Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Travel & Leisure Magazine: July 28, 2011

World's Strangest Circuses

At London’s Hoxton Hall, acrobats scamper up each other’s shoulders to form a pyramid—although it hardly looks human. The performers are unrecognizable beneath elaborate ant costumes complete with antennae and googly eyes.

Circuses have always been a bit offbeat, but they’ve morphed well beyond the classic three-ring spectacle of clowns and animal tamers. Today’s strangest circuses are small and innovative. Some, like the Insect Circus, push the boundaries by incorporating burlesque or performance art, while others are reviving near-extinct sideshow traditions for a new generation.

“Circuses were once the biggest shows in town,” says Marc Hartzman, author of American Sideshow. “People didn’t have the same mediums of entertainment that we have today.” As audience interest drifted in the 1970s, circuses began adapting, particularly in the U.K., the U.S., France, Canada, and Australia.

A painter by trade, Mark Copeland founded the U.K.-based Insect Circus in 2002, designing fantastical costumes for the acrobatic “ants,” a winged trapeze duo that go by the names of Baron and Baroness Flutterby, and others. He is especially proud of a stag beetle shell worn by three performers. This lumbering six-legged “insect” takes on a matador in an act that resembles a Spanish bullfight.

Still other circuses get their strange factor from sideshow elements like sword-swallowers and actual insects. Adam G. Gertsacov, creator of Acme Miniature Flea Circus, practices a craft that dates back to the late 1800s. After graduating from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, he wandered from circus to circus until he got some career-changing advice. Legendary clown Avner Eisenberg told him to “focus on the fleas,” and Gertsacov hasn’t wavered since. He trains 12 fleas at a time to perform tricks like being shot out of a mini cannon into a Hula-Hoop dubbed “the hoop of death.”

For truly death-defying stunts, look to Delhi, India, where the Diamond Maruti Car Circus has become infamous for performing while hanging out of speeding vehicles. For 25 cents, you can peer over the edge of a pit and watch performers on motorcycles and in cars zoom in circles as they grab hands and stand up on their seats—an unbelievable performance that also qualifies as one of the world’s strangest sports.

Even in an age of entertainment overload, the world’s strangest circuses share the ability to keep you on the edge of your seat. Here’s a sneak peek at their shows.


Acme Miniature Flea Circus, New York

Inspired by Hubert’s Flea Circus in Times Square, which closed in 1957, Adam Gertsacov pieced together the tricks of the flea trade from his circus mentors. The Acme Miniature Flea Circus’s bloodsucking insects have tumbled their way through four different countries and 38 states since the mid-1990s. The only thing Gertsacov asks from his audience? No dogs allowed.
Strange Factor: Two fleas race to a finish line while pulling a chariot. Other less fortunate fleas are shot out of a mini cannon into a Hula-Hoop called the “hoop of death.”

Friday, July 15, 2011

Journal News: Wear Your Glasses To This Circus

Cover of the Journal News Weekend Section July 15, 2011

Wear your glasses to this circus
by Paul Bousche

Midge and Madge have performed alongside Adam Gertsacov for over 25 years.
They have joined him on his far-flung travels, which have spanned 38 states and five countries from Canada to Brazil, putting on shows night in and night out. You might be wondering, what's the big deal?
Well, the big deal is that Midge and Madge aren't really that big at all. In fact, they're fleas.
Weighing in at an average of 0.1088 grams each and at only half the length of a fingernail, these "tiny performers" have been pleasing crowds around the world for decades as part of Gertsacov's Acme Miniature Circus.
Gertsacov, Midge, Madge and their circus will be at the Hudson River Museum on Sunday as part of its Victorian Day.
Along with the tiny show, families can play Victorian-era games like nine-wicket croquet, lawn bowling, pick-up-sticks and marbles.
Believe it or not, Gertsacov, the merry ring leader of the spectacularly small Acme circus, actually started out as a clown. And he has the degree to prove it. He graduated from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1989, which was statistically harder to get into than Harvard Law School.
"I never knew how difficult it was to get in when I applied, but I realized my love for performing and gave it a shot," says Gertsacov, a Rhode Island native who now lives in Yonkers.
But how did his attention turn to fleas? Gertsacov realized early in his clown career that circus clowns were not at the top of the three-ring heap.
"I wanted to be the main clown, but the lion tamers were getting all the attention," he says. "So I knew I had to branch out on my own. I began to look for my own unique act."
During his search, Gertsacov became intrigued by the flea circus, which was a big form of entertainment back in the Victorian era. "There was no television or social media, so this was what kept people entertained," he says.
The research wasn't easy as flea circuses of the past weren't very well documented. "I immersed myself in fleas for over a year and a half and figured out the show."
The last popular American flea circus, according to Gertsacov, was Professor Heckler's of Times Square, which left New York in 1957.
Today, Gertsacov's educated insect stars pull chariots, dance on a tightrope, and perform other circus-like stunts.
While he does not reveal his method of training (a proprietary secret, he explains), he assures the curious and the civic minded that he uses only methods of positive reinforcement to teach the insects their routines.
"I treat them as if they are my own flesh and blood," Gertsacov says. "And in some ways, they are."
There is also a pre-show "flea market" in which miniature props are for sale.
"I have mini 'Save The Fleas' bumper stickers. Hey, it worked for the whales," he says.
About Midge and Madge: They are members of the Pulex irritans species — that is, human fleas that can live for 24 months, a long life as fleas go.
And yes, they are females because lady fleas are a little bigger than their male colleagues and easier to train.
Midge and Madge, who arrive in their own mini Airstream trailer, will enjoy careers from 16 to 18 months before retirement.
Gertsacov says his Acme Miniature Circus is great entertainment and all ages are welcome — just don't bring the dog. Gertsacov says he doesn't want them to steal the show — literally.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The American Scholar: A Speck of Showmanship

The American Scholar has an article about flea circuses entitled

A Speck of Showmanship
Is that Pulix irritans pulling that carriage, or is someone just pulling our leg? By Ernest B. Furgurson 

It is a long article about different flea circuses and the long history of flea circus. Acme Miniature Circus is featured towards the end. The full article is here:

Excerpt of the relevant parts about the Acme Miniature Circus:

Adam Gertsacov, of Providence, Rhode Island, and Yonkers, New York, wants to give his Acme Miniature Flea Circus performances “the aura of a sideshow in the 1890s,” a feeling that many flea managers share. They like being part of the long, romantic tradition of show business. Though they typically operate out of a handy suitcase that opens into a midway with flags, carousel and Ferris wheel, they consider themselves colleagues of the great sword swallowers and prestidigitators of the past, part of the fabled world of “learned pigs and fireproof women.”

Gertsacov delves into flea circus history; indeed, he has helped make it. He studied acting and matriculated at the Ringling Brothers clown college before an old trouper told him to “get rid of that clown stuff; get yourself some fleas.” He could picture the act: “You’re so big, they’re so little.” This was not advice that Gertsacov wanted to hear, but he followed it, and eventually presided over the “triumphant return of the flea circus to Times Square” in 2001. He performed there for several months before taking his attraction back on the road.

Show people tend to loosen up under friendly questioning. Jim Frank, who lives in Laurel, Maryland, puts flea circuses in three categories: “One, dress ’em up as familiar people—Lincoln, Napoleon—see how small I can make a costume; two, hook ’em up with brass wire to pull chariots and such; and three, present fleas that cause things to happen, cause reactions—imagine the expressions on Benny Hill’s face. That’s my bracket, the illusion bracket. People tune their shows to their own skill level. Some use gearing, clockwork, small motors. . . . But if I’m outside, any speck of dust can be a flea. A puff of breath and it moves, and they’ve seen the flea. There are many ways to influence kids to see an illusion.”

Gertsacov agrees. Without putting the conversation off the record or even on deep background, he admits that “part of the fun is the secrecy. Obviously it’s hard to see fleas. People watching say, ‘What am I really seeing?’ I like that. You haven’t really been to a flea circus unless you’ve been bamboozled by the flea-circus guy. It would be interesting to watch real trained fleas, but only for three or four minutes. That’s not enough these days when you can Google insects and see them mating, up close and personal. My show is about showmanship.”

He enriches it with an illustrated history of the flea, reciting classics of the flea canon and ending with the shortest poem of all:

Adam/Had ’em.

It’s a rare showman who can squeeze a living out of a flea circus. But if it paid off for enthusiasm, Jim Alberti of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, would be chartering his own jet instead of piloting his pickup from bluegrass concert to school fundraiser to county fair, handily supplementing his Social Security check. His father and grandfather before him ran flea circuses, and Jim is blessed with a spouse who understands that the bug is in his blood. He was teaching at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1988 when he told her he’d like to quit and do his show full-time. “We could do that,” she said. “I’ve seldom loved her more,” Jim told me.

After failing to catch him at the Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and the James Riverfest in Lynchburg, Virginia, I finally met him on a sweltering day at the annual Folk Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts. He was setting up his show on a sunbaked concrete walkway far out on the fringe of the festival; as I helped him erect signs, I thought he could never draw a crowd there. But a couple of passersby slowed down out of curiosity, and a few more stopped when he donned his derby and red vest, signs that the show was about to begin. He has a line of patter to accompany his chores. His fleas go south for the winter, he says. “They have a condo in Florida. It’s a French poodle.” By the time he introduced his star performer, Captain Spalding, to do his daring double flip into the tank, dozens of kids had appeared, snaggle-toothed, freckle-faced, like the resurrected cast of an old Our Gang movie. They listened open-mouthed to his patter and seemed mesmerized as he wove his hands to illustrate what was happening.

As Jim says, “It’s not easy to make something out of their imagination—a little like James Joyce taking a thought and making a book out of it.” His performance may or may not have equaled Ulysses. But as I watched the kids watch him, it was clear that Jim, like Scalliot, Boverick, Bertolotto, and Heckler—not to mention Adam—had ’em.