The Alberti Flea Circus:

Mother of All Pitch Acts

 

 


 

It was my great good fortune to see two performances of the Alberti Flea Circus at the American Folk Festival in Bangor, Maine, on August 27, 2006. Jim Alberti has taken the humble flea circus, typically a close-up performance for a handful of people, and turned it into a grand act that can play to hundreds in an outdoor setting. In addition, he has used the Alberti Flea Circus as the bright wrapping paper around the Mother of All  Wonder Mouse Pitches. At the end of a half-hour show, it took about twenty minutes for the mouse-buying crowd to disperse. Jim Alberti emerged tired but happy from beneath the high tide of a sea of green!

 

The show begins with Alberti playing a beautiful street organ built by British organ builder Alan Pell. The hand crank works the bellows to send air through the twenty wooden pipes of this beautiful piece, which also has bells inside. The organ is controlled not by a paper roll, which is fragile and makes for a temperamental instrument, but rather by a MIDI controller. This allows any of a large number of tunes to be selected instantly. In addition, MIDI control allows the valves to open very briefly, for musical arrangements that are bright with trills and flourishes. There was a small crowd as Jim started to play the organ, but as the beautiful music filled the air, people came running to see what was going on. Alberti talks over some of the tunes, giving their history or talking about the composers. Finally, while playing some familiar tunes, he offers a free ticket to anyone who can name the composer. When one member of the crowd calls out the name of Steven Foster, Alberti asks them to make their way to the stage to claim their prize. Their free ticket turns out to be good for absolutely nothing, but at least it's free, an exchange that starts off the give-and-take between this masterful performer and his audience.

 

 

As the show begins, Alberti does a classic bally, extolling the virtues of his show by naming some of the performers: the fearless Captain Spaulding, who will be shot from a cannon, the Daring Darling Darnelle, skilled at the spectacular high dive, and more. He introduces his first flea, selecting it carefully from a tiny trunk with a pair of forceps and hopping off the stage to display the performer to the audience. Soon Paddy O'Reilly Shaughnessy is waving the Irish flag on the stage, then waving the flag while perched on Alberti's fingertip. The crowd goes wild!

 

Alberti recruits a young helper from the audience to assist in the next feat: a trained flea will jump through a hoop held in one hand, and land in the other hand. As Alberti coaches the kid to hold his hands as far apart as possible, he promises to reward his helper with a hundred-year-old toy if he does a good job. A few false starts and many laughs later, the flea makes the leap, but can't be found in the kid's other hand. Alberti goes over the kid with the forceps, finally removing a flea. He discovers that it's not his performer, and puts it back on the kid.

 

 

Of course, the kid has been a good sport, so he gets his toy. Alberti demonstrates the toy, the fabled Wonder Mouse, taking the mouse deftly through a pretty set of moves before explaining the secret. He gives the Wonder Mouse to the kid with the illustrated instructions, as everyone else wishes that they were fortunate enough to have received the fabulous toy. Fortunately, Alberti explains that there will be Wonder Mice available for sale after the show for only one dollar.

 

It's back to feats of daring once again as the courageous Captain Spalding is shot from a cannon, falling through a paper-covered hoop before landing safely on a makeup pad. Then the Daring Darling Darnelle makes her spectacular high dive into a tin can, apparently executing a cannonball from the volume of water splashed into the crowd. We have seen all the wonders of the big top carried out by the humblest of creatures in grand style, with a steady stream of gentle jokes from the master.

 

 

But now it's time for the moment that so many have been waiting for: the chance to buy a Wonder Mouse!

 

 

The stage is mobbed as people holding fistfuls of cash scramble over each other to reach the man sitting on the stage, patiently demonstrating the operation of the toy to one small fan after another. There are extras: extra wax, an extra set of illustrated instructions, and of course, extra time from the nicest guy in show business. People who missed the show fall in at the back of the crowd, figuring whatever is being sold here must be something special. It sure is!

 

 

 

Between shows, Jim Alberti was extremely generous with his time, trading stories with me as a fellow flea circus proprietor. He was friendly, funny and wise. I know how the kids who got extra instruction from him on the Wonder Mouse felt. The time flew by, and it was time for his next performance.

 

As I watched the show again, I was able to perceive the perfection of its structure. The seed is planted with the free ticket: you could get stuff at this show! The kid is promised a hundred-year-old toy. I thought of hand-carved wooden toys gleaming in the shop windows of London at the time of Dickens. After all, he has the magic street organ, with its carousel paintings on the top and sides, what other wonders might he have? He demonstrates the Wonder Mouse, explaining that it's not motors or magnets, but the old wax-and-wire principle used by the clever Victorians.

 

It really is from another age!

 

This is a marvel beyond what's available in any toy store.

 

I wanted to talk to him some more after the second show, but I couldn't get through the crowd.

 

by Paul Szauter

 


All photographs courtesy of Paul Szauter  Copyright 2006 all right reserved

1. Darling Darnelle prepares for the high dive

2. Jim Alberti draws a crowd with a performance on the street organ.

3. Jim Alberti rewards his volunteer with a Wonder Mouse, demonstrating the marvelous toy first.

4. The crowd mobs the stage to buy the Wonder Mouse

 

 Copyright 2006 all right reserved - Paul Szauter 

 


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