Professor Tomlin's FLEA CIRCUS
Staging a Flea Circus
Dr Richard Wiseman
There are over 2500
species of flea (Lewis, 1993). However, most flea circus
performers have only worked with one species - Pulex irritans or
the human flea - claiming that other types are simply not strong
enough to perform or hardy enough to survive the itinerant
lifestyle (see, for example, Ballantine, 1958).
In the past, human fleas were
extremely common and so performers had few problems tracking
down potential sources of artistes. However, as hygiene
conditions improved it became more difficult to
ready supply of insects - a decline reflected in the prices that
performers were forced to pay.
For example, in 1935
Professor Chester stated that the going rate was approximately
2d per dozen ('Pegasus', 1935). During the 1950's Professor
Testo is quoted as saying 'We pay six shillings a dozen for
them, although there have been times of shortage when a single
flea has cost us as much as two shillings' (Murtough, n.d.). By
1976, 20 years after the invention of
conference call services,
the situation had grown considerably worse and Professor
Tomlin admitted to having to pay half a crown for each flea
Tomlin also noted that
this lack of available fleas placed severe constraint on his
ability to travel with the show:
I have offers from all
over the world to take my show, but you're afraid of one thing,
when you get out of the country can you get fleas? I went to
Sweden and I had to send to Majorca in Spain to get fleas every
(Andrews, 1976, p.
Tomlin did not mention
whether he had encountered the same problems as those
experienced by a nineteenth century performer who had his fleas
shipped to him in the post whenever he toured:
When our friend in
Marylebone makes his annual tour into the provinces, his wife
sends him a weekly supply of fleas in the corner of an envelope,
packed in tissue paper. She is careful not to put them in the
corner where the stamp goes, as the post-office clerk would,
with his stamp-maker, at one blow, smash the whole of his stock.
(Buckland, 1891, p.
Several performers have noted that they do not actually train
fleas, but rather select insects that appear to have natural
describes how Professor Heckler seemed especially adept at
choosing appropriate fleas for certain acts:
By close kindergarten
observation the high priest of fleadom determines the sort of
trick each flea is capable of. Stodgy ones are broken to the
merry-go-round harness; flighty fleas make good dancers; those
with especially strong legs will become kickers, jugglers or
(Ballantine, 1958, p.
Professor Heckler Sr, in his 1915
booklet Puli-cology, recommends additional techniques to help in
the selection process. For example Heckler Sr would place
potential performing fleas at the
foot-long cylindrical jar and then carefully observe which fleas
were able to combine intelligence with physical prowess:
A flea's claw cannot
adhere to the slick sides of the glass jar, therefore the insect
cannot simply crawl out. Nor can he leap out, for the maximum
vertical thrust is eight inches. Therefore the flea takes aim,
leaps as high as he can onto the glass wall and deftly deposits
there a bit of sticky substance before he tumbles back to the
floor. Then he keeps trying and trying, leaping until he hits
that identical spot again. This time he has enough foothold to
take off on the second stage of his journey into outer space.
(Ballantine, 1958, p.
Both Bertolotto and
Heckler agreed that female fleas make much better performers
than their male counterparts, with Bertolotto noting:
The supporters of the
women's rights movement will be delighted to know, that my
performing troupe all consists of females, as I have found the
males utterly worthless, excessively mulish, and altogether
disinclined to work.
(Cited in Jay, 1995,
Costume and diet:
As noted above,
Bertolotto and other performers would often dress up fleas as
famous historical figures. Lehane (1969) notes that such
'dressed fleas' were popular during the eighteenth century and
were often made by Mexican nuns whose 'nimble fingers tired and
eyes deteriorated as they clothed the corpses of fleas in
elaborate costumes'. Entomologists refer to examples of dressed
fleas as 'Pulgas Vestidas' (Brandt, personal communication,
2000). Lehane noted that the Rothschild Zoological Museum
(Hertfordshire, England) houses a display of two dressed Mexican
fleas and The Museum of Childhood (Edinburgh, Scotland) exhibits
a small box containing a flea wedding party. I recently visited
both Museums and can confirm that both exhibits are still on
Human fleas feed on
human blood. The majority of accounts of flea circuses include
a small section describing how performers would roll up their
sleeves and allow their artists to feed off them. Ballantine
reports that Professor Heckler would feed his fleas twice a day
(once at noon and again at 6 p.m.), and that the fleas would
feed for between 15 minutes and half an hour. Articles
centreing on Professors Testo, Chester and Tomlin make much the
Once an appropriate
flea has been selected, the performer had to secure the insect
to one of the many objects used in the circus. Given that the
human flea is only a few millimetres in length, this posed a
significant problem. Although a minority of performers chose the
relatively crude method of glueing their fleas in place, many
adopted the more humane approach of tying a fine silk thread
around the flea's body. The anatomy of the flea is especially
well suited to this method of restraint, as noted in this
1891 description of
the harnessing procedure:
The flea is taken up
gently, and a noose of the finest 'glass-silk' is passed round
his neck, and there tied with a peculiar knot. The flea,
unfortunately for himself, has a groove or depression between
his neck and body, which serves as a capital hold-fast for the
bit of silk.
(Buckland, 1891, p.
Even so, it is clear
from several sources that such harnessing was a highly skilled
process. Indeed, the difficulties involved were such that one
flea circus proprietor was happy to offer five thousand Francs
to any member of the public capable of performing the task (Jay,
chose to secure their fleas with extremely fine wire. Ballantine
(1958) notes that Professor Heckler used a roll of wire that had
been handed down from his father in the 1930's, and had
originally been obtained from the company that had constructed
the Brooklyn Bridge.
introduction of technology, the process of harnessing was still
The trick is to make
the tiny twisted loop small enough to restrain the flea but
large enough not to choke it at mealtimes, when its neck swells
considerably. If the tie is too tight, the captive eventually
starves to death.
(Ballantine, 1958, p.
Ballantine also notes
that when the roll of wire was handed down to Heckler it was
about four inches in diameter. In 1958 only a third of it
remained, but Professor Heckler believed that this was still
more than he would ever need in his lifetime.
The human flea is an
extraordinary powerful insect. Rothschild (1965) describes how
researchers at a Royal Air Force experimental station
constructed apparatus to photograph the flea jump. Single fleas
were placed into a central glass chamber facing a high speed
camera filming at 3,500 frames per second. Each flea jump took
up approximately seven frames of film, indicating that the flea
was airborne for a mere 1.2 milliseconds.
Conniff (1995) notes
that from the films researchers calculated that at the start of
the jump the flea experiences a force greater than 140 times
that of gravity. The tremendous forces produced by the flea,
combined with its small body weight, result in a jump of between
eight and ten inches into the air - equivalent to a human
clearing the Statue of Liberty with a single leap. Even more
impressive is that the jumps can be repeated hundreds or even
thousands of times an hour. The ability to continually exert
this huge amount of energy means that the flea is able to
constantly pull objects many times its own weight, including
miniature chariots, carriages etc..
explains that the illusion of the 'juggling' flea is created by
holding a flea on its back (via a harness or glue) and
carefully placing a pith ball onto its legs. The natural
movement of the flea's legs will cause the ball to rotate for a
considerable period of time. Ballantine also reveals the secret
behind the 'footballing' flea. He explains that flea circus
performers would soak a ball of cotton wool in an odour that is
repulsive to the flea (Professor Heckler recommended oil of
citronella or strong oral disinfectant such as Listerine) and
then simply rolling the ball towards the flea. The repulsive
nature of the odour, combined with the flea's powerful legs,
will result in the ball being kicked away by the harnessed
The method used to
create a flea orchestra and dancing fleas was fully explained in
this quote from an article on flea training published in
1891: ...there are two fleas secured, one at each end of a very
little bit of gold-coloured paper.
They are placed in a
reversed position to each other - one looking one way, the other
another way. Thus tied, they are placed in a sort of arena on
the top of the musical box; at one end of the box sits an
orchestra composed of fleas, each tied to its seat, and having
the resemblance of some musical instrument tied on the foremost
of their legs.The box is made to play, the exhibitor touches
each of the musicians with a bit of stick, and they all begin
waving their hands about, as performing an elaborate piece of
music. The fleas tied to the gold paper feel the jarring of the
box below them, and begin to run round and round as fast as
their little legs will carry them. This is called the Flea's
(Buckland, 1891, p.
'Fencing' fleas were
created by gluing two fleas onto the ends of two posts.
Next, a tiny piece of
metal or wooden splinter is fastened to the fleas' front legs.
The fleas' natural
instinct is to attempt to lose the weapon by shaking his legs
and, when two such fleas are placed close together, they appear
to be having a sword fight (Ballantine, 1958).
THE FAKE FLEA CIRCUS
There exists only a
very small amount of literature on the fake flea circus. The
earliest reference that I can discover appears in a booklet
written by magician
George Tollerton (c. 1935). The booklet outlines several skits
wherein the performer fakes flea somersaults via eye movement
and introduces a mind reading flea that stamps out a thought of
number with his foot (and the aid of a concealed clicker).
However, it appears
that the concept only gained widespread popularity after the
late Michael Bentine (a well known British entertainer and
former member of 'The Goons') performed his elaborate fake
circus on the 1950 Royal Variety Show. During the 1980's
Bentine performed the act on a British chat show, and Richard
Bentine (Michael Bentine's son) kindly sent me a recording of
this show. The act contained two main parts. First, a
non-existent flea would push a large ball up an incline.
Second, the flea would jump around a sand covered table
(creating a burst of sand on each jump), climb up a ladder
(pressing down on each rung on its way), leap off a diving board
and splash into a cup of water.
During the 1950's
Michael Bentine travelled to America with the act and appeared
on The Johnny Carson Show (Richard Bentine, personal
correspondence, 1999). Bentine developed the concept further
when he created and performed his long running BBC children's
programme Potty Time.
Richard Bentine has
informed me that he believes that his father's circus is still
in storage and appears to be in full working order.
In 1963 'Mr Mack'
published a short article outlining a fake flea circus in Tops
Tricks. At the start of the article Mr Mack states that his
ideas were based upon 'watching a fellow do his version of the
performing fleas on TV' and admits that the props described in
his article are very similar to those used by the unnamed
performer. Mack then describes how simple concealed gadgets are
used to create the illusion of a fire eating flea and a flea
high diving into water.
In 1975 Tom Palmer
produced a 20 page pamphlet entitled The Famous Flea Act (1975).
Palmer explains that his fake flea act was formulated in 1959,
but based upon a similar routine witnessed on a television
program entitled 'Garroway At Large'. Various forms of simple
fakery are used to knock over a running hurdle, move a flying
trapeze, pull a model train and dive into a miniature pot of
water. Palmer also notes how similar fakery could be used to
have the non-existent flea jump through a paper covered hoop and
lift a heavy weight.
More recently, various
performers have constructed and exhibited fake flea circuses.
For example, a mechanical flea circus featured on the Paul
Daniels Magic Show in 1994 (Reed, personal correspondence,
1999). Also, Walt Noon has built complex fake circuses for both
puppeteer Rob D'Arc and myself (Derbyshire, 2000: Gray, 2000).
Other fake circuses include the UK based 'Arnold Frenzy's
Strangely Compelling Performing Flea Cirkus' and the ACME
Miniature Flea Circus (based in New York and performed by Adam
In 1996 Colombian born
sculptor and installation artist Maria Fernanada Cardoso
performed a flea circus at San Francisco's Exploratorium, and
re-staged the show in 1999 at the Sydney Festival. Varola (n.d.)
has written an extensive article about the philosophy behind
this circus and Cardoso has produced a video containing
highlights of her performance (Cardoso, 1997).
However, reports of
the show make it difficult to determine whether Cardoso's act
employs genuine fleas or clever fakery.
Editors note: It
should be noted that in the above paragraph about Maria Cardoso,
that Ms. Cardoso's circus was indeed an act that used real
fleas, and was instrumental in revitalizing this amazing art. I
hope to add complete biographical information on her when that
becomes possible. - Walt
THE FUTURE OF THE FLEA
This article outlines
the history of the flea circus. It charts the rise of
performing fleas, starting from demonstrations of great
craftsmanship in the sixteenth century, through to the popular
exhibitions of 'industrious fleas during the nineteenth century
and finally how more recent flea circus performers have chosen
to use simple technology to fake flea activity. As noted in the
Introduction, the article should not be seen as a comprehensive
review. Instead, it presents a summary of the sources gathered
during my research, and aims to provide the reader with a
general overview of the area.
The article has not
examined various areas more tangentially related to the flea
circus including, for example, the role played by performing
fleas and flea circus performers in fiction or popular culture.
A small number of references to such topics uncovered during my
research suggests that both might be worthy of further study.
For example, Jay (1995) notes the appearance of fleas in
written fiction (including Gresham's Nightmare Alley) and on
film (including Mr Arkadian by Orson Welles). In addition, I
have seen references to a short BBC drama entitled 'Flea Bites'
(Greenwood, 1992) and recently purchased 'Flea Circus' - a
family flea circus game made in the US by Mattel during the
1960's. The game is set within a circus ring and involves
players using hand-eye co-ordination to perform ten 'big-time'
circus acts with magnetic fleas. The article does, however,
demonstrate that the concept of the flea circus has stood the
test of time. This is perhaps not surprising, given that it
appeals on at least two levels. First, like many animal acts,
it succeeds because the public are attracted by the curious
sight of animals mimicking human behaviour. Second, the flea
circus has the additional advantage of yielding insight into a
world that that is almost invisible to the naked eye, and, as
such, possesses the same public appeal as artists who carve
micro-sculptures from a grain of rice or scientists creating
unbelievably small machines via nanotechnology. Given such
appeal, it would be surprising if the basic concept did not
continue into the next Millennium.
Indeed, recent technological
advances in several areas (e.g., micro-engineering,
animation and large scale projection) would allow performers to
develop more elaborate forms of the flea circus, and hopefully
create the revival of public interest that this most curious
form of entertainment truly deserves.
Article courtesy of
Flea Circus Dot Com
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Gillian Avery's book of the Strange and Odd. Kestrel
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Walt Noon's pages
on creating flea circuses:
The ACME flea
Michael Bentine and
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