Friday, December 15, 2000

Current Science: Circus Minimus

There are no small parts, only small performers, in the Acme Miniature Circus.
by Hugh Westrop

First there was Barnum & Bailey. Then came Siegfried & Roy. Now make way for Midge and Madge!
Midge and Madge are the featured players in the Acme Miniature Circus. They're fleas, wingless insects no bigger than a freckle. Their traveling act is one of the weirdest and wackiest in show business.
Midge and Madge were flicked to stardom by Adam Gertsacov, the circus's owner. In the guise of Professor A.G. Gertsacov, he also presides as ringmaster over each of Midge and Madge's shows.
The professor opens each performance by hawking a line of flea souvenirs- flea buttons, flea tattoos, flea T-shirts. Then he recites such flea doggerel as "Fleas? Adam had 'em," followed by flea fun facts. "Did you know," he asks the audience, "that fleas are the world's champion jumpers? If a flea were the size of a woman, it could jump over the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt in a single bound."
Then gasps of wonder arise from the spectators as the professor exposes the contents of a large suitcase. Inside lies a beautifully detailed miniature circus ring-- and Midge and Madge.
Guiding the two fleas to the ring, the Great Gertsacov assists them in a series of jaw-dropping stunts. Like horses at the ancient Roman Circus Maximus, the fleas are hitched to tiny chariots and compete in a race-- a real nailbiter. The audience hoots and applauds.
Next comes the tightrope act. Madge carries a tiny chair and pole across the high wire. The audience oohs and aahs. For the grand finale, Midge and Madge are lowered into a miniature air cannon. 3....2....1.... Pop! A puff of air shoots the fleas over the ring, through a flaming hoop, and into their sumptuous, fur-lined trailer. Loud hurrahs!
Similar spectacles were common 200 years ago, when flea circuses entertained the hoi polloi of Europe and North America. Pulex Irritans, the species of flea that infests humans, was common back then too. "People didn't bathe often," explained Gertsacov, "so they were crawling with fleas."
That changed during the last century with the advent of improved personal hygiene and inventions such as the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine. Pulex irritans became, if not endangered, then much rarer. Today, the most common of the 2000 known species of fleas is Ctenocephalides felis, which infests cats and dogs, said Gertsacov.
Midge and Madge are Pulex irritans, ordered from an entomological supply company. "It took about three years of experimentation to figure out how to train a flea," said Gertsacov
How does one train a flea? Gertsacov said he employed the same techniques all animal trainers use. First, he studied the flea's natural behaviors. Then, through operant conditioning, he encouraged the fleas to perform those behaviors on cue with circus props. Operant conditioning is a form of instruction in which the subject is encouraged through the use of positive reinforcement-- rewards-- and negative reinforcement--punishments. (Gertsacov says he doesn't use negative reinforcement.)
"It's not as if I train the fleas to sing or fly the space shuttle-- things they aren't equipped to do," explained Gertsacov. "They perform things in their act, such as lifting objects, that they do in nature."
Gertsacov won't reveal what reward he gives his fleas, but an educated guess is blood. Fleas are hematophagous -- they feed on blood. A flea that can't find a warm-blooded host becomes dormant (inactive and can stay that way for up to a year.
In the early days, Gertsacov let Midge and Madge bite him for their meals. Now he pricks himself for the blood that he feeds them.
When not in training, Gertsacov's fleas enjoy the lifestyles of pampered celebrities. Fleas are ectoparasites. A parasite is an organism that lives at the expense of another organism. An ectoparasite is a parasite that lives on, as opposed to in, the host organism. But fleas also spend time off their hosts-- in carpets, beds, sofas, and in Midge and Madge's case, fur-lined trailers.
The Acme Miniature Circus is a true slice of showbiz magic. Where else do audiences root for such creepy characters? Fleas can transmit bubonic plague ("Black Death"), one of history's worst medical scourges. Just last summer, a flea-borne outbreak of bubonic plague turned several prairie dog towns in Montana into ghost towns.
Needless to say, spectators feel more than enthusiasm at an Acme show. Gertsacov ensures that Midge and Madge don't get loose during a performance. Still, people are suggestible around fleas and other wee beasties. "When I look out at my audience," said Gertsacov," I see a lot of scratching."

Friday, January 28, 2000

L.A. Times: Under The Small Top

Under the Small Top
Bitten by the show-biz bug, Adam Gertsacov's Acme Miniature Circus stars are fleas that perform amazing feats. Just don't ask how he gets them to balance on the high wire.

Page 2 / News, Trends, Gossip and Stuff to Do

On those magical nights when everything clicks, Adam Gertsacov can hold both an audience and his star performers in the palm of his hand. People crane their necks for a better view of the Acme Miniature Circus' curious wonders. They thrill to the exciting flea chariot race and marvel at the flea-on-a-wire aerial act.

They gasp at the death-defying finale (which, by the way, took a few deaths to perfect, but why quibble?).

Suddenly, Gertsacov said, "people start caring for these two bugs they'd probably try to kill if they weren't performing for them."

And just as suddenly, they are transported to the Victorian age, when traveling showmen mixed a dash of hokum with a healthy dose of bravado to create entertainment on the fly. Gertsacov revives that spirit with what he believes to be one of only two flea circuses making the rounds today. (The other, he says, is based in Australia.) His act is part sideshow, part history lesson and part spectacle of entomological derring-do. And it all fits on a tabletop stage not much bigger than a TV tray.

Gertsacov, 35, unfolded that table this week in Costa Mesa at the 22nd annual International Showcase of Performing Arts for Young People, which continues through Saturday. All around him, acting troupes and dance companies hawked their talents, hoping to land bookings at theaters and festivals.

But even as they were setting up, they ducked their heads into Gertsacov's booth for a glimpse of his self-contained fold-out big top, though stars Midge and Madge, trained fleas of the species pulex irritans, were resting in Gertsacov's hotel room, safe in the fur-lined comfort of their wooden traveling case.

Gertsacov, who drove from his home in Providence, R.I., to attend the showcase, spends the first 10 minutes of his show pitching a plethora of products, from "Save the Fleas!" bumper stickers to show programs the size of Post-it notes.

This is the "flea market part" of the performance, he said. "People go to a flea circus expecting to be hornswoggled. If they aren't, they go away disappointed."

But the show still is more fleas than fleece. Clad in lavender felt top hat and matching corduroy coat, Gertsacov shares flea trivia and tidbits from history. For instance, fleas can pull 131,000 times their own weight, and a Swedish queen once hunted them with a tiny crossbow. He glosses over that whole black plague episode; the blood-sucking parasite thing is kind of a downer. He even recites flea poetry, or as he calls it, "flea verse." A sample:


Adam had 'em.

The banter builds to the show's climax: the exhibition of Midge and Madge's strength and skill. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Gertsacov gently places his minuscule stars at the helm of chariots with shirt-button wheels, which they race. That is, when one of them isn't being obstinate.

"Madge is slightly more temperamental," Gertsacov said. "But each can be a bit diva-esque."

Sometimes, the competitive juices flow, with half the crowd chanting, "Midge! Midge! Midge!" and the other half exhorting, "Madge! Madge! Madge!" (When Gertsacov performed in Brazil two years ago, "the crowd cheered like it was a soccer game," he said.)

Then it's on to the high wire, which they negotiate while carrying a tiny chair and balancing pole. There's scarcely time for a rest before Midge and Madge are whisked into a miniature cannon for the grand finale.

Before our heroes are fired through the flaming hoop of death, Gertsacov pauses for a moment of silence for all the high-flying fleas who gave their lives for low art.

"It took a while before I could figure out how to get them to land in their trailer without getting hurt," Gertsacov said, pointing to the door of a palatially decorated model Airstream emblazoned with a metallic "M." Figuring out how to safely fire his fleas into the trailer's open door was just one of the problems facing Gertsacov when he began putting the show together in 1994.

He was performing as a clown when a circus in Providence asked him to come up with an animal-trainer act. He concocted an imaginary flea circus, using mime to move his make-believe fleas. He showed the act to a clown friend, Avner the Eccentric, who advised, "Get some real fleas. You're big, the fleas are small, you love the fleas. That's your act."

Gertsacov bought the fleas, which live about two years, from an entomologist supply company in Connecticut, put them in an enclosed space and just started watching. He did plenty of other research (females are preferable to males because they are larger) but learned mainly that flea trainers are loath to share their secrets. That's a tradition Gertsacov continues. "I will tell you that through art and patience, you slowly begin to figure out what they can do," he said. He usually has seven or eight Midges and Madges in training.

Gertsacov also discovered that his show plays equally well with children and college-age crowds. He traveled last year with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, which describes its acts as spanning "the exotic to the erotic."

"Mine is definitely the exotic," Gertsacov said, "although the fleas do perform totally nude."

Audience reaction usually builds from bewilderment to fascination and glee, he said. But there's one response he can just about always count on: "I see a lot of scratching."