"A Visit To An Old-Fashioned Flea Circus"
by Linda Sickler
There's no doubt that Adam Gertsacov has one of the most unusual jobs in the world.
He performs as Professor A.G. Gertsacov, the ringmaster of the Acme Miniature Circus. His stars are Midge and Madge, trained fleas extraordinaire.
The show opens with a miniature chariot race, which covers an eight-inch course. Next comes the high-wire act, in which Madge -- at least we think it's Madge -- balances a pole and a miniature chair.
In the finale, Madge and Midge are shot out of an air cannon, through a flaming hoop of death. They land safely to thunderous applause.
The one question Gertsacov is always asked is, are Madge and Midge real? "They are real fleas," he said.
"They are not glued down. I only use two fleas in the show. They do three tricks. My focus is not on tricks, but on the audience experience. My show is really funny."
Gertsacov is a professional actor, director, and clown, based in Providence, RI. After founding the Acme Clown Company, he has appeared at theaters, fairs and festivals around the world.
What kind of a person runs a flea circus? After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania (Class of '86) with a major in theoretical communication and a minor in theater, Gertsacov earned a master-of-arts degree in theater and group communication at the Rhode Island College/Trinity Rep Conservatory.
After completing Bryant College's entrepreneurship program, Gertsacov applied to the Ringling Brothers Clown College in 1989, not realizing how competitive it was. "There were 2,000 applicants for 54 spaces," he said.
Despite the odds, Gertsacov was accepted and made a profound discovery. "I realized all the acting work I had done was about being a clown," he said.
Gertsacov also has studied at the Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre, and the Boston School of Bartending. He served as an apprentice to the Czech clown, Ctibor Turba, and also studied with several other well-known performers, including Dario Po and Avner the Eccentric
There are other acts that Gertsacov presents, but it is the flea circus that gets the most attention. "I started doing the show using imaginary fleas," he said. "It was all mime. I was pretty happy with it."
It was Avner the Eccentric who convinced Gertsacov that he should use real fleas. "He said, 'This is good, but you've got to get rid of the clown stuff and do a flea circus,' " Gertsacov said.
"You're big, the fleas are small," Avner said. "That's your act."
Gertsacov began doing intensive research to try to crack the secretive code of the flea circus. "I met a guy from Rhode Island who had a flea circus in the 1950s," he said. "He wasn't real forthcoming about how it was done, but he convinced me it could be done. I put together a grant proposal to build the program."
With the grant funding, Gertsacov was able to hire Dennis Hlynsky, an artist and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, to design and build the suitcase that houses the marvelously detailed flea circus and its props. Everything, including Gertsacov's costume with top hat and purple vest, is designed to suggest the Victorian era, when flea circuses flourished.
"The history of the flea circus is kind of murky," Gertsacov said. "It is a low form of entertainment. The first reference to a flea circus I can find is 1828, when Senor Bertoletto performed in Covent Garden in London.
"Among other things, he redid Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, using fleas. It was all the rage in London in 1828."
Flea circuses reached the peak of their popularity in the 1890s, Gertsacov said. "I have read that most every town had its own flea circus," he said.
"Professor LeRoy Heckler's was the most famous," Gertsacov said. "He appeared at the 1903 Chicago Exposition, then moved to New York. He left Times Square in 1957, saying that nude girls had given his fleas a bad name."
ORIGIN OF TERM 'FLEA MARKET'
At least one other aspect of the old-time flea circus still exists today. Flea circuses were often booked as sideshows at markets and fairs where merchants sold their goods outdoors, which gave rise to the term "flea market."
"In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of flea circuses," Gertsacov said. "There are at least three to four people doing flea circuses today."
Yes, the fleas are trained to do their tricks. Gertsacov's training methods are a trade secret, but he will say that the tricks are based on basic flea behavior, and taught through positive reinforcement.
"I'm not training them to do mathematics," he said. "They do chariot races. Do they know they are racing? It's hard to say."
It takes three months to train a flea. "It took me six months to figure out how to train them," Gertsacov said.
Madge and Midge are "Pulex irritans," better known as the human flea. "There are over 2,000 species," Gertsacov said. "Human fleas are the traditional circus fleas."
Human fleas make the best performers because they are larger than other species. Today, human fleas are rather rare, but at one time, they were all too common.
"About 100 years ago, everyone had fleas," Gertsacov said. "Very ritzy ladies wore a flea trap in their bosom. It was a piece of jewelry that was baited with blood and honey. The blood lured the fleas, who got trapped in the honey.
"Today, we don't have fleas so much," he said. "We wash, do laundry and wash our bedding."
The most common flea found today is the cat flea, which is found on both cats and dogs. Not only is it too small to be trained, it lives only six weeks.
By contrast, the human flea lives much longer. "It lives 24 months, only on humans or pigs," Gertsacov said.
Fleas survive on blood, and Purina doesn't make flea chow, so Gertsacov has developed a unique feeding method. "I feed them once every 15 days," he said. "I prick my finger. It takes only a drop. Fortunately, I don't have to put them on myself to feed. I have a system with a Petrie dish."
Since the flea circus began, Gertsacov has never had a flea escape. Perhaps that's because they are housed in a luxurious, custom-designed, fur-lined trailer between shows.
"I buy fleas from an entomological supply company that supplies fleas to scientists," Gertsacov said. (The going rate is $5 per dozen.)
Incorporating art and theater, Gertsacov started his company in 1991. He creates and performs his own shows, tours and teaches clowning at workshops.
"I would say it's a hard job because it's a business, like any other," Gertsacov said. "But at least part of the time, I get to do what I love."
What he loves is creating an unforgettable experience for his audiences. "My other shows include the Puppet Tragedies," Gertsacov said. "I do 'Oedipus Rex' in 12 minutes, using Barbie dolls. I also do the 'Vegetable Macbeth.' "
Gertsacov also is an author, and currently is writing a book about, of all things, Rhode Island. "I was recently appointed the Clown Laureate of Greenbelt, Md.," he said.
In addition to watching the fleas' performance, spectators can buy souvenirs, including buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers. The most popular reads, "Save the flea!"
Not that the flea is in any danger of becoming extinct. But Gertsacov believes that in addition to entertaining the masses, his circus proves that fleas can be put to good use.
"There is no Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Fleas," he said. "This shows a positive use for fleas. It is so amazing what they can do."
Linda Sickler is senior staff writer at Connect Savannah.