Flea spirit brings smallest show on earth to town
The second most common question is, "Really?"
And the third is, "Come on, you don't really have fleas, do you?"
To which he rejoins, "If you don't believe me, come on down and see for yourself."
The New York-based Gertsacov has brought the Acme Miniature Flea Circus to Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Performances tonight and Saturday are in conjunction with "The Picture Tells the Story: The Drawings of Joseph E. Yoakum," an exhibit up at Intuit through June 27. Yoakum, a highly regarded Chicago outsider artist, claimed to have spent his working life as a circus roustabout and took up art only when he retired.
The circus is the stated link between Yoakum and the flea circus, even if the connection is a bit tenuous -- none of the drawings in the show depict circus scenes. It's possible the flea circus is coming to Intuit mostly because it's the kind of loopy entertainment that might be expected to delight people who love the creations of self-taught artists.
"It's going to be fun" says Jerry Stefl, Intuit's Education Chair. "Everybody I've talked to has heard of a flea circus but no one has ever seen one."
Intuit specializes in showing the creations of self-taught artists like Yoakum. Another show there now is "Sticks," works made of everything from twigs to toothpicks.
"Self-taught artists are working from an inner passion," Stefl says.
You could say the same thing about Gertsacov, an actor and longtime clown who has overcome a number of obstacles to produce the Acme Miniature Flea Circus, which has two female flea performers, Midge and Madge. The major obstacle, according to Gertsacov, is that fleas are about as big as the period at the end of this sentence.
"It took me two years to figure out how to do this," he says.
Gertsacov will not reveal his hard-won secrets -- how he has prevailed on fleas to perform, that is -- but fleas are very strong jumpers. The trick is to get them doing something that puts that attribute to work, says Gertsacov, who adds that his training methods are humane.
A highlight of the flea circus is the "chariot race" between Midge and Madge, which takes a minute and a half and covers 13 inches. For a finale, the fleas are shot out of a cannon into their "lavishly decorated trailer," Gertsacov says.
"The journey of my show is not about pet tricks, although they are pretty interesting and impressive and worthy of note," Gertsacov says. "It's more the journey of the audience, as they come to love the fleas and cheer for them madly."
Dennis Hlynsky, a friend and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, created the set and props. The fleas don't wear costumes.
Researching flea circuses, Gertsacov, 44, learned that they appear to date from the early 19th century. William Heckler brought his famous flea circus to the 1933 Century of Progress World's Fair here, and a Heckler son had a flea circus that was a fixture in Times Square until about 1956.
Midge and Madge are members of the Pulex irritans species, human fleas, which are relatively long-lived, as fleas go. They still have a performing career of only about 16 to 18 months, so Gertsacov has young jumpers in training at all times. He gets them from the same type of catalogue supplier research labs use.
They're cheap to feed -- every 10 days or so, the boss pricks his finger and sets them up in a little case for lunch. They don't actually bite him anymore.
It's very important that the flea circus performers all be females.
"I don't want to start an infestation," Gertsacov says.