A Most Determined Devotion to Business
When people think of P. T. Barnum, his extraordinary achievements in the business of popular entertainment immediately come to mind: first, the success of his American Museum in New York City, and later, the Greatest Show on Earth which traveled far and wide to impress colossal audiences. As with many things, the proverbial rocky road to success, punctuated with frustrations and failures, tends to be forgotten and “left in the dust” once success has risen to legacy status. Barnum’s early-career letters from his tour in France share the tales of that bumpy road, which was both literal and figurative during this critical time in his life. He was only thirty-five years old and the long-term success of his endeavors was still far from assured. To quote a Barnum phrase in his 1855 autobiography (page 216), applying “a most determined devotion to business” was essential to making progress, and if one was lucky, eventually achieving durable success. Working by day and traveling by night, Barnum’s schedule was the epitome of the 24/7 work life we refer to today.
In previous blogs we focused on some of the difficulties Barnum encountered after he left Paris and traveled from town to town throughout France, arranging for General Tom Thumb and his entourage to give performances, or “séances” as they were called in French. Though some of his correspondence bears an optimistic tone, Barnum more often complained about the lack of success (monetarily) on the tour, often claiming dishonesty and deception as the cause. As a result, his desire to return to England, where he felt assured of recouping his losses, grew with each passing day. But, he had signed contracts that meant he could not just pick up and leave France without risking arrest. Caught in this web, he had little choice but to proceed and make the best of things, trying to make a profit in the larger towns, while strategizing ways that might legitimately enable him to cut the French tour a little shorter.
Letters in the most recent group we have been reading (pages 218 to 221 as numbered on the horizontal scroll bar) shed more light on the intricacies of planning General Tom Thumb’s performances, and as well as the traps that cost Barnum money. For one thing, the woefully inaccurate travel times between towns that Monsieur Roux (of theatrical agents Messrs. Roux et Cie) had given Barnum when he was leaving Paris, continued to upset him. You may recall in an earlier letter that Barnum minced no words in telling Roux he had been deceived by him and was heartily fed up with France; he also referred to Roux as a scoundrel when writing to someone else. But Roux was not the only “rogue” on Barnum’s list; Barnum was never short of colorful language when referring to the difficult mayors and theater managers he dealt with in the various towns. For us however, Barnum’s frustrations work to our advantage as a result of his providing explanations and tour details that might otherwise have been left unsaid had everything been smooth sailing.
Something that caught my attention was the list of Barnum’s actual travel times between the various towns where he arrived as the “advance man” for the entourage. Barnum wrote to Roux,
. . . you marked in my itinerary that the time to travel from Rennes to Brest was 8 hours—while in fact it was 27 hours—you marked from Geneva to Dijon 10 hours, but it would take us over 20 hours to post it. From Dijon to Strasbourg you marked 14 hours and as it is 310 kilometers it will take 31 hours—in fact all the towns range at least double the distance and time marked by you—which has deceived us exceedingly , caused us to lose much time and travel night and day to the injury of our health & c.
The inaccurate travel times affected not only Barnum, but also the twelve people in General Tom Thumb’s entourage, who were traveling with “three voitures de poste and 4 ponies.”
Barnum calculated traveling at 10 kilometers per hour (6.2 miles per hour) by Diligence (stagecoach).
Out of curiosity I checked today’s travel times and distances using Google and found that the actual travel hours Barnum reported to Roux were pretty consistent with the distances, based on the Diligence averaging 10 km per hour. For example, Google offers three route options between Rennes and Brest with distances from 240 km to 281 km, and travel times ranging from 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours 40 minutes. Since Barnum noted that it had taken 27—not 8—hours to get from Rennes to Brest, traveling 10 km per hour means the route would have covered approximately 270 km, which falls within Google’s 240 to 281 km route options. So, Barnum was not exaggerating. It’s no wonder he was angered by the misinformation since it cost him considerably more time, out-of-pocket expense, not to mention physical discomfort!
Perhaps Barnum took some satisfaction in telling Roux that the play he had written for General Tom Thumb to perform, Le Geant, was not going to make its debut. Seemingly without glee he politely penned,
I am very sorry on account of the piece Le Geant as well on your account as ours. But the truth is the directors will not play it. They all say it is not a good piece. We first tried the manager at Brest—he refused—and all the rest have done the same. I was in Toulon 2 days ago—the manager had recd your books of the Geant but would not play it—the manager at Montpellier also refused—also manager at Toulouse & c.
Truth be told, Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) had been refusing to learn the lines of Le Geant. Yet Roux had told Barnum he would be responsible for the cost of printing the playbooks (500 Francs) if Tom Thumb did not perform the new play rather than his usual Le Petit Poucet. It appears that Barnum had found a way out since the theater directors were not interested.
Writing from Marseille on October 11, 1845, Barnum sent a letter to an unnamed gentleman in Lyon, presumably the person Monsieur Roux had suggested he contact to set things up. Moving up the arrival date of the General’s entourage so as to skip the small, unprofitable towns after their stop in Toulon, Barnum informed him, “We have made some material changes in our itinerary” and then went on to offer his “last and best terms,” noting that he would be in Lyon the following week to call upon him for an answer. Among the details, we learn one of the ways Barnum had been cheated.
Barnum presented three options:
1st General Tom Pouce may perform Petit Poucet 5, 10, or 15 consecutif [consecutive] nights in your theatre for 1500 Francs per night provided he may give his exercises once a day in the day time by paying you 10 per cent—and provided also he may have the use of your Foyer for that purpose, if he should want it.
2nd We will perform the first week day and evening in a saloon [hall], without having it announced or known that we are coming to the Theatre (thus hoping to have some of your subscribers pay to see the General) during which week we pay you the rights of the law (a cinquieme [one-fifth] after paying the Hospice) after which we will play Petit Poucet 5 or 10 nights consecutive, for half the recettes brute [gross receipts]—first deducting the rights of the poor [a tax on luxuries to offset the town’s cost of caring for the poor] and 200 Francs for your expences.
3d We will commence with you on the 26, and perform Petit Poucet 5, 10, or 15 nights consecutif for ½ receipts brute, after deducting for Hospice [care of the sick and poor].
If you accept either of these proposals you can arrange accordingly and I will sign the treaty [contract] when I arrive in Lyons next week. If you do not accept we shall give our exhibitions as we do at present here, and pay you the rights of the poor.
Barnum noted that in some other towns theater subscribers had been able to “see the General without paying us a sou [a tiny sum, 1/20 of a franc],” which suggests that while Tom Thumb might have played to a full house, there was far less profit in it than one would suppose. Thus Barnum sought to ensure that subscribers would not at first be aware of Tom Thumb performing in the theater, and would flock to a saloon and pay to see him. Interestingly, Barnum had noted to Roux his differing opinion regarding the General’s daytime performances: “I still believe [they] help his night receipts instead of hurting them.” In this situation that would certainly have been the case, but even aside from outwitting the theater subscribers, Barnum realized that every visitor to the saloon would provide valuable word-of-mouth promotion, bound to increase audience numbers in the theater. Let’s hope Barnum’s proposals allow him to find better success and satisfaction in Lyon!
Barnum Museum Curator