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October 17, 2005

-- Travel --

Brinley's circus a gem

By Teague Neal

Have the sudden urge to visit a full-fledged circus but feel that you have seen it all?

Walk into late circus tycoon P.T Barnum’s final masterpiece: a museum in downtown Bridgeport, Connecticut and prepare to feel the allure and excitement of the circus.

The Barnum Museum houses two miniature circuses carved by the skilled hands of Bill Brinley over many years.

Brinley’s masterpiece emulates a five-ring historic circus complete with tiny rhinos, acrobats, sideshows and much more. The immense model even includes an area showing where vast amounts of fresh bread were baked to keep the elephants healthy.

Looking at it carefully teaches tidbits about the circus that otherwise never come to most visitors’ attention.

Brinley’s creation has proven to be popular and is a must-see at the museum.

One of the two miniature circuses will remain at the museum until at least the end of 2005 and perhaps longer. The other is on display permanently.

But the Barnum Museum holds much more than a couple of circus models.

In addition to the early circus history on display, there’s also much to learn about the famed showman P.T. Barnum, who turns out to have been a multi-faceted fellow who served as politician, developer, promoter and more.

The solid old museum, constructed in 1896, has three floors of material to see. Go along with a tour guide for wide-ranging background stories and information or just meander through on your own.

It generally follows the course of Barnum’s life and also shows off a great deal about the history of Bridgeport.

One exhibit is a model of Barnum’s original workplace, a general store that employed him in 1828 in Bethel, Conn.

After that, there are posters, newspaper advertisements, pictures and objects that show how Barnum rose to fame with his American Museum just off Broadway in New York, where the “very first live rhino” brought to the United States once drew crowds, according to Deb Rose, director education and guest services.

One nifty sight is the mermaid that Barnum made from a monkey head and sections of a fish, one of several practical joke pieces that he conned patrons with generations ago.

Also there for the viewing are Tom Thumb’s tiny shoes, carriage and other trinkets.

Other highlights include seeing replicas of the parlor and gentlemen’s lounge from different mansions that Barnum owned in Bridgeport. These have beautiful Asian murals, pottery, antiques, stained glass, sculpture and models of wooden globes that give a glimpse into what life was like back then if you had plenty of money.

A 2,500-year-old Egyptian mummy named Pha Ib, pretty well preserved, greets you on the third floor.

Beyond is a large section about the industrial revolution of Bridgeport.

What is unique to this museum is that it shows the impact that Barnum’s circus and industry in Bridgeport had on the world.

For instance, Barnum’s 12,000-pound African elephant that Barnum bought from a London zoo was named Jumbo – which became a household word for something quite large.

In the display on Bridgeport’s history, the origins of the popular Frisbee become clear.

The museum has a couple original pie plates from Frisbie Pies, the now defunct pie bakery from New Haven, Conn.

The story goes that the company would give a couple cents back to customers if they brought back the metal plate after finishing their pie, Rose said.

Students at Yale University didn’t much care about the refunds so they kept the pie tins and began throwing them around on the New Haven Green, Rose said, yelling “Frisbie!” to warn anyone in the way of the flying plate.

Frisbies became Frisbees when a game company couldn’t convince the bakery to let it use the original name, Rose said.

At the end of a tour, visitors will come away with a new knowledge and excitement for the contributions to the globe that both Barnum and Bridgeport made. 


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