Skip to comments.Victorian Flea Circuses: A Lost Art Form
Posted on 04/01/2009 12:48:59 PM PDT by BGHater
If you can make a flea cooperate with you, you're probably good at politics
I have to say, this is probably the strangest subject we ever talked about on Dark Roasted Blend. However, it is such a rich showcase of miniature art and craftmanship, and the "wow" factor is there as well:
A flea, with legs finer than a human hair, can pull up to 700 times its own weight! A flea can lift up to 60 times its own weight! A flea can jump over 150 times its own height! When we build circuses on Mars, or asteroids one day, then we'll perhaps witness similar dexterity, but for now - consider a humble flea:
(art credit: Leah Palmer Preiss)
"Big fleas have little fleas... Upon their backs to bite 'em... And little fleas have lesser fleas... And so ad infinitum."
Andy Clark sends us his latest project - he's been researching this topic for about four years now and regularly publishes new discoveries along with other flea news on the Flea Circus Research Library blog.
"The idea to make a Victorian Flea Chariot came to me when I wondered if it's possible to use simple techniques available in the 1800s to make one today. Although there are no detailed specs of chariots used in the early days of the flea circus, I've seen some of them in videos. So, my design is largely based on those from Elsie Torp's Danish flea circus and those seen on the British Pathe Newsreels"
The chariot is approx 10mm long by 7mm wide and made from brass; the wheels are 5mm in diameter. The wheels and axle were turned on a lathe and the other parts were made by hand with hacksaw and files. Mostly the chariot was made without requiring magnification but I did use a magnifying glass for the filing and fitting (the mounting is an old Victorian era french coin about the size of a 2p). A digital camera was also used to check some of the details.
Making the chariot can be seen here, with video of a final product.
On the right are some modern props, created by Swen Swenson, left image via
A flea-driven hearse... and a flea-driven bicycle (seen on this page devoted to old circus in Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens, now closed) -
(image credit: John Torp's Flea Circus, via)
Fun fact: a human flea is easiest to train (I wonder why)
So you don't need to look around for stray dogs to put an acting troop together - however, human fleas are also the hardest to find... thank goodness!.. Also consider this: every performance can be their last, so these insects are really on a tight schedule, putting everything into it - see for yourself:
- the performers live for about one year
- it takes six months for them to mature enough to be trained
- it takes three months to train them
- they perform for the next three months, then they die.
"Fleas are trained not to jump by keeping them in a container with a lid. Once trained, they are harnessed by carefully wrapping a thin gold wire around the neck of the flea. Once in the harness the fleas usually stay in it for life. The harnesses are attached to the props and the strong legs of the flea allows them to move objects significantly larger than themselves." (source)
(images credit: Heidi and Hans-Jurgen Koch)
Andy Clark also shares a report about earlier and sophisticated flea carriage from the 1800s: "A few years ago, a Mr. Boverick, an ingenious watchmaker, of London, exhibited to the public, a little ivory chaise, with four wheels, and all its proper apparatus, and a man sitting on the box, all of which were drawn by a single flea. He made a small landau, which opened and shut by springs, with six horses harnessed to it, a coachman sitting on the box, and a dog between his legs : four persons were in the carriage, two footmen behind it, and a postilion riding on one of the fore horses, which was also easily drawn along by a flea. He likewise had a chain of brass, about two inches long, containing 200 links, with a hook at one end, and a padlock and key at the other, which the flea drew very nimbly along" (Jamieson't Modern Voyages and Travels.)
illustrations from 19th century periodical "St. Nicholas Magazine." - via
A humble flea species is going to outlive us all
Performing fleas has been around for a long time (some say, since Ancient Egypt), then they achieved notoriety in the 1600s (when some flea trainers were condemned as sorcerers), and finally became really popular in the Victorian Period. In the late 19th century L. Bertolotto started touring the UK, Europe and America with his "Educated and Learned Fleas" - his fleas pulled chariots, drew water from a well and performed parodies of current affairs.
European watch makers and jewelers long were demonstrating their skills to create tiny ivory sculptures and silver chains. But the art of flea training really took off when one such artisan finally made a chain so small that he could harness a flea to the end of it.
Years later, when Bertolotto created his exhibition, he began to focus more on performance side of the show, rather than on miniature set pieces. Following this, flea circuses were shown all over at fairs and sideshows until the 1960s. It is not known what caused the decline in popularity but perhaps TV is to blame, or possibly the vacuum cleaner?
images via National Fairground Archive
Modern state of the art is not so discouraging as it might seem. Mac Brothers Flea Circus promises some exciting action, and shows an exceptional carriage:
(image credit: Roy Maloy)
They boast the most talented fleas in the world, including:
Samson the Magnificent - with his feats of strength
The Flying Ronaldos - with their death-defying trapeze routines
The Amazing Zippo - the flea who knows no fear on the tightrope a hundred times his body height above the ring
Roy Maloy is the owner of this beautiful flea circus and holder of the world record for tallest stilts ever walked upon at 57 feet. He also runs a wrestling troupe who attend carnivals and offer the public money if they can pin them for 3 seconds.
Walt Noon from Flea-circus.com also creates absolutely gorgeous vintage contraptions for circuses... this have this used, antique look - and we bet, fleas enjoy jumping around there:
(images credit: Walt Noon)
The last flea circus on Earth is probably Hans Mathes' flea circus at Oktoberfest - see video. Update: no, not the last one! They have company - The Acme Miniature Flea Circus is still performing, see the videos here.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Insects condemns flea circuses en masse:
"Seven stick-insects, five spiders, an Asian bumble-bee, an American black cockroach, eight flies, and three dung beetles are among insects that are still kept in three UK flea circuses. Many of these insects are regularly made to perform tricks and manoeuvres unrepresentative of natural behaviour. One flea circus has recently advertised for even more wild insect acts - including scorpions, fly and butterfly larvae, ants and ladybirds - for its 2006 tour. "
Flea circuses must be banned! - "the report shows wild insects in circuses in the UK and Europe apparently displaying repetitive, abnormal behaviour most likely associated with stress and the absence of a suitable physical and social environment necessary for their welfare."
(images via 1, 2)
Read the whole petition here. However, some flea "pits" are still in existence, and the Flea Circus Research Library has a list of locations (mostly in U.K.)
Flea Circus Posters!
These clearly bizarre posters are lovingly created by David Manuel:
See more of them on this page
And for those of us who lack patience, skills and time for three month flea training program, you can entertain yourself with the wonderfully intense life of sea-monkeys (read one such hilarious account here)
BONUS: If you can't attract visitors by minuscule fleas (after all, they are incredibly hard to see - and some so-called flea circus do not contain any fleas at all, with owners making a pretend show), then make something bigger and louder to pull the cart instead:
Such "steam" creations were actually the rag doll acts, where actors would take off the metal armor at the end of the performance....
Amazing. Get to work slave, er..taxpayer.
and this is one of the reasons why I love Free Republic.. thanks for posting.. ya gave me some chuckles.
There used to be a flea circus in Times Square until the 1950s. I saw it once when I was a child. It was truly a strange place, quite shadowy except for the lighted boxes where the fleas were. There was also a display of these tiny carriages and flea accessories. IIRC, it shared space with some kind of private museum of torture devices or some such thing, or maybe it was just near that museum. Times Square was pretty strange in the 1950s.
I think the place was probably gone by the end of that decade; I don’t recall ever having gone there again.
Nifty.. Thanks perfect fare for April Fools.
"What Im about to tell you may make you itch.
My fathers uncle was famous for having fleas. No, he wasnt infested with fleas, but he was invested in fleas. As Professor LeRoy Heckler, my dads Uncle Roy made quite a nice living from his flea circus which performed several shows a day in Times Square from about 1925 until 1957. Uncle Roy inherited the flea circus from his father, Professor William Heckler, a long-time carnival guy and former strong man. My uncles fleas were quite acrobatic. They walked a tightrope, played football, had chariot races and even pulled a carousel.
In his book, Wild Tigers and Tame Fleas, author Bill Ballentine devotes a chapter to Uncle Roy and his talented fleas. Fleas are world-class athletes. Uncle Roy says in the book that flea legs, of only 1/20 of an inch long, can propel the insect into a high jump of almost eight inches, a broad jump of thirteen inches, more than one hundred times its body length If a humans legs were this strong, a person could leap groundwise 700 feet or straight up 450 feet, soaring over the torch of the Statue of Liberty with 145 feet to spare (Ballentine 242). No wonder fleas were such sought-after circus performers.
Uncle Roy had an interesting life. He traveled throughout North and South America and the Caribbean islands. He made appearances on the show Whats My Line and other radio and tv shows of his era. Uncle Roy retired in the late 1950s to Bradenton, Florida, home to many other circus and carnival retirees. He passed away a decade after that.
Uncle Roys career is part of my family history, our family lore, something which we always talk about at family get-togethers. My father and his family told the stories to my sisters and I, and we in turn have passed the stories on to our own children. With every generation the circle grows wider. And, many times when Ive shared the story of my uncle and his flea circus with people outside the family, Ive come across someone who knew of him and saw his flea circus years ago. The circle grows wider still.
Yes, every family has significant stories which bind the members together. One of ours is fleas. So tiny, yet so significant."
I would have loved to see his flea circus. ;D
History: From the mid-1920's until 1965 this greatest of New York City institutions occupied 228-232 West 42nd Street near Times Square— the former location of Murray's Roman Gardens, a legendary opulent "lobster palace" closed by prohibition. The building which housed Hubert's dime museum was a schoolhouse built in the 1880's by the prestigious architects McKim, Mead & White. Hubert's is legendary for serving as the sometimes and seasonal home for many of the greatest freak, novelty, sideshow and variety acts for four decades— not to mention the last working flea circus in America. The origin of Hubert's seems to be on Coney Island, where a 1925 advertisement for "Hubert's Museum" in The Show World magazine lists "Hubert Miller, Owner" and shows a photo of the namesake museum on the Coney boardwalk taken by Edward Kelty. A 1927 Kelty photograph of the same location shows the sign altered to read "Huber's Museum." The final "t" has been dropped, perhaps signifying a change in ownership. Did Hubert Miller sell-out and move Hubert's Museum to 42nd Street in 1925? Yet another Kelty photo dated 1925 of "Hubert's Museum" at the 228-232 42nd Street location seems to suggest this. (There was a "Huber's Museum" owned by George Huber located on 14th Street in New York from 1888-1910). By the late-1930's Hubert's Museum was owned by Bill Schork & Max Schaefer, who relocated Hubert's to the basement of the building to make room for their street-level pinball parlor and shooting gallery. The subterranean space inside "Schork & Schaefer's Penny Arcade" was reached from the street entrance below the Hubert's marquee, through a turnstile, and down a wide L-shapped staircase, that led to a columned, linoleum paradise lined with several four foot-high stages where 6-10 performers alternated giving shows from 11am-Midnight, 6 days a week-- closed Tuesdays. In 1925 admission was "Afternoons 10¢, Evenings 15¢, Sundays and Holidays 15 and 25 Cents". The Heckler's Flea Circus eventually occupied a walled-off area of the Hubert's basement, guarded by its own ticket box and sliding wooden door, which opened to small room where the Professor and fleas did their thing for an additional admission (10 Cents, then 15 Cents, and finally 25 Cents). Hubert's hosted the flea-training Heckler family-- father William, and sons William Jr. and Leroy from 1925 or 1926 until 1933. Leroy "Roy" Heckler took over the operation in 1933, and kept the fleas dancing at Hubert's until his retirement in 1957. Hubert's was a mecca for millions, from the high-toned, tuxedoed Broadway theatre crowds of the 1920's and 30's, to the down and dirty Times Square street toughs who frequented the spot until its demise in the mid-1960's. Immortalized by A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Diane Arbus, Lenny Bruce, Tiny Tim, Andy Kaufman and many others, Hubert's was a world onto itself. In its later years, from approximately 1956 until its closing, the museum was managed by R.C. (Richard "Charlie") Lucas, known as "Woo-Foo", a former Ringling Brothers fireeater. Lucas' wife, Mary Sahloo (Mary J. Wigfall), whom he married in 1943, was known as "Princess Sahloo" and "Princess Wago" and performed at Hubert's for many years as the "Voodoo Jungle Snake Dancer." Little has been written about Hubert's final days, but from the pages of R.C. Lucas's personal diaries, the day to day grind of the running the museum in the mid-1960's was a mental and physical strain, which along with declining profits, and the relentless chokehold of sleaze and decay, which characterized 42nd Street, doomed Hubert's to an untimely death. By late 1965 Lucas was gone, and "Hubie's" stopped its live performances— the downstairs basement remaining open free of charge with its decaying exhibits until 1968. A few seconds of film in the 1969 movie Midnight Cowboy capture Hubert's neon entrance -- a last fleeting glimpse of the NY legend.
What a neat account! Thank you for posting that. Btw, for years, when I would tell people about the flea circus, they’d look at me as if I’d completely lost it. Nobody who hadn’t lived in NY at that time or at least wasn’t very well read about odd historical facts could even imagine it.
I'm sorry I was never able to see this. But I was able to play against the tic-tac-toe chicken on Mott Street! ;-D
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Well I hope you got the large bag of fortune cookies out of the experience!
LOL .....I wish! ;-D