Barnum, Jumbo & Dumbo!  

Barnum, Jumbo & Dumbo!  

We are eagerly awaiting the March 29, 2019 release of Disney’s DUMBO motion picture and excited that another Hollywood blockbuster has a P.T. Barnum connection!

With the greatly anticipated premiere of Disney’s live-action/CGI feature film DUMBO, it is no wonder that there is “a little Barnum” in the story.  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.

The 2019 film, directed by Tim Burton will loosely follow the story-line of the beloved 1941 Walt Disney film DUMBO.  Although it’s reported that there will be no speaking animals or snappy Disney show tunes, fear not! The film will take 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’s concept.  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.  However, a prototype version was seen by a Disney story manager who brought it to the attention of Walt Disney.  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, P.T 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 super-star.

Born in 1907 in Syracuse, NY, 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.” 

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 $2.5M between its 1941 October premiere and New Year’s Day.  Dumbo was actually 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.

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.

Fascinating facts about the real Jumbo!

  • Jumbo’s name is most likely a combination of two Swahili words: jambo, meaning “hello” and “jumbe” meaning chief.  Because of Jumbo’s popularity in America and England, advertisers began to use the word “Jumbo” in promotional material to mean anything LARGE!  We still use the word “jumbo” in modern language today and it is defined in the dictionary as: huge, enormous, vast, immense, gigantic, monumental, tremendous and stupendous!

For information on Jumbo: https://barnum-museum.org/collections/

For more information on Dumbo history: