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.