Film on Bethel’s P.T. Barnum statue to screen in town
Updated 5:48 pm, Wednesday, October 4, 2017
BETHEL — Connecticut filmmaker Corey Boutilier used to drive around Bethel and see street signs with the name “Barnum.” When he asked why, pedestrians did not know, he said.
That question led him on an eight-year journey to create a documentary on P.T. Barnum, the circus showman who was born in Bethel. and served as Bridgeport mayor in 1875, and the making of the Barnum sculpture that sits in front of Bethel Public Library.
The 78-minute documentary, “P.T. Barnum: The Lost Legend,” will be screened at Bethel Cinema on Wednesday. It stars Bethel sculptor Dave Gesualdi, in addition to Pat Rist, president of the Bethel Historical Society, and Kathleen Maher, executive director of the Bridgeport Barnum Museum.
A Q&A with Boutilier, Gesualdi and Maher will follow the screening.
The film follows Gesualdi as he creates the statue while exploring Barnum’s life and why Bethel should still honor him.
“In the film, as we’re building the statue, we’re also building the life of the man,” said Boutilier, who lives in Westport but lived in Brookfield when he began making the documentary in 2009.
Boutilier filmed at Tufts University, where Barnum was a trustee, in St. Thomas, Ontario where Barnum’s elephant, Jumbo, was hit by a train, and at the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport. The documentary also goes into the relief effort after a tornado damaged the museum in 2010.
But no location was more important than Bethel.
“In my mind, when I was filming, I was filming this for Bethel,” Boutilier said.
The film features local spots such as the Varano Bakery and O’Neil’s Sandwich and Coffee Bar, and concludes with the grand parade the town held honoring Barnum’s 200th birthday in 2010.
“There’s a lot of people [from Bethel] in the film who probably don’t realize they’re in the film,” Boutilier said.
The Bethel Historical Society approached Gesualdi in 2007 about creating a sculpture of Barnum for the birthday celebration. Gesualdi jumped at the opportunity. He said he had long wished Bethel had a Barnum statue and even used to envision what it would look like.
For the next two and a half years, he worked on the sculpture, giving residents the opportunity to vote on three design options. Meanwhile, the Bethel Historical Society raised $50,000 in the midst of the 2008 recession for the statue.
“People and businesses really got on board with this project,” Rist said. “I cannot have been happier.”
Rist moved to town 33 years ago, but did not learn Barnum was born in Bethel until she joined the historical society a couple of years later. As the documentary points out, few locals realized the showman was from their town until the sculpture was installed.
“People are very aware now,” Rist said. “One of the most exciting things I see if I'm downtown. ...[is]people, families taking photos in front of that statute. That’s what we wanted to do.”
Barnum is remembered as the “circus guy,” but the documentary shows he was much more than that, Boutilier said. It paints him as a visionary, through his philanthropy, dedication to education and staunch opposition to slavery.
“People loved him and people hated him, too,” Boutilier said. “He was changing society in a fast way that people didn’t think we were ready for, but he knew we were.”