“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages! Step right up and witness The Great American Flea Circus! The only performing flea circus here in fabulous New York City featuring American born and raised fleas! Come see the parasitic become performer in amazing and dangerous feats! See Fleanina attempt to dive several thousand flea feet from the playing card diving board into the Chinese take-out container pool! Witness Fleatus, the world’s strongest flea, lift up the bar of a mouse trap, battling forces over ten thousand times greater than his own weight! And be sure to stay to for the grand finale as Evel Fleanievel gets shot out of the diet coke and Mentos cannon! All that and more right here at The Great American Flea Circus!”
That’s the opening pitch I give when I perform with my flea circus on the streets. I’m usually juggling as I initially draw a crowd in, and can be easily spotted from a distance with my knee-high stripped socks, bright green Converse, goggles, and lab coat with a giant flea on the back. My flea circus (pictured here), at its core, pokes fun at the presentation style of 20th century sideshow, and is a twelve minute comedy routine. There aren’t any real fleas, and all of the apparent feats that they perform are the result of my manipulating strings, levels, and tubes from the backside of the suitcase. But this was not always the case…
There are over two thousand different species of flea. The human flea, a flea that finds human blood delicious, has the ability to jump ten inches into the air (keep in mind that jumping up ten inches into the air for a flea would be like if you or I jumped over the Statue of Liberty). Watchmakers would take these fleas and construct little chains or harnesses around them in order to show how precise they could be with metal wires and how they could work effectively on such a small scale. One of the earliest records of this was in 1578, when a watchmaker by the name of Mark Scaliot locked a flea with a small lock consisting of eleven separate pieces to a small chain. Similarly, centuries later in 1742 watchmaker Sobieski Boverick had fleas pull small wagons, not unlike the ones pictured here.
Although fleas were used to showcase people’s abilities for centuries, the fleas’ abilities were not truly showcased until the 1800s. Flea circuses were included in sideshow tents at traveling carnivals and circuses, and they remained a staple of the industry until the 1970s. Perhaps the most famous of all flea circuses during this time period was “Signor Bertolotto’s Extraordinary Exhibition of the Industrious Fleas,” owned by L. Bertolotto, which featured acts that often made fun of and spoofed the politics of the time.
Real, genuine flea circuses are rare and hard to come by now, although there are still a few performing here and there. Walt Noon, for example, is an inventor and magician who still performs sections of his flea circus with live human fleas. The more common flea circus nowadays is one that is mechanical, and runs on small motors and servos that are a controlled via a remote control in the performer’s pocket. These flea circuses without any fleas rely heavily on the performer’s ability to pantomime and pretend as if the fleas are really there. Although this reincarnation of the flea circus is nothing like the original, it allows the performer to present “acts” that wouldn’t have been possible if live fleas were being used.
“And that’s it for The Great American Flea Circus! We are happy to carry on this tradition, and on behalf of myself and all of the fleas, we hoped you’ve enjoyed today’s performance and maybe even learned a thing or two about our little parasitic friends. Come back soon…and please check your dogs before you go!”
Matthew “Phineas” Lish, 18, is an award-winning clown and juggler. Notable performances include off-Broadway, the Ronald McDonald House, the Century Club with Dick Cavett, and guest ringmaster at the Big Apple Circus. He was offered a spot with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and currently holds the world record for juggling clubs while bouncing on a pogo stick.