Cultural Events

Museum Director Floats Dumbo's PT Barnum Connections

Published: April 13, 2019 at 07:00 am


BRIDGEPORT — Barnum Museum Director Kathleen Maher and her team eagerly awaited the March 29 release of Disney’s motion picture Dumbo, excited that another Hollywood blockbuster has a PT Barnum connection.

In keeping with her goal to educate the public, Ms Maher took to her blog to discuss Barnum-centric aspects of the film and the story from which it was developed — much like she did following the release of the 2017 motion picture The Greatest Showman.

“We thought we’d take this opportunity to share some interesting bits about Barnum’s legendary elephant Jumbo and illuminate the ties to the story of Disney’s acclaimed, animated film Dumbo,” she stated.

According to Ms Maher, the 2019 film, directed by Tim Burton, loosely follows the storyline of the beloved 1941 Walt Disney film Dumbo. The film takes viewers on a heart-warming journey of the adorable large-eared elephant’s discovery of flight.

Like many Disney-animated classics, the original Dumbo film was not an original Disney concept, she states.

Based on the children’s story Dumbo the Flying Elephant by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, the book was intended to be published as a Roll-a-Book. The Roll-a-Book design was a newly patented device where the illustrations could manually scroll from left to right, giving the effect of an ongoing visual narrative.

Advertised as “a fast-moving adventure story packed with mystery and surprises,” it is believed that Dumbo was only produced in a test copy, as no known editions survive. A prototype version was seen by a Disney story manager, however, who brought it to the attention of Walt Disney, Ms Maher related.

The story captivated the hearts and imaginations of animators and Disney himself, and an agreement was reached with Roll-a-Book publishers, who sold the rights to the Dumbo story and illustrations to Walt Disney Productions in 1939.

So where does Barnum fit into the story?

In 1882, PT Barnum made an offer to the London Zoo to buy their acclaimed African elephant, Jumbo. Known as the “Children’s Giant Pet,” Jumbo stood over 11 feet tall and weighed 6.5 tons.

The sale provoked an outcry from the English public, who protested Jumbo’s departure. But the Zoo’s decision was final.

Arriving in the United States in time for his debut on Easter Sunday in 1882, Jumbo joined Barnum’s Greatest Show On Earth. To this day, Jumbo is heralded as the first international animal superstar.

Born in 1907 in Syracuse, N.Y., Dumbo the Flying Elephant author Helen Aberson likely grew up with stories about Barnum’s legendary Jumbo.

Although Aberson’s story is not a factual account of Jumbo’s history, in her book she writes: “That night, the circus train carried two very sad elephants. One was Mother Ella. The other, little Jumbo. They had put him in the donkey car. And on his water pail, they had crossed out the ‘J’ in Jumbo and painted a big ‘D.’ And from that moment on, little Jumbo was known as Dumbo.”

Ms Maher notes that while little Dumbo is never referred to as Jumbo in the 1941 film, Dumbo’s mother is indeed Mrs Jumbo.

In Disney fashion, Aberson’s tale of a sad little elephant was transformed into an uplifting story. Walt Disney said, “Right from the beginning, Dumbo was a happy picture… Since we weren’t restricted by a set story, we gave our imaginations free play. When a good idea occurred to us, we just put it in the picture. And we all had a wonderful time.”

Walt Disney’s Dumbo went on to be a Disney classic, netting almost $2.5 million between its 1941 October premiere and New Year’s Day. Dumbo was also the very first animated feature that Disney released on video tape in 1982.

“With the upcoming movie remake, it’s certain that the enchanting story will continue for future generations to enjoy,” Ms Maher writes. “So, once again, a small bit of Barnum’s impact lives on in modern culture. Molded, refined, and shaped for our modern tastes and sensibilities, it’s a wonder how our spirit and imagination can still be lifted by the glory and majesty of a wondrous elephant… no matter how big or how small.”

Learn more about PT Barnum and the Barnum Museum at

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