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You Can’t Teach an Old Flea New Tricks

April 20, 2017

If you’ve ever tried breaking into show business, you know how hard it can be. There are countless auditions, disappointments and the relentless competition from other actors. Maybe you should try it as a flea!

The Birth of the Entertainment Industry

Records of the earliest flea circuses date back to 14th Century Asia, but they didn’t hit their apex in popularity until the 16th Century in Great Britain. While there are over 2500 species of fleas, Louis Bertolotto found only the females of the Pulex Irritans species worthy of a place in his line-up: “…I have found the males to be utterly worthless, excessively mulish and altogether disinclined to work.” Hmmm… some things never change.

In the beginning, finding fleas to audition for parts in his show was relatively easy – largely due to poor hygienic standards and the number of mangy dogs running free in the streets of London. But, as people began to bathe regularly, circus owners had to pay as much as half a crown per flea. Considering that the average life span of a flea was only several days to weeks, this represented a very poor return on their investment. One circus owner who toured Europe with his traveling show depended on his wife to send him new shipments of entertainers in envelopes through the mail. That worked well until Postmasters began vigorously hand stamping all letters and parcels.

The Casting Couch

Assuming that they could find a steady supply of fleas, circus owners had to determine which entertainers were best suited for the individual roles. The larger fleas with their superior strength and stamina were chosen to power the merry-go-rounds. The flightiest were chosen as dancers and the fleas with the strongest legs were made kickers, jugglers or chariot racers. Center ring performers had to audition by demonstrating how high they could jump and stick to the inside of the casting director’s jar.

In addition to the thrill of entertaining countless circus goers, flea trainers enjoyed working with their artistes because they never complained, were easy to house and cost almost nothing to feed. Twice a day, the trainer would roll up his shirt sleeve and let his entertainers sink their fangs into his forearm. After 15 minutes of feeding, it was show time.

The Show Must Go On

Although the fleas were ready, willing and able to work, it was no easy feat capturing them for their performances. At only several millimeters in length, it took someone with an eagle eye to tie a tiny noose made of glass silk around the performer’s neck. The trick was to secure the knot tight enough to restrain the performer but not cut off their circulation during meal time. Trainers with poor eyesight or who lacked patience permanently glued the flea’s feet to the stage where they enjoyed long-term job security.

As employees, fleas turned out to be tireless performers. They were inexpensive to feed, could be depended on for several shows a day and were capable of jumping over 140 times the force of gravity – the human equivalent of leaping over the Statue of Liberty a thousand times an hour.

While some fleas were permanently attached to their posts, others were “trained” to play football or juggle. After securing a flea on its back, the trainer would toss them a small pith ball that was coated with citronella oil or other insect repellent. The flea was so repulsed by the oil that it would “kick” the ball away to the delight of the audience.

Like any other popular money-maker, flea circuses were not immune to shysters, scalawags and imposters who attempted to entertain their audiences with “fake flea circuses.” Since the performers were often too small to be seen with the naked eye, a number of proprietors cashed in by devising clever stages that were operated with a series of foot-operated machines and clickers that made it appear that miniscule fleas were providing the show when they were still home sleeping on Fido.

Written for and excerpted from Armchair Reader The Gigantic Reader – West Side Publishing (September 7, 2009)

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