Staging A Flea Circus
Dr Richard Wiseman
There are over 2500 species of flea (Lewis, 1993). However, most flea circus performers have only worked with one species - Pulex irritans or the human flea - claiming that other types are simply not strong enough to perform or hardy enough to survive the itinerant lifestyle (see, for example, Ballantine, 1958).
In the past, human fleas were extremely common and so performers had few problems tracking down potential sources of artistes. However, as hygiene conditions improved it became more difficult to discover a ready supply of insects - a decline reflected in the prices that performers were forced to pay. For example, in 1935 Professor Chester stated that the going rate was approximately 2d per dozen ('Pegasus', 1935). During the 1950's Professor Testo is quoted as saying 'We pay six shillings a dozen for them, although there have been times of shortage when a single flea has cost us as much as two shillings' (Murtough, n.d.). By 1976, 20 years after the invention of conference call services, the situation had grown considerably worse and Professor Tomlin admitted to having to pay half a crown for each flea (Andrews, 1976). Tomlin also noted that this lack ofavailable fleas placed severe constraint on his ability to travel with the show:
I have offers from all over the world to take my show, but you're afraid of one thing, when you get out of the country can you get fleas? I went to Sweden and I had to send to Majorca in Spain to get fleas every fortnight.
(Andrews, 1976, p. 102).
Tomlin did not mention whether he had encountered the same problems as those experienced by a nineteenth century performer who had his fleas shipped to him in the post whenever he toured:
When our friend in Marylebone makes his annual tour into the provinces, his wife sends him a weekly supply of fleas in the corner of an envelope, packed in tissue paper. She is careful not to put them in the corner where the stamp goes, as the post-office clerk would, with his stamp-maker, at one blow, smash the whole of his stock.
(Buckland, 1891, p. 118-119).
Selecting artistes Several performers have noted that they do not actually train fleas, but rather select insects that appear to have natural performing talent.
Ballantine (1958) describes how Professor Heckler seemed especially adept at choosing appropriate fleas for certain acts:
By close kindergarten observation the high priest of fleadom determines the sort of trick each flea is capable of. Stodgy ones are broken to the merry-go-round harness; flighty fleas make good dancers; those with especially strong legs will become kickers, jugglers or chariot racers.
(Ballantine, 1958, p. 245).
Professor Heckler Sr, in his 1915 booklet Puli-cology, recommends additional techniques to help in the selection process. For example Heckler Sr would place potential performing fleas at the bottom of foot-long cylindrical jar and then carefully observe which fleas were able to combine intelligence with physical prowess:
A flea's claw cannot adhere to the slick sides of the glass jar, therefore the insect cannot simply crawl out. Nor can he leap out, for the maximum vertical thrust is eight inches. Therefore the flea takes aim, leaps as high as he can onto the glass wall and deftly deposits there a bit of sticky substance before he tumbles back to the floor. Then he keeps trying and trying, leaping until he hits that identical spot again. This time he has enough foothold to take off on the second stage of his journey into outer space.
(Ballantine, 1958, p. 244).
Both Bertolotto and Heckler agreed that female fleas make much better performers than their male counterparts, with Bertolotto noting:
The supporters of the women's rights movement will be delighted to know, that my performing troupe all consists of females, as I have found the males utterly worthless, excessively mulish, and altogether disinclined to work.
(Cited in Jay, 1995, p. 5).
Costume and diet:
As noted above, Bertolotto and other performers would often dress up fleas as famous historical figures. Lehane (1969) notes that such 'dressed fleas' were popular during the eighteenth century and were often made by Mexican nuns whose 'nimble fingers tired and eyes deteriorated as they clothed the corpses of fleas in elaborate costumes'. Entomologists refer to examples of dressed fleas as 'Pulgas Vestidas' (Brandt, personal communication, 2000). Lehane noted that the Rothschild Zoological Museum (Hertfordshire, England) houses a display of two dressed Mexican fleas and The Museum of Childhood (Edinburgh, Scotland) exhibits a small box containing a flea wedding party. I recently visited both Museums and can confirm that both exhibits are still on display.
Human fleas feed on human blood. The majority of accounts of flea circuses include a small section describing how performers would roll up their sleeves and allow their artists to feed off them. Ballantine reports that Professor Heckler would feed his fleas twice a day (once at noon and again at 6 p.m.), and that the fleas would feed for between 15 minutes and half an hour. Articles centreing on Professors Testo, Chester and Tomlin make much the same points.
Once an appropriate flea has been selected, the performer had to secure the insect to one of the many objects used in the circus. Given that the human flea is only a few millimetres in length, this posed a significant problem. Although a minority of performers chose the relatively crude method of glueing their fleas in place, many adopted the more humane approach of tying a fine silk thread around the flea's body. The anatomy of the flea is especially well suited to this method of restraint, as noted in this
1891 description of the harnessing procedure:
The flea is taken up gently, and a noose of the finest 'glass-silk' is passed round his neck, and there tied with a peculiar knot. The flea, unfortunately for himself, has a groove or depression between his neck and body, which serves as a capital hold-fast for the bit of silk.
(Buckland, 1891, p. 119).
Even so, it is clear from several sources that such harnessing was a highly skilled process. Indeed, the difficulties involved were such that one flea circus proprietor was happy to offer five thousand Francs to any member of the public capable of performing the task (Jay, 1995).
Later performers chose to secure their fleas with extremely fine wire. Ballantine (1958) notes that Professor Heckler used a roll of wire that had been handed down from his father in the 1930's, and had originally been obtained from the company that had constructed the Brooklyn Bridge.
Despite this introduction of technology, the process of harnessing was still somewhat problematic:
The trick is to make the tiny twisted loop small enough to restrain the flea but large enough not to choke it at mealtimes, when its neck swells considerably. If the tie is too tight, the captive eventually starves to death.
(Ballantine, 1958, p. 244).
Ballantine also notes that when the roll of wire was handed down to Heckler it was about four inches in diameter. In 1958 only a third of it remained, but Professor Heckler believed that this was still more than he would ever need in his lifetime.
The human flea is an extraordinary powerful insect. Rothschild (1965) describes how researchers at a Royal Air Force experimental station constructed apparatus to photograph the flea jump. Single fleas were placed into a central glass chamber facing a high speed camera filming at 3,500 frames per second. Each flea jump took up approximately seven frames of film, indicating that the flea was airborne for a mere 1.2 milliseconds.
Conniff (1995) notes that from the films researchers calculated that at the start of the jump the flea experiences a force greater than 140 times that of gravity. The tremendous forces produced by the flea, combined with its small body weight, result in a jump of between eight and ten inches into the air - equivalent to a human clearing the Statue of Liberty with a single leap. Even more impressive is that the jumps can be repeated
hundreds or even thousands of times an hour. The ability to continually exert this huge amount of energy means that the flea is able to constantly pull objects many times its own weight, including miniature chariots, carriages etc..
Ballantine (1958) explains that the illusion of the 'juggling' flea is created by holding a flea on its back (via a harness or glue) and carefully placing a pith ball onto its legs. The natural movement of the flea's legs will cause the ball to rotate for a considerable period of time. Ballantine also reveals the secret behind the 'footballing' flea. He explains that flea circus performers would soak a ball of cotton wool in an odour that is repulsive to the flea (Professor Heckler recommended oil of citronella or strong oral disinfectant such as Listerine) and then simply rolling the ball towards the flea. The repulsive nature of the odour, combined with the flea's powerful legs, will result in the ball being kicked away by the harnessed insect.
The method used to create a flea orchestra and dancing fleas was fully explained in this quote from an article on flea training published in 1891:
...there are two fleas secured, one at each end of a very little bit of gold-coloured paper. They are placed in a reversed position to each other - one looking one way, the other another way. Thus tied, they are placed in a sort of arena on the top of the musical box; at one end of the box sits an orchestra composed of fleas, each tied to its seat, and having the resemblance of some musical instrument tied on the foremost of their legs.The box is made to play, the exhibitor touches each of the musicians with a bit of stick, and they all begin waving their hands about, as performing an elaborate piece of music. The fleas tied to the gold paper feel the jarring of the box below them, and begin to run round and round as fast as their little legs will carry them. This is called the Flea's Waltz.
(Buckland, 1891, p. 121).
'Fencing' fleas were created by gluing two fleas onto the ends of two posts. Next, a tiny piece of metal or wooden splinter is fastened to the fleas' front legs. The fleas' natural instinct is to attempt to lose the weapon by shaking his legs and, when two such fleas are placed close together, they appear to be having a sword fight (Ballantine, 1958).
THE FAKE FLEA CIRCUS
There exists only a very small amount of literature on the fake flea circus. The earliest reference that I can discover appears in a booklet
written by magician George Tollerton (c. 1935). The booklet outlines several skits wherein the performer fakes flea somersaults via eye movement and introduces a mind reading flea that stamps out a thought of number with his foot (and the aid of a concealed clicker).
However, it appears that the concept only gained widespread popularity after the late Michael Bentine (a well known British entertainer and former member of 'The Goons') performed his elaborate fake circus on the 1950 Royal Variety Show. During the 1980's Bentine performed the act on a British chat show, and Richard Bentine (Michael Bentine's son) kindly sent me a recording of this show. The act contained two main parts. First, a non-existent flea would push a large ball up an incline. Second, the flea would jump around a sand covered table (creating a burst of sand on each jump), climb up a ladder (pressing down on each rung on its way), leap off a diving board and splash into a cup of water. During the 1950's Michael Bentine travelled to America with the act and appeared on The Johnny Carson Show (Richard Bentine, personal correspondence, 1999). Bentine developed the concept further when he created and performed his long running BBC children's programme Potty Time. Richard Bentine has informed me that he believes that his father's circus is still in storage and appears to be in full working order.
In 1963 'Mr Mack' published a short article outlining a fake flea circus in Tops Tricks. At the start of the article Mr Mack states that his ideas were based upon 'watching a fellow do his version of the performing fleas on TV' and admits that the props described in his article are very similar to those used by the unnamed performer. Mack then describes how simple concealed gadgets are used to create the illusion of a fire eating flea and a flea high diving into water.
In 1975 Tom Palmer produced a 20 page pamphlet entitled The Famous Flea Act (1975). Palmer explains that his fake flea act was formulated in 1959, but based upon a similar routine witnessed on a television program entitled 'Garroway At Large'. Various forms of simple fakery are used to knock over a running hurdle, move a flying trapeze, pull a model train and dive into a miniature pot of water. Palmer also notes how similar fakery could be used to have the non-existent flea jump through a paper covered hoop and lift a heavy weight.
More recently, various performers have constructed and exhibited fake flea circuses. For example, a mechanical flea circus featured on the Paul Daniels Magic Show in 1994 (Reed, personal correspondence, 1999). Also, Walt Noon has built complex fake circuses for both puppeteer Rob D'Arc and myself (Derbyshire, 2000: Gray, 2000). Other fake circuses include the UK based 'Arnold Frenzy's Strangely Compelling Performing Flea Cirkus' and the ACME Miniature Flea Circus (based in New York and performed by Adam G. Gertsacov).
In 1996 Colombian born sculptor and installation artist Maria Fernanada Cardoso performed a flea circus at San Francisco's Exploratorium, and re-staged the show in 1999 at the Sydney Festival. Varola (n.d.) has written an extensive article about the philosophy behind this circus and Cardoso has produced a video containing highlights of her performance (Cardoso, 1997). However, reports of the show make it difficult to determine whether Cardoso's act employs genuine fleas or clever fakery.
Editors note: It should be noted that in the above paragraph about Maria Cardoso, that Ms. Cardoso's circus was indeed an act that used real fleas, and was instrumental in revitalizing this amazing art. I hope to add complete biographical information on her when that becomes possible. - Walt
THE FUTURE OF THE FLEA CIRCUS
This article outlines the history of the flea circus. It charts the rise of performing fleas, starting from demonstrations of great craftsmanship in the sixteenth century, through to the popular exhibitions of 'industrious fleas during the nineteenth century and finally how more recent flea circus performers have chosen to use simple technology to fake flea activity. As noted in the Introduction, the article should not be seen as a comprehensive review. Instead, it presents a summary of the sources gathered during my research, and aims to provide the reader with a general overview of the area.
The article has not examined various areas more tangentially related to the flea circus including, for example, the role played by performing fleas and flea circus performers in fiction or popular culture. A small number of references to such topics uncovered during my research suggests that both might be worthy of further study. For example, Jay (1995) notes the appearance of fleas in written fiction (including Gresham's Nightmare Alley) and on film (including Mr Arkadian by Orson Welles). In addition, I have seen references to a short BBC drama entitled 'Flea Bites' (Greenwood, 1992) and recently purchased 'Flea Circus' - a family flea circus game made in the US by Mattel during the 1960's. The game is set within a circus ring and involves players using hand-eye co-ordination to perform ten 'big-time' circus acts with magnetic fleas. The article does, however, demonstrate that the concept of the flea circus has stood the test of time. This is perhaps not surprising, given that it appeals on at least two levels. First, like many animal acts, it succeeds because the public are attracted by the curious sight of animals mimicking human behaviour. Second, the flea circus has the additional advantage of yielding insight into a world that that is almost invisible to the naked eye, and, as such, possesses the same public appeal as artists who carve micro-sculptures from a grain of rice or scientists creating unbelievably small machines via nanotechnology. Given such appeal, it would be surprising if the basic concept did not continue into the next Millennium.
Indeed, recent technological advances in several areas (e.g., micro-engineering, pyrotechniques, 3D computer animation and large scale projection) would allow performers to develop more elaborate forms of the flea circus, and hopefully create the revival of public interest that this most curious form of entertainment truly deserves.
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Walt Noon's pages on creating flea circuses:
The ACME flea circus:
Michael Bentine and Potty Time:
Cardoso's Flea Circus:
General flea information and links: