Monday, February 23, 2009

Columbia Chronicle: Little Creatures Become Big Stars

Little creatures become big stars

Flea circus makes Chicago debut, hopes to attract audiences of all ages

They have been to 37 states and four countries, traveling in a fur-lined case and getting fed in a petri dish. Their trainer treats them as if they were his own blood, and, in some ways, they are. They depend on human blood for survival. Meet Midge and Madge, the stars of Adam Gertsacov’s Acme Flea Circus show.
After many years of unpopularity, flea circuses are making their way into city events once again, one flea stunt at a time. Coming to Chicago for the first time ever, Acme Flea Circus will make its premiere at Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee Ave., from Feb. 26-28.

Courtesy DONNA ATWOOD - Adam Gertsacov looks on as one of the stars of the show does a dance on the tightwire.
Flea trainer Adam Gertsacov has been training the tiny creatures since 1994 and running his own flea circus in New York since 1996. Before falling for fleas, Gertsacov was a professional clown, and one of his clown routines was imagining he had a flea circus. After reading about how to train animals and learning about fleas, he decided this would be his big break.
“I started because it was a traditional act that had gone away, and I wanted to know more about it,” Gertsacov said. “I started doing some research and finding out that 100 years ago there were flea circuses all over the place, and they were very famous. They were kind of ephemeral and they didn’t survive.”
It took him a while to get them to do tricks because there was nobody to teach him how. He said it requires a lot of observation and patience, but it’s not impossible. Most of the tricks they do are already things they do normally; the only difference is getting them to do it on command.
“Training fleas is not easy, and [people] don’t have to do that in order to entertain [others], but I do it anyway, because I’m interested in the old-fashioned circus,” Gertsacov said. “I would say that it’s fun and it’s great to bring back this old tradition. It’s interesting to me.”
Their different stunts include running a chariot race, which, in reality, is only about a foot-and-a-half long and takes them a minute-and-a-half to complete. Another famous stunt includes them flying out of a cannon. How he gets them to do all this is still a secret.
Though not much has changed since the first flea circus, Gertsacov said every show is different thanks to the audience. And if it wasn’t for that, he would have given up on flea circuses a long time ago.
Many viewers walk in with binoculars, but Gertsacov said they aren’t necessary, and they won’t help.
“The way that I design the show, people can see what the fleas do without any aid,” he said. “It would be hard to see the fleas even if I perform with one person at a time. I need to use a high power magnifying glass just to put them in the proper place.”
The only precaution Gertsacov requires when people attend his show is that the audiences keep their pets at home so they won’t steal his show. After all these years of performances, he has used over 20 fleas since they only live 24 months. No matter how many times they have died, the two stars are always named Midge and Madge.
With his previous clowning and acting career, Gertsacov has performed in Chicago, but this will be the first time he performs with his flea circus.
Amanda Curtis, education director at Inuit, said the nonprofit arts center has a way of finding unique shows such as this one. Their current exhibit called Sticks, displays different self taught artists and showcases models they built out of sticks, tree trunks, telephone polls and toothpicks.
“We have an exhibit up now from Chicago artist Jospeh E. Yoakum, [who] traveled as a bill-poster for several different circuses. So as a tribute to him, we thought this would work out,” Curtis said. “Usually we try to somehow relate any of our programs to the exhibits.”
Though she has never seen a flea circus show, she’s looking forward to all its surprises and reactions of viewers.
Michael Ketts runs Professor Marvel’s Flea Circus and Magic Show in Evanston, Ill. He said he’s looking forward to the Acme Flea Circus show coming to town for the first time.
After personally training fleas for six years, his worst experiences have been getting bit by them, but he also feeds them his blood in order to keep them alive. He orders the fleas from a company in California.
“[Flea circuses] were famous in the 1950s in New York,” Ketts said. “A lot of things have just faded. Now everyone wants high-tech and graphics, and this is a more simple kind of entertainment.”
After the flea circus show in Chicago, Gertsacov will return to New York and have his first, show Exploring Henry Hudson, where he will play Henry Hudson, the founder of the Hudson River. He said as of right now, no fleas are in the show.
Admission for this show is $12; $10 for students, seniors, and members; and $8 for children under 12. Tickets can be purchased at Intuit’s website,