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Topic: Flea Circus
Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 22, 2005 10:18AM)
I posted this in another forum, but I will repeat it here, since the subject came up. Also, this will help in my quest to out post the Joeys in Carnival of Fun.

There are a bunch of people glomming on to the Flea Circus idea as of late. Most make the mistake of having the gimmick do all the work. They will do a big spiel about the fleas and then the audience see a small parasol cross a wire or some water splash in a tank. I'm sorry, but the elaborate and EXPENSIVE Flea Circuses I've seen lately are as dull as can be. A complex bit of gear work or electronics is NOT the secret to making the Flea Act successful entertainment.

The secret is TALKING FLEAS! Now, let me explain. I'm not as crazy as you think.

Johnny Meah used to do a ten minute flea act in the center ring of a real circus before an audience of several hundred people. The only prop he used was a small paper bag. He would open the bag and take out the flea. He would talk to the flea and repeat to audience what the flea said back to him. It was a ventriloquism act without the dummy! And he didn't have to worry about his lips moving! At the end of the whole thing, the flea did a triple back somersault into the bag. There was a small thud in the bag (the old finger snapping bit). The audience went nuts.

Red Skelton did a similar bit.

Almost any two person comedy routine could be done this way. It adds soooo much character to the act and makes the mechanical side of it a glorious payoff.

Let me just at that I have not seen what the Doc does with his Flea Circus, so my initial critizism was not directed at him.
Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (Mar 22, 2005 10:22AM)
AND...you can get one of the marks to blow the flea out of a straw, into the bag! So it's audience interaction, too.
Message: Posted by: Harry Murphy (Mar 22, 2005 10:40AM)
Thanks for starting this thread and thanks for the great flea-bit (pun intended?).

I agree with you that many of the flea show that are hitting the bricks (classrooms, street fairs, etc) are wonders of mechanical puppetry but have little entertainment value.

In the past year and a half I have seen three flea circuses. One was very good, and the other two were flat (at best). All three were basically the same thing (trapeze, high-wire, strong flea, high dive, and shot from cannon) with maybe one to three stunts different.

The best was Jim Franks (Maryland Renaissance Fair). Jim puts life and personality into his “fleas”. The show is more about his histrionics, his interaction with the fleas and crowd, and much less about the puppetry.

The worst of the bunch was a guy that dressed as his version of a “medicine show pitch man” and simply named each flea and did the thing. He didn’t involve the crowd or suck them into the fantasy of the world of fleas! No one in the crowd believed that there were, in fact, fleas doing tricks for them. They watched a lame puppet show.

This is another act proves that owning the props does not necessarily make a good show. Heck, you have demonstrated that it only takes a paper bag (and maybe a drinking straw – thanks for that one Harley!) to do a flea circus (and some acting skill and a little audience management skill).

Talk about creating an illusion!
Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 22, 2005 10:47AM)
Dear Todd,

No offense taken...it was clear to me at the outset that this was all about the script and the performer. What attracted me to this act was the banners, the overblown spiel, the whole triumph-of-skill over gravity of the daring perfomers, and at the end of all of this, a few tiny props move slightly. I can't understand the performers who want to buy an all-electronic version with a remote control for $6,000. This act is about the talker painting a word picture, describing the life histories and personalities of each of the performers, the music, the color and the flash, and at the end...very little.

But what a great time to sell stuff, after the show...


Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 22, 2005 12:46PM)
I had a feeling that you were on the right path with the Flea Circus idea. I look forward to seeing what you do with it all.

By the way, one of these days I'm going to find a jeweler that can make the props and a source for human fleas and do a real flea circus.
Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (Mar 22, 2005 05:11PM)
Aw, c'mon, Todd, I've seen you bleed for your art!

And vice versa, come to think of it.

And there are so many other things that can be done with a bag and a straw, individually, or together. Pack light, eh? (He says, as contemplating another big prop to build.)
Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 23, 2005 06:13AM)
Dear Todd,

The first flea circus that I saw was real. It was created by performance artist Maria Fernanda Cardosa. I saw this performed in Atlanta during the Olympics, as part of the associated arts festival. You can read about it [url=http://www.newmuseum.org/more_exh_cardoso_flea.php]here[/url], [url=http://www.vdb.org/smackn.acgi$tapedetail?CARDOSOFLE]here[/url], and in an article in Salon [url=http://www.salon.com/09/features/fleas1.html]here[/url]. Cardosa moves in the high-class world of museum art installations, NEA funding, etc.

I guess that leaves the rest of us to scratch out a living among the common folk...


Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 23, 2005 07:15AM)
As I understand it, Maria has now moved on to other projects. I guess the bite from the show business bug wasn't big enough.
Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 23, 2005 07:36AM)
Dear Todd,

Well, seeing her performance has made me go over my act with a fine-toothed comb.


Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 23, 2005 09:05AM)
How else does one find Fleas? Easier than 'picking' them off. :)
Message: Posted by: Slim Price (Mar 23, 2005 10:48AM)
Some might not know that human fleas are different from animal fleas. Seems to me I remember they could be bought from some lab. I suppose a "flea market" is out of the question...
Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (Mar 23, 2005 11:54AM)
Flea, I'm flea at last!
Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 23, 2005 11:59AM)
Somewhere I read the ordeal about Mimi Garneau trying to put together a flea circus for a sideshow season in Canada, but I don't remember where I saw it. If anyone can help on this, please let me know.
Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 23, 2005 12:02PM)
Mimi's ordeal is described [url=http://www.sideshowworld.com/tgodepmg.html]here[/url].


Message: Posted by: Kondini (Mar 23, 2005 01:46PM)
Had the option to purchase the last Flea circus (Testo`s) Here in the UK some time ago now.
I applied for shows with it in advance of the season, word got out and within 14 days received a letter from Health & Safety, Wiltshire County Hall Debt,the letter based on the fact that should I decide to present a "live animal" show within their County borders I would be liable to prosecution under the Public Health & Safety act of 1958, also how irresponsible it would be for me to travel Human pestulence around the UK.

I did not purchase Testo`s show !!!!

But have managed to scratch up a living in other ways !!!
Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (Mar 23, 2005 06:19PM)
There's also:

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were trapped, so what could they do?
Said the flea, "Let us fly"
Said the fly, "Let us flea"
So they flew through a hole in the flue.

Jim Franks does a good job.
Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 23, 2005 07:19PM)
What ever happened to the Testo show?
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 23, 2005 10:46PM)
Ken (Kondini)...since you are 'stepping off' tomorrow down that long seasonal road...I hope I speak for everybody here that we are with you on this tour...may you gain a lot of POUNDS! See ya down the road...

Message: Posted by: MattTheKnife (Mar 25, 2005 10:44AM)
Just out of curiosity, what precisely would the jeweler have to make? (To be frank, until this string I had no idea that there ever was a REAL flea circus.)

-Matt (TK)
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 25, 2005 10:52AM)
I know a jeweler who is eminently qualified to make what you seek.

(He once took a gold Wedding Ring that I was discarding (heh heh heh) and turned it into a teeny tiny beautifully detailed 'Shrunken Head'.

Which I promptly lost! (crap)

Matt: Look up Hubert's Museum

Message: Posted by: MattTheKnife (Mar 25, 2005 11:03AM)
Actually I asked because believe it or not, I'm a jeweler. Once I went pro as a conjurer I guess I was looking for a new hobby (since my old one had turned in to a career I suppose). I had a friend that was one and I convinced her to begin to train me. That was some time ago and I've been doing it ever since as more or less a past time.

Ironically most of the stuff that I make is for my magic. As a matter of fact I’m currently about to finish a piece that’s actually intended to be demo for an effect that I plan on marketing. So in the end I still couldn't get away from our d***ed tradecraft!

-Matt (TK)


The only thing that I found was this: http://www.wfmu.org/MACrec/huberts.html
and that doesn't seem to be right. Do you happen to have a link to some images?
(I'm getting excited at the prospect of designing one... I probably won't use it- haha, but it'd be fun to have I suppose!)

-Matt (TK)
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 28, 2005 10:28PM)
Todd may have to correct me but I remember TINY little Gold or Silver Chariots...the wheels turned and had spokes just like real Chariots. There was a wire (copper I believe) that ended in a TINY TEENY collar to which the Flea was attached.
There were also Ball Gowns and Tuxedos that were actually miniscule CONES that had the design painted on them and they were placed over the Flea...they might have been Metal as well. There was the teeny Merry Go-Round with tiny horses that the Flea turned. These were props that were so small, they could only be made by a specialized Jeweler with BIG magnifyers!!! There were many other props but you get the idea.

The Fleas were all kept attached to their copper wire leashes on wads of cotton...then taken and put in place for each performance.

As to Hubert's..there MUST be more on the web about the place. I'll do a thorough search tomorrow.

Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 28, 2005 11:21PM)
Doug is right about the props used. Gears and pieces from watches were adapted for us as chariots and the merry go round. I'm looking images and not finding much. Bill Ballantine's Wild Tigers and Trained Fleas book is the best source of info. James Taylor reprinted the Heckler article in Shocked and Amazed. I will have to find that phone number for Heckler's son in NJ. More later.
Message: Posted by: Kondini (Mar 29, 2005 01:43AM)
The Testo Show is now scraped but the Flea rigs are still kept by the relatives of Testo (Well they were in their hands up to three years ago).
The original set was performed inside of a Roundun (Same shape as a hoopla booth) Without the solid rounding boards,,these were replaced by a striped canvas so that the whole unit looked like a small Circus tent.
The show was operated on a cloth covered (White) card table,strongly lit so that the Flea rigs could be seen (Just) With the naked eye.
Strong magnifying lenses were available but a large mounted magni glass was fitted to the edge of the table in front of the worker,this enabled him to take the performers off of his arm (As they were feeding)As and when required, the fleas were left on the arm during the short performance.

The usual chariot racing plus bogus bluff stunts were used also the strong man / Flea, was a popular interlude,,,,with the talker explaining that Fred the Magnificant was pulling behind him the equivalent wieght of a human being pulling a double decker bus !!

There was no requirement to harness the fleas at all as to just place a flea within a loop of wire was enough to cause the flea to walk forward,,,this was a natural thing that any flea would do of it`s own accord anyway.It would then continue to keep pushing forward until released by its operator.

The fleas used being human fleas,,soon became defunct,,,so finding your performers during the late 50`s was hard,cultivating your own was not easy,as the life span was short.

There were many Flea shows around just after the last war but natural change (A showman problem) Saw the Flea Circus set up change to The Girl in the Bottle,Giant Rat,Mouse Town,Snake Pit, etc etc, all shows which were easier to work and less problem to maintain.

don't forget the only difference from show type to show type were the boards out the front,,,the sticks and canvas were all the same,,,only the board subject made a show different.

From my own 15ft square joint, within a five year period it was a Snake Pit,Living Head Illusion,Bunco Booth and finaly back to a Girl in a Bottle show.All the same sticks just different flash.

Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 29, 2005 08:41AM)
Hey Ken,

What's "The Girl in the Bottle?"


Message: Posted by: Kondini (Mar 29, 2005 09:05AM)
The first version that I came across was owned by show woman Betty Allen (Still going strong today).
At great expense she had a lucite bottle made with a door in the rear so that a skantily clad girl could get in, the set up was behind a screen and through the art of projection the whole assembly could be projected onto the rear of a small 2ftx2ft open fronted box,,,ala the mini horse exhibit.
In later years Betty found that to show the bottle at it`s full size with a pretty girl inside in full view with the girl covered in soap bubbles giving the illusion that she was naked under the suds,,,really bought the cash in especially from the young studs on the fairground.

Back in the 60`s the heat from the lighting set caught the contents of the bottle on fire,,the girl nearly lost her life due to the fumes from the melting plastic.
Betty never replaced the bottle.
But she did work the sex angle into her snake show, useing two pretty girls in various forms of undress to sit with her pythons, one of which was 28ft long.
This show traveled up to four years ago when it was sold onto Dr Death (Tony Boswell) Who quickly ended up killing the snakes (Through being drunk one night, but that's another very long story) The show was split with the Show Paintings being sold to a collector for good money (See the paintings in Fair Ground Art book).

My version of the bottle illusion was slightly different and will be described in the book,,,,,if I ever get to write it,,!!!!!

Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 29, 2005 10:15AM)
Wow, scantily-clad women, toxic fumes, giant reptiles, fire, death and drunkenness...I love the sideshow!


Message: Posted by: MattTheKnife (Mar 29, 2005 10:25AM)
Everything seems easy enough for me to make (with the exception of possibly the Merry Go-Round).

Todd- In which volume of Shocked and Amazed can that article be found? I (unfortunately) only own volumes 4-7 and don't recall reading it, was it in a prior issue? (Although I read them some time ago so perhaps I just missed it or have since had it slip my mind.)

Should any of you have or come across some images please e-mail them to me so I can see about making some of the pieces once I have some spare time, thanks!

Matt (TK)

PS- Interestingly enough I have plans to see a Flea Circus this Saturday Evening (fake, not real) as part of Brown University's eleventh annual Performance Studies International Conference.
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 29, 2005 10:31AM)
Kondini has a history we will all be amazed at to read about...that book MUST be written!!!!! Hopefully in my lifetime (hey...I might be in it)...

I found a bunch of stuff about Hubert's but sadly not much in the way of photos...

Madame Toussads (or how ever the hell you spell it) is on the spot formerly Hubert's on 42nd street.

Hubert's was famous for the Steckler Flea Circus...run by both father and son...but also for the 10 in One of freaks and performers that changed constantly...(depending on what was open in Coney)...also of course Larry Love The Human Canary (Tiny Tim) and many Magicians...and was a hang out and stopping off point for assorted writers and artists and low end performers of all kinds...toward the end (last year of operation 1965) it was a putrid mess and surrounded by the porno sleaze of the area at the time.
Ripley's has reopened (across the street from where it used to be in the 50's/60's) so the tradition is KIND OF being carried on. Now that Times Square has been Disneyfied it is certainly safer but Hubert's is fondly remembered by many. It WAS my New York.

Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 29, 2005 11:47AM)
Ripley's is coming back to Times Sq. next year. It will be next to the Virgin record store. That's the only virgin you will find in Times Sq. Oops, I'm going to get in trouble...again.

I don't recall which volume the Ballantine article is in. I'll see what I can come up with. They had a nice flea circus prop display at the Barnum Museum during the sideshow exhibit a few years ago. I'm not sure photos were in the exhibit guide. I'll find photos somewhere.
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 29, 2005 01:27PM)
Ripley's next to Virgin is right across the street from where they used to be!
That was one hell of a Museum...these days, each of the Ripley's have one shrunken head on display... back then they had a huge case full of them...it was the real deal 'back then'...now it's a bunch of replica crap and not a hair on it's former behind...but I still love going to them!!

Todd...You and I both know the person who has the Great London Flea Circus (all props and EVERYTHING) run by Bob Mathews at The Pike in Long beach so many years ago...but this person (that we both know well) will not part with the set up for anything. Maybe they would lease it or partner up to get it on the road???

Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 29, 2005 10:27PM)
People may think less of me, but I will confess a dark thought. When I was doing the Ripley's Live show in Branson, MO a few years back, the Ripley's Museum in Branon loaned a few displays for the lobby of the theater. One of these was a real shrunken head. It sat, unattended, in a nice little plexiglass display case. There were many times when no one was around and it would have been easy to switch it for a goat skin head. I was taught by the Greatest Showman in the World how to doctor one of those heads to look like the real thing. Many times I thought about doing a switch like that. Many times.
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 30, 2005 01:27AM)
Naturally, I got ya beat on that! I put on a show in Tahoe with the participation of NASA. Part of the display was a GENUINE Moon Rock displayed in a plexi Pyramid. It had a little light under it. Part of the deal with NASA was, that it had to be guarded 24 hours a day. The JPL Scientist that brought allowed me to be considered a 'guard' and I was able to take it home over night. In my darkened bedroom I was up nearly all night looking at it and fantasising over it...and yes Todd...wondering if there was a way to get in that Pyramid and substitute a garden rock...but alas...it was considered a National treasure and after all I'm a patriot at heart...but if only....

We do have things in common...

Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 30, 2005 05:37AM)

While we are on the subject, did you make all the gaffs for the faked moon missions? What would have been the point of taking one? Didn't you make extra?


Message: Posted by: Kondini (Mar 30, 2005 03:09PM)
I thought the Russians got there first.
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 30, 2005 03:55PM)
The Ruskies put up a 'beeping basketball' first...a man in orbit first but the USA trod upon an alien world first...sadness is, so what...what did we do with it but cut budgets and not go back. China will be mining the Lunar surface and the Euro's will be building a Disneyland in a crater before we get back there.

Shame...there was so much promise as well as tech advances and scientific offshoots...but we listened to Politicians and short sighted pin heads. Morons.

"Why spend money on the Moon! We have problems here on Earth!"

Uh...well...not a penny was spent ON the Moon...it was all spent in Florida and Huston and sundry other places where employment and community involvment and investment shot local economies through the roof and yes...to the Moon.

And Doc Wilson...if you were being serious...you know better than that silly stuff, so I'll assume you were not. :)

Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (Mar 30, 2005 04:26PM)
Let's not insult pinheads by comparing them to politicians. Pinheads at least, have a useful function in the world.
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 30, 2005 04:55PM)
You are absolutely right!!!! Please accept it as a mistake...I forgot the term also related to performers of days past. How about Nitwits? Dingleberrys?

Sorry Shlitzie...RIP
Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 30, 2005 06:21PM)

Yes, I was pulling your mermaid's tail. I'm a product of the post-Sputnik science boom and always loved the space program, model kits as a kid, all that stuff. Can't beat those Mars landers either. It's actually a touchy spot we have in common.



Back to the original subject, [url=http://www.memoryelixir.com/fleacircus/fleacircus.html]Dr. Wilson's Flea Circus[/url] made its debut last Saturday; there are [url=http://www.memoryelixir.com/fleacircus/fleaphotos.html]more pictures[/url] here.

Thanks to many friends here at Café for advice and encouragement on this project.



Dear Slim,

It's a much better deal to get the video, book and CD from Walt Noon and build it yourself. It makes for a very long Howie Diddit.


Message: Posted by: Slim Price (May 2, 2005 07:49PM)
Were I able, I'd love to build my own. I was not promoting the one on eBay, I just noticed it, and the price.
Message: Posted by: drwilson (May 3, 2005 05:40AM)

I'm sure that your building skills exceed my own. I made the whole thing with a $9 hand saw with a miter box, a good electric drill, a Dremel tool, a screwdriver, and a lot of epoxy putty, sandpaper, adhesives and paint. A friend with a drill press helped with drilling through metal parts. It's a wild ride, the strangest scavenger hunt you ever went on. Go for it.


Message: Posted by: magicswan (May 18, 2005 02:15PM)
I found a flea circus booklet for about $4.00 at magic inc. with just a little imagination..you can blow them away!!!
Message: Posted by: drwilson (May 18, 2005 03:15PM)
Is that Tom Palmer's [i]Famous Flea Act[/i]? It's delightful. Get a copy of Bill Ballantine's [i]Wild Tigers and Tame Fleas[/i] too.


Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (May 18, 2005 04:09PM)
Tom Palmer=Tony Andruzzi.
Message: Posted by: drwilson (May 18, 2005 08:37PM)

Isn't that wild? T.A. Waters, of [i]Mind, Myth, and Magic[/i] fame, was the outside talker at Huberts in Times Square for a while, according to Ricky Jay in [i]Jay's Journal of Anomalies[/i].


Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (May 18, 2005 08:58PM)
There was no outside talker at Hubert's. I think T.A. did magic there.
Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (May 18, 2005 09:13PM)
I just saw a reference somewhere to TA being there, as were many others. I thought it was about him being a talker. But I've gone through several feet of books in the last month, most more than once, and have no idea where the mention was.

Diane Arbus spent time there. Lenny Bruce was an habituee. Etc.
Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (May 19, 2005 10:53AM)
There is a new film being shot called Fur. It's the Diane Arbus story with Micole Kidman playing the part. I think some of us will be involved in the Huberts/Ringling Bros. Sideshow scenes.
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (May 19, 2005 11:12AM)
Oooh...maybe they'll need some 'zibits!

The Arbus' story could be a good one if done right.
Did anyone here ever see 'Basquiat'? (1996) Truely worthwhile.
Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (May 19, 2005 04:34PM)
Some of us might be involved in other scenes too.

I've read the script, and it's interesting. Some of her life themes are developed, though not in a context that's historically accurate.
Message: Posted by: Slim Price (May 19, 2005 06:13PM)
I neverr saw an outside talker at Hubert's. I know bobby Reynolds did magic there...
Message: Posted by: JoeJoe (Jun 1, 2005 03:51PM)
On 2005-03-30 16:55, Doug Higley wrote:
sadness is, so what...what did we do with it but cut budgets and not go back. China will be mining the Lunar surface and the Euro's will be building a Disneyland in a crater before we get back there.

Shame...there was so much promise as well as tech advances and scientific offshoots...but we listened to Politicians and short sighted pin heads. Morons.

Actually, the reason we havn't gone back (nor any other country) is because we did not find any water - it would not be effecient to launch our own water into space for a lunar coloney. Water is heavy, unless we can find a water source on the moon ... or figure out a way to launch it into space cheaply ... nobody will be mining the surface of the moon.

There is still hope of finding water on the moon, NASA has a mandate to return to the moon to explore it further. Radio Shack has sponsored the program, and they will get their logo on the rover and have the rights to publish a video game that simulates the project. Their annual conference is coming up in July:


As for the flea circus stuff, I'm finding myself attracted to the idea ... I've never actually seen a fake flea circus, yet alone a "real" one - but I can see it's entertainment value. I love talking already, this could be a nice niche for me. Hmmmm <wheels start spinning> ...