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.