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Flea Circus infests New York

Posted: Thursday, November 28, 2002

NEW YORK -- Saturday was turning out to be a hard day for Professor Adam Gertsacov.

Half of his cast was on strike, the other half went missing and he had yet to discover that the cannon -- which hurtles his charges through a flaming ''ring of death'' -- was destined to malfunction.

But Gertsacov, who calls himself a ''psycho entomologist,'' was determined that the show would go on, especially since it was the debut of his Acme Miniature Circus at the Palace of Variety, a newcomer to 42nd Street near Times Square.

Midge and Madge, two sisters of the species ''pulex irritans'' -- fleas Gertsacov purchased from an entomological supply house -- would need to put on the show of their young lives to satisfy the New York audience.

Gertsacov is 37, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. But he is also a graduate of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

He dresses in what might be called the layered clown look. From purple top hat to red-white-and-green shoes, he is the picture of a carnival showman in a black silk shirt, bow tie, gold lame vest, magenta corduroy tails and floppy, plaid pantaloons.

On this day, he is running behind schedule, and the noon show will start a half-hour late. But the delay has given the professor (a vaudevillian honorific) time to promote his show on the sidewalk outside, offering discounts and banter.

''It's only $4. We'll take eight, but it's only four,'' he barks. ''The fleas perform naked ... with no clothes on.''

Gertsacov explains that his show is the first flea circus to appear in Times Square since 1957, when a Professor Heckler ended his long run at Hubert's Dime Museum because ''the nude shows were giving his fleas a bad name.''

While the history of the flea circus is somewhat hazy, there are reports of such shows in Europe in the 1820s. They died out in the middle of the last century, according to Gertsacov, apparently victims of television's success.

Gertsacov credits a grant from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts with helping him develop the Acme Miniature Circus. Since 1996, he has put on the show some 500 times in 35 states and brought it to Montreal, Canada, and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Now, he's doing two shows a day on weekends at the Palace of Variety through the end of December. His opening performance drew a dozen spectators to the small theater, including at least one infant, several children and their parents and some obvious vaudeville enthusiasts.

They applaud as the showman enters with his tray of souvenirs.

Not one to miss an opportunity, Gertsacov offers miniature programs for 10 cents each. Written on the back of the programs are ''Some Fun Flea Facts.'' Other wares include magnifying glasses (25 cents), flea tattoos (25 cents each or five for $1) and ''Save the Fleas'' buttons.

The button money is necessary, he says, ''because flea eradication has reached enormous dimensions.''

Striving for audience participation, the professor moves on to a brief history of the tiny insects, illustrated by an oversized ''Book of Fleas.''

Contrary to popular opinion, ''fleas have many positive qualities,'' he lectures. ''If a flea was the size of this woman,'' he points randomly into the audience, ''she could jump over one of the pyramids.''

Fleas, he notes, are so strong they can pull an object more than 100,000 times their weight, an ability they are to demonstrate in the upcoming show.

Reassuring the crowd that during the performance none of the fleas will be harmed or abused, Gertsacov moves to the spindly table center stage where he has mounted the elements of his circus on a table: a ''high'' wire, a performance ring, a pair of miniature chariots parked in front of the infamous Cannon of Doom and a tiny house trailer. Here the stars, Midge and Madge, are resting until the maestro extracts them with tweezers for Act 1, the chariot race.

At this point, Gertsacov divides the audience into two sections and coaches each side to root for their designated flea during the race to come.

Despite encouragement from both audience and master, one of the fleas -- Gertsacov takes a look with his magnifying glass to determine that it is Midge -- has gone on strike and refuses to race. He apologizes that this happens more often than he likes; the insects are testy.

To put the crowd in a better mood, the professor provides an interlude of ''flea verse,'' reciting a clever paraphrase from Shakes-peare's ''Hamlet'': ''To flea or not to flea ... ''

Meanwhile, Madge, star of the high wire act, has escaped into the audience.

''I need to think like a flea to catch a flea,'' says Gertsacov, who ultimately tracks her down with the magnifying glass in the hair of a bemused man in the front row and recaptures her with his tweezers.

Placing the recalcitrant flea on the wire stretched between two foot-high standards, the professor views the action through his glass, describing Madge's tortured traverse under the weight of a balancing bar and tiny chair. Almost as an afterthought, he notes that she is blindfolded, to the roar of her happy boosters in the audience.

The crowd derives a moment of calm from another interlude featuring a pair of ''Tibetan dancing beetles'' who face off in the circus ring.

And then, the exciting finale: the Cannon of Doom. Gertsacov carefully places the fleas, now apparently on their best behavior, into the cannon. But first he calls for a moment of silence in memory of Leopold, the brother of Midge and Madge, who died doing the cannon trick two years ago.

The maestro lights the Ring of Death and the audience is primed for the blast that will send the fleas through the flaming ring back to their trailer. But alas, the cannon fails to go off. Only momentarily bewildered, Gertsacov promises the audience they can return for the next show when it surely will work.

''Sorry, I haven't worked the bugs out of the system,'' he quips.

The crowd gives Gertsacov a round of applause.

But 4-year-old Sophie Berg, in town from Philadelphia with her family, is a bit puzzled.

''Mommy,'' she says, ''I couldn't see the fleas.''



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