For The Greatest Showman – The Wizard of Oz – and My Dad

Yesterday, I treated myself by going to see the movie The Greatest Showman. Before yesterday, I had not wanted to see what a Broadway-like musical would do to one of my all-time heroes P. T. Barnum, but now, I can assure any other doubters that this movie did the magic of P. T. Barnum right, and I believe that I can speak with authority on the magic of the circus–I grew up with it.

Years ago, I began writing about how my dad was like P. T. Barnum, and he was almost a carbon copy of Professor Marvel, the guy who told tales and sold snake oil from the back of the gypsy wagon on the Wizard of Oz.

My dad would have been perfectly happy to ride from place to place, pulling his carriage of tricks behind him, and even without his gypsy set-up, he was never far from the stage. My dad could tell a tale to a fence post, and the post would jump up and down. My dad always had a story to share, and I inherited that from him. My dad was also a dreamer, and I inherited the capacity to dream from him.

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A Million Dreams from The Greatest Showman Lyrics

[Verse 1: Young P.T.]
I close my eyes and I can see
The world that’s waiting up for me
That I call my own
Through the dark, through the door
Through where no one’s been before
But it feels like home . . .

[Chorus: Young P.T.]
‘Cause every night I lie in bed
The brightest colors fill my head
A million dreams are keeping me awake
I think of what the world could be
A vision of the one I see
A million dreams is all it’s gonna take
A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make

Having grown up in a small, rural town and having grown older in a much larger area, that is virtually a suburb of New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D. C., I feel qualified to make some observations about how vastly different life is for children now than it was for children in the 1950’s–much less during the Depression era–when my dad was a boy–and much, much less, for kids who grew up in the rural South.

The magnitude of the circus, during its heyday, is difficult for kids today to grasp. I work with children every day, and I have often commented that children today are no longer enthralled by the circus. Kids today have Disneyland and a virtual media circus at the touch of any of several buttons every minute of their lives, but when my dad was a child–even when I was a child–the circus brought magic to town.

John Shepler wrote an excellent article that spells out circus magic:

“Imagine yourself taken back in time. It’s the late 1800’s and you’re just ten years old and living in one of the small towns in the midwestern USA. The most exciting thing in your life comes once a year. No, it’s not Christmas, wonderful and magical as that morning is. This is something that gets your heart pounding with anticipation as you race down to the main street where all the commotion is going on. There is music, the sweet whistles of the steam calliope singing to a rhythm that makes your heart beat even faster. Down the street come huge wagons, painted in bright colors. There are strange animals. A gigantic trumpeting elephant, a growling lion, beautiful parading horses. Yes, this is the one day of the year as exciting as no other. It is the day the circus comes to town. …

“The American frontier and the circus were made for each other. This was a time before radio, television or even the movies. The major cities supported theater and opera, but professional entertainment was a rare treat for the people who lived on farms and in the small towns that dotted a country that was still being settled. It was a situation that was ripe for the golden age of the circus. Enter Barnum and Bailey and the Ringling Brothers, and the stage, as they say, is set.”

My dad was born in 1921, and while in many areas, 1921 was NOT the 1800’s, I’d have to say that in our tiny farm town, 1921 probably WAS still very much a half a century behind.

Even during the 1950’s, when I was a girl, the circus was still coming to my hometown in the Bootheel of Southeast Missouri. My grandfather was the manager of the IGA in Gideon. He brought Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner to town, and he was also integral to bringing the circus to Gideon.  When I was a very young child, my grandfather lifted me to the top of an elephant’s back, and I experienced the thrill of leading a circus parade through my community. Today, I am 68-years-old, and I have never left that circus parade.  circus_elephant_me_jacki_kellum_memoir


One of my dad’s favorite movies was Toby Tyler, which is about a kid who ran off to join the circus. My dad didn’t have to run off to join the circus. When he was a boy, he WAS the circus.

1920s_circus_dogs_2 CircusDog_1883

When my dad was a child, he had a favorite dog that he named Pete. During the Depression, many people could not afford to feed their dogs, but my grandfather had a good job, and my grandmother was able to care for a herd of the neighborhood’s dogs. My dad was a natural showman, and he trained all of those neighborhood dogs to do circus tricks.


My grandmother sewed costumes for each dog and a costume for my dad. On Saturdays, my dad would present the Greatest Show on the Block. In many ways, my dad was a P. T. Barnum, and I inherited that Barnum-like wonder from him.

All of my life, I have felt different from everyone else, and much of the theme of the movie The Greatest Showman was about that feeling of being different. When I saw the song This Is Me performed on the 2018 Oscars, I determined that I would see the movie The Greatest Showman before it left the big screen.

Night Lily – Jacki Kellum Watercolor

The song This Is Me begins follows:

I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one’ll love you as you are

The Greatest Showman is also about the emotional holes that develop when people feel that they are not enough. The movie is about a showman’s desperate attempt to do whatever was required to feel okay about himself, and it was also about his struggle with learning to accept when he had done and had acquired enough.



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