, but something much more refined.
Terrell was born in Chicago, Illinois in December 1916. He worked in the circus before transitioning into theater. In 1939, he opened the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania along the banks of the Delaware River. Terrell attracted up and coming Broadway talent who apparently weren’t bothered by the 90-mile distance between the Playhouse and New York City.
But Terrell had something else in mind for his musical theater and like Barnum, all he needed was a tent. The plan was to pitch a tent large enough to fit a stage surrounded by seats. There Terrell could put on shows, mostly operettas, to appreciative audiences.
Inspired by Barnum’s “Big Top”, he would call it “The Music Circus.”
In August 1949, The Music Circus opened in Lambertville, New Jersey, and that’s where it stood for many years. The 75-foot by 105-foot tent was “square-oblong” in shape and sat 800 people. The staging was different too. “Terrell is offering theater in the round,” reported the New York Daily News. “instead of the traditional drama on the half-shell.”
One of the first productions was Noel Coward’s “Bittersweet.” “Once you are used to the absence of scenery and adjusted to being part of the show, it’s a lot of fun,” the Daily News added. “During the love scenes between Wilbur Evans and Dorothy Sandlin, well, they’re quite close.”
Every Christmas, Terrell would play General George Washington in a staging of the famous crossing of the Delaware River at the actual site near Trenton, a tradition he carried on for 25 years. The idea was originally planned as a publicity stunt for the Music Circus in 1952. “He jokingly mentioned during a speech that George Washington was going to cross the Delaware and word made it to the editor of the local newspaper,” a Trenton historian noted about Terrell’s first mock crossing. He had no choice but to follow through.
Today in nearby West Amwell Township, New Jersey, a historical sign stands near the original location of the Music Circus. It reads in part: “From 1949 to 1971 many famous film and stage starts got their start in one of the country’s first tent theaters.”
Over the years, the term “music circus” faded. However, variations of the tent idea are still being used by summer stock theater groups throughout the world.
Not just Barnum.
Thank St. John Terrell for that.
(Some images courtesy of the Spruance Library of the Bucks County Historical Society)
By Ken Zurski
In 1848 a mansion went up in the scenic countryside of Connecticut that looked oddly out of place for its location. Not only was it very large, occupying 17 acres of land, but the building itself with its exotic Indian influenced architecture looked like something you might spot in far off Mumbai or New Dehli, not Fairfield, near Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city.
All this was the creation of one man who commissioned the building of the mansion as a “permanent residence” for his family. His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum.
Barnum called his new home the Iranistan.
Barnum’s inspiration for Iranistan was the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England, a place he visited while doing a tour of Europe with his star attraction at the time, the 25-inch tall man known as Tom Thumb. Unlike others, Barnum was greatly pleased by what he saw. “It was the only specimen of oriental architecture in England, and had not been introduced into America,” he wrote.
Barnum hired a New York architect named Leopold Eidlitz to design it with the stipulation that he hold nothing back in terms of style and decorative elements. “The whole was finally completed to my satisfaction,” Barnum expressed, and on November 14, 1848, he held a house warming party for “a thousand guests.”
The invitees found a casual but garish palace to explore. Outside there was a circular carriage way , a fountain, urns and a decorative facade that was filled with symmetrically placed arched openings and numerous decks and porches. Topping the building were onion-shaped domes and minarets.
Inside, there was a circular divan under the dome, a large library adorned in Asian landscapes on its walls and elaborate stained glass windows that filled the rooms with colorful light. The grand ballroom sported a shiny wood floor with an inscription, “Love God and be Merry,” words Barnum used often.
“Elegant and appropriate furniture was made expressly for every room in the house,” Barnum would later write. “The stables, conservatories and out-buildings were perfect in their kind. There was a profusion of trees set out on the grounds. The whole was built and established literally ‘regardless of expense,’ for I had no desire even to ascertain the entire cost.”
In addition to the design, Barnum filled his home with animals of all kinds, as he did at his popular American Museum in New York City. Roaming the grounds of Iranistan were mandarin ducks, silver peasants, a cow named Bessie, and a pig named Prince Albert.
The biggest attraction was Iranistan’s largest resident, an unnamed bull elephant. This, of course, was all by design. Barnum felt the addition of the animals, especially the elephant was good promotion for the museum. “When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant,” Barnum would later explain. It all started at his home.
But it wouldn’t last.
Late on December 17, 1857, only nine years after it was built, the Iranistan was gone. Barnum, who was refurnishing the mansion at the time got the news the next morning by telegram while staying at the Astor House in New York. The building caught fire, he was told. It was a total loss.
The papers were consoling, but skeptical. Barnum’s good fortunes had recently taken a turn for the worse. It all started when Barnum sought to create a “perfect”town in Connecticut that he would call East Bridgeport. He convinced a large business, the Jerome Clock Company, to move their factory there in the hopes of bringing more people and jobs. The clock company agreed to relocate but first needed help to pay down a debt of $100,000 . Barnum loaned them the money, but was tricked into signing more cash notes. Soon he was responsible for a half million dollars in debt. Barnum was forced to go into bankruptcy and lost a fortune.
Many of his friends supported his plight with sympathy, loans and gifts, but others reveled in his misfortune. To his detractors, Barnum’s latest predicament – more like a humiliation – was subject to ridicule. “Here is a terrible illustration of where the practice of humbug will lead,” proclaimed the New York Herald.
The Chicago Tribune’s headline was even more biting.: “The deceiver is duped,” it read.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Barnum lost his beloved Iranistan.
Initially, no cause of the fire was given. “It is supposed to have been set on fire,” was one newspaper dispatch, not mincing words, but refusing to elaborate. Later, it was suspected a construction worker dropped a lighted pipe. Barnum had recently moved some of the more expense furniture out of the Iransitan during the renovation and claimed he would soon return. His insurance money was far less then the initial cost of $150,000. “My beautiful Iranistan is gone,” Barnum would write in his autobiography.
Barnum recovered financially after going on another successful tour of Europe with Tom Thumb. Upon his return he set out to build another home, again in Fairfield, called Lindencroft, that in its design was spacious, but far less extravagant than the Iranistan. “All the taste that money can could do was fairly lavished upon Lindencroft so that when all was finished it was not only a complete house in all respects, but a perfect home.” Barnum wrote his memoirs.
The biggest disappointment, however, was for the riders on a train line that would pass by the Iranistan grounds everyday. Not only was the impressive building gone, but they missed seeing the elephant, roaming the yard, helping plow the fields, and giving them all a thrill by raising its trunk and bobbing its head in a friendly gesture.
(Sources” The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming; P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man by A.H. Saxon; various internet sites)