Mr. Brinley (1917-2016) : Thoughts from the Museum

In 1926, a nine year old boy and his father went to see the Christy Bros. Circus that rolled into their hometown of Wallingford, Connecticut. Mesmerized by the magic and excitement of the show, little Bill Brinley pronounced to his father that one day he would ‘have a circus of his own.’ How true these words were. With chunks of wood, cheese-boxes and a jackknife in hand, young Bill immediately began crafting a three-quarter inch scale model of his own tiny circus, creating miniature wagons, tents, horses, elephants, and even acrobats. Within weeks, a small boy’s imagination was transformed into a world of circus spectaculars that he could explore in his own backyard.


As young Bill Brinley grew, so, too, did his passion for his miniature circus creation. Just shy of ‘running away with the circus’, Bill would volunteer when the circus shows came into town, offering to help with whatever tasks would get him into the site for free. Sneaking beneath the canvas tents, equipped with his Brownie camera, tape measure, pad and pencil, Bill measured, sketched, and photographed everything. Performers, spectators, bleachers, animals, props, equipment, tents, and wagons were recorded and preserved in the smallest detail to accurately recreate his minuscule circus replicas. The tools of his creation were simple. Bedsheets from his mother’s linen closet were crafted into numerous tents and costumes, and cigar boxes and orange crates served various construction needs. He often spent his fifteen-cent allowance to purchase paint for his elaborate creation. Although the miniature model grew, his parents continued to encourage Bill to develop his unique talent, and soon the family home was cluttered with animal carvings and sprawling tents covering every surface in the Meriden house. With the addition of train cars and railroad tracks circling he layout, Bill’s backyard miniature circus soon filled an area of 17’ X 50’ and was the talk of the neighborhood.

In 1938, young Bill Brindley was invited to appear on Dave Eleman’s Hobby Lobby program and got his first big break in show business, and he was asked to show his circus at the Pier in Atlantic City. After that, Bill and his miniature model toured with the Cetlin-Wilson Show appearing at fairs throughout the South. When World War II broke out, Bill was drafted and served three and a half years with the Army Air Corps, some of that time in Alaska. Never losing enthusiasm for his craft, the young soldier took along his jackknife and jigsaw and continued whittling additions for his circus sending all the tiny creations home to his young bride, Madeline, for safe keeping until his return.


Upon returning home from the war, Bill added a new and innovative element to his miniature presentation: automation! Fitting trapeze artists, horseback riders, and even pancake-flippers with mechanical gears, his miniature circus was now in motion. Horses circled the rings, while acrobats twirled high over the heads of the many cared spectators. Later, tiny white lights were added to illuminate and dramatize the big top, banners and midway.

In 1950, Bill signed a contract with Hopalong Cassidy to exhibit the miniature circus in various cities as advance publicity for the Cole Brothers Circus. By this time the presentation had grown to include fifteen tents, forty-six wagons, one-hundred and fifty-three animals, eighty bareback riders, clowns, lion tamers, acrobats, roustabouts, and ten-thousand individually folding seats. Throughout the 1950s, Brinley’s miniature circus was traveling to almost every major city across the United States. Thousands upon thousands of adults and children were entertained by the grand presentation, and charitable engagements at children’s hospitals, orphanages, and service clubs were an important component of the traveling schedule.

Brinley went on to appear on radio and television programs with celebrities including John Cameron Swayze and Ed Sullivan. He appeared in Las Vegas with Marlene Dietrich and in Hartford, CT. with the Lone Ranger. Later he took his show to the spectacular New York’s World’s Fair (1964-1965) where he laid out his acclaimed miniature circus for more than 51 million spectators to enjoy. *


In 1967, Bill was approached by the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CT. to be considered as the permanent home of his magnificent model. “I had been looking for a good permanent home for it and that as the ideal place…The museum is the only original building left in the city that was given by Barnum himself.” From June of 1968 until 2010 (when the miniature circus was dismantled for conservation after the EF1 tornado struck the Barnum Museum) the Brinley’s Miniature Circus was on display on the third floor of the Museum. It is estimated that over a million visitors have enjoyed and marveled at his creation.

As Mr. Brinley’s miniature circus is restored to its original splendor, we eagerly await the day when guests can once again peer through the glass to witness moments in time of a glorious bygone era, and experience for themselves the wonder, imagination and creation of a dreamful child, and awe at the artistry of a life-long passion and the captivating man who dedicated his heart and soul to making people happy. How remarkable that a small boy’s dream could ultimately become of the greatest wonders in the State of Connecticut; a destination for all those seeking the thrill and fascination of a wondrous time, and giving all those who visit and opportunity to reflect, smile and share memories.


In 1963, Mr. Brinley is quoted:

“My wife, Madeline, has had more patience and understanding than any man could ask for…I deeply and sincerely thank my wife; my son Bill, Jr.; my mother and father, the rest of the family, and countless others, too numerous to mention, for their help in making it easy as the circus traveled along the trail.

I hope my God given talents will give enjoyment to children of all ages as they come to see the Circus.”

Thank you Mr. Brinley, they have.

You will be missed.


This past weekend I found an amazing book at the Westport Library Book Sale that I would have given to P.T. Barnum as a gift if he did not already have it in his library. With it’s beautiful decorative cover and handsome print illustrations, this book seems to be part of an annual series called Temperance Offerings, with various stories promoting the cause,  published in 1853.

True to his convictions, Mr. Barnum traveled the United States as one of the nations leading Temperance advocates.  Invited as a guest speaker to champion the Temperance moment while in New Orleans during the Jenny Lind tour in 1850, Mr. Barnum passionately regaled the crowd of men and women on the detriment of alcohol, and the perils that would befall a family torn apart by ‘liquors’. During the lecture a heckler yelled out to ‘the great Barnum’, “will alcohol affect you internally or externally?”  Without a pause Barnum’s immediate response was “ETERNALLY“.  There was thunderous applause!  …and hundreds that night signed the Teetotaler Pledge.

We know that Mr. Barnum had a magnificent library collection which represented the many causes he supported including temperance. Unfortunately, we can only guess what treasures those libraries may have held for only a few books from his personal collection rest in the archives at The Barnum Museum. Should you stumble upon a beautiful historic book at your local library sale, treasure it and know many great men and women before you were inspired by its words.

A Book for Barnum’s Library


This week I learned that one of my personal muses, Disney legend Jack Lindquist, passed away earlier this year.  You all know him, even if you don’t think you do – the first president of Disneyland, Jack created the iconic question: “…you just won the Super Bowl, what are you going to do next?”

I had the joy of meeting Jack Lindquist a few years ago at a conference of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA).  Because P.T. Barnum is a member of the exclusive IAAPA Hall of Fame among notables like Walt Disney, Marty Sklar, Bob Rogers, and Jack Lindquist himself, I have the distinct honor of meeting many remarkable, creative innovators.  At this particular meeting, I had an hour to sit alone with Jack before his panel discussion began.  Jack regaled me with wonderful and hysterical stories of his years with Disney.  The successes, the challenges, and even the “goof-ups” – he held nothing back in the opportunity to amuse a companion.  His humor was natural and effortless, and he was completely generous with it. I listened intently.  It was a priceless hour.


When I head to Disney this month for a family vacation, Jack’s memory will fill me with delight. I do believe that was Jack’s life purpose: to create joy and have that joy endure at the “happiest place on earth.” In 1886, P.T. Barnum wrote that “the noblest art is that of making others happy.”  On behalf of the Barnum Museum and Barnum’s legacy of making others happy, we salute a true legend who continues to give joy to the world.  You will be missed.

The Passing of a Legend and a Muse

P.T. Barnum and The Irish



P.T. Barnum; the name alone conjures ideas and imagination, preconceived notions of a man and philosophy.  Known to most of the world as the ‘Great American Showman‘, P.T. Barnum was so much more.  An entrepreneur, Bridgeport Mayor, Connecticut legislator, urban developer, community benefactor, philanthropist, emancipationist, lecturer, and author, Barnum was committed to the intellectual and cultural development of society and embraced the dream of a truly democratic nation.  In doing so, he inspired a new American society to reach beyond the limits of ordinary expectations, to see the world as a place of opportunity and wonder.

Barnum has an extraordinary history of supporting the Irish – from employing Irish men and women in his American Museum in New York City during the 1840s, to actively supporting Irish Home Rule.  Barnum championed Irish workers, and in his speech before the Connecticut State Legislature he declared, “I rejoice to see them rushing to this land of liberty and independence; and it is because I am their friend that I denounce the demagogues who attempt to blind and mislead them to vote in the interests of any party against the interests of humanity, and the principles of true democracy”. Mr. Barnum was a vocal and important voice in the fight for human equality.


Barnum made donations to numerous charities during the Irish Famine and actively supported Father Mathew Theobald, a lecturer on temperance in Ireland.  Barnum’s support of Father Mathew during his fundraising tour in New York was so notable that Barnum was presented with a gold engraved medal for his efforts in the temperance movement. Pictured above, this beautiful piece is now in the collection of Bridgeport’s Barnum Museum.

Unbeknownst to many, the infamous story of ‘this way to the Egress’ is actually a story of the Showman and the Irish. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1842, Mr. Barnum arrived at the museum only to find the building at capacity. He had been forewarned that the Irish, in celebration of the day, were planning to picnic in his American Museum. Walking through the museum Barnum did indeed find that families were sitting in the exhibit halls with lunches in hand.  Knowing that he couldn’t sell tickets if the museum remained full, Mr. Barnum pulled aside the nearest sign painter and had him paint a canvas reading “This way to the Egress” which he then nailed over the door to the back exit.  Believing it to be the newest exhibit in the museum, people followed one another out the door only to find themselves outside!  All in good fun, it was a St. Patrick’s Day that lives on in our hearts and minds today!

It is with much honor and joy that I, on behalf of the Barnum Museum, tip my hat to all who celebrate this grand day!

“The noblest art is that of making others happy!”  P.T. Barnum, 1886

Kathleen Maher, Executive Director March 17, 2016

The Barnum-Trump Connection

barnum trump

P.T.  Barnum – as relevant today as he was over 100 years ago.  As Executive Director of the Barnum Museum and someone who has dedicated many years of my career to the study of P.T. Barnum – I interestingly find I have something in common with Donald  Trump – his admiration of P.T. Barnum and that ‘Yes!’ – we all need a bit more P.T. Barnum in this world.

Please understand that this is by no means an endorsement or criticism of political ideas or philosophies, or politicians for that matter, but I find myself in a unique situation.  During this election year P.T. Barnum is repeatedly being thrown into the political arena.  As steward of P.T. Barnum’s vast and complex legacy and reputation, I am compelled to respond to candidate Trump’s January 12th response to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet The Press:

“Some people are calling you the music man of this race, or Kim Kardashian, Biff from the film “Back to the Future”, George Costanza, . . . or P.T. Barnum. Do you consider any of those [comparisons] a compliment?” Todd asked.

“P.T. Barnum.” was Mr. Trump’s quick response.  “We need a little bit of P.T. Barnum because we have to build up the image of our country,” he said.

P.T. Barnum is remembered for a variety of things today – some fact and a lot of fiction.  However; I believe it is in the context of Barnum’s mastery of promotion where Mr. Trump makes his connection.  Indeed, P.T. Barnum understood the tone, complexion and hopes of 19th century Americans, and he worked tirelessly to celebrate the good in all humanity.  A champion of civil rights, temperance and moral order, Barnum believed it was an obligation to advocate for social justices and be a voice for change.  Serving as a Connecticut legislator (and later Mayor of Bridgeport, CT) Barnum addressed the Connecticut General Assembly “I have no axes to grind, no logs to roll, no favors to ask.  All I desire is to do what is right, and prevent what is wrong.” 

Barnum was highly intelligent and organized with indefatigable energy for invention and action.

Although best known for his “Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show On Earth,” Barnum was actually 61 years old when that endeavor was launched.  Barnum’s notoriety and public acclaim was already embedded in American society based on the remarkable success of his American Museum in New York City (1842-1868) and his long career in politics and show business.

It was in fact the ground-breaking innovations of Barnum’s American Museum that transformed public perception of entertainment, ushering in the age of family entertainment, enlightenment and instructive amusement based on his unprecedented marketing campaigns and promotional genius.

Barnum uncovered a world of the grandiose and the unusual and, in doing so, engaged the curious and invited controversy.  P.T. Barnum was the answer to the democratic impulse to challenge the establishment. His pioneering spirit of promotion and his knack for business transformed popular conceptions of the era, in turn molding and defining so much of the world we live in today.

In Barnum’s own words:
“The one end aimed at was to make men and women think and talk and wonder, and, as a practical result, go to the Museum.  This was my constant study and occupation.” 

These are words we aspire to everyday at the Barnum Museum.

All Things Barnum By Kathy Maher


BRC Hit a Star

I want to welcome you to the first edition of my new blog, “All Things Barnum”.

Thank you for inviting me into your lives. The idea of jumping full force into “All Things Barnum” comes after five years of challenges at the Barnum Museum that include a series of damaging natural disasters from an EF1 tornado, both hurricanes Irene and Sandy as well as consecutive winters of record snow storms.  Hard to believe, but true.

In the wake of all this there were only two paths to consider:  1) –  succumb to seemingly insurmountable challenges, or 2) – rise above the situation and spearhead the crusade to restore, revitalize and re-envision our Museum.  Collectively, we believe that this Museum matters in our shared human journey, and whatever it takes, it’s our obligation to this important piece of history to persevere, figure it out — fix it — and do it all in the spirit of its creator…P.T. Barnum

We have come to realize these enormous challenges were in fact, an opportunity to explore the boundaries of creativity and innovation, a chance to become something bigger and better than we were before.

What would Barnum do today?… so many people have asked.  That is the question that is driving our vision plans.  What we know for sure is that we need to live up to the extraordinary benchmarks that Barnum himself set; everything we do must look to Barnum’s fearlessness in embracing new technology, exploring innovation, celebrating the past while designing the future. All we do today will be measured by the on-going legacy of one of America’s pantheon of entertainment immortals.  A tall order indeed!

So how will we bring Barnum back to life?  I personally invite you on this amazing journey with us!  We’ll tell Barnum’s stories – the stories that defined him and that connect and resonate with us today, from the acclaimed Swedish opera singer, Jenny Lind, to the lesser known stories of his politics and personal beliefs.  I can promise enlightening and inspiring conversation.

Barnum’s most inspiring words to me?  The noblest art is that of making others happy.  I think that is a perfect way to start.

Kathy Maher

Executive Director of the Barnum Museum, Bridgeport, CT