A flea circus
refers to a circus sideshow
attraction in which fleas
are attached (or appear to be attached) to miniature carts and other items, and encouraged to perform circus acts within a small housing. Fresnel lenses
were provided to help visitors to view the attraction.
The first records of flea performances were from watch makers who were demonstrating their metal working skills. Flea circuses were first advertised as early as 1833 in England, and were a main carnival attraction until 1930. Some flea circuses persisted in very small venues in the United States as late as the 1960s. The flea circus at Belle Vue amusement park, Manchester, England, was still operating in 1970. Although the flea circus has largely become a lost art form, with much information about them being anecdotal or steeped in lore, authoritative information is given below, by current Flea circus ringmasters.
Dead fleas can also be painted (Pulgas Vestidas) and turned into an art form, such as the Mexican flea band and wedding party that can be seen in Tring Natural History Museum.
Techniques without real fleas
Some flea circuses may appear to use real fleas, but don't. A variety of electrical, magnetic, and mechanical devices were (and still are) used to augment the exhibit. In some cases these mechanisms are responsible for all of the "acts," with loose fleas in the exhibit maintaining the illusion.
Some "flea circuses" do not contain any fleas at all and the experience & skill of the performer convince the audience of their existence.
In much the same way that we know that a magician can't really cut a girl in half, her or his showmanship allows us to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the show. When performed correctly, you will still enjoy the show even if fully aware of this deception.
Current flea circuses:
- Professor A. G. Gertsacov's Acme Miniature Flea Circus performs primarily in the United States and Canada, touring numerous venues and festivals since 1995.
- The Alberti Flea Circus tours the country, and can be seen at county and state fairs and private shows.
- Phydeaux's Flying Flea Circus of Fate tours the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland,and Delaware area. It also has done performances in Texas.
- Professor Payne's Phantasmagorical Flea Circus can be seen at public libraries and private shows in Washington state.
Famous flea circuses of the past:
- Maria Cardoso toured the world with her installation art flea circus in the 1990s.
- Professor Heckler's flea circus (in residence at Hubert's Dime Museum in Times Square, NY until 1957) which can be seen in the background of the film Easy Rider
- L. Bertolotto's flea circus of Regent Street, London.
- A famously televised flea circus (without fleas) was created by Michael Bentine in the 1960s.
Flea circuses in popular culture
Many cartoons over the years have featured flea circuses in one way or another, mostly in cartoon-ish and unrealistic ways:
- The Tex Avery cartoon The Flea Circus featured a French flea circus that broke up when they saw a dog and attacked it, and one flea, Francois (voiced by Bill Thompson), who played a sad clown, hitches with the star flea, Fifi, and has enough fleas together to bring the flea circus back to life. Another vintage Warner Bros. cartoon, Curtain Razor, has Porky Pig as a theatrical agent auditioning acts, including a shaggy dog, who turns out to be the transport of a flea circus, which proceeds to set itself up, perform, and return to the dog, on command.
- A Sesame Street skit for the letter f, featured a flea circus with a family of fleas all with names starting with F.
- A Bug's Life, the Disney film, centers on a troupe of flea circus performers, including their owner, P.T. Flea, a parody of the real-life circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum.
- In Batman: Shadow of the Bat #11, in a story entitled "The Human Flea", Batman visits Kemp's Flea Circus in Gotham City as a part of his investigations.
Movies have also featured or referenced flea circuses:
- The Charlie Chaplin movie Limelight features Chaplin performing a flea circus.
- Mischa Auer plays a flea circus owner (with real fleas) in Orson Welles's film Mr. Arkadin.
- The City of Lost Children features a former circus/freak show owner, Marcello, who uses performing fleas carrying poison to assassinate people.
- In the movie Jurassic Park, John Hammond (the CEO of the park) says the first attraction he built "after coming down from Scotland" was a flea circus. He said that he was inspired to create Jurassic Park because he wanted to create a place to entertain people, that was not an illusion like the circus.
In the video game "Touch Detective" Mackenzie has to solve a case involving a training incident in a flea circus
- "Fleas:The Lethal Leapers". National Geographic 173 (5):
- Jay's Journal of Anomalies, ISBN 1-59372-000-9
- Wild Tigers & Tame Fleas by William Ballantine, (1958)
- Annals of the New York Stage by George C. Odel (Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 1928)
- Bertolotto, L. The history of the flea: With notes and observations. 2nd Edition, London: Crozier.
- Bertolotto, L. The history of the flea: With notes and observations. 5th Edition, New York: John Axford.
- The Compleat Flea by Brendan Lehan (London: John Murray, 1969)