The Smallest Show on Earth.
Seaburn Fairground, Sunderland about 1947: I could always tell who had been to this show as they were the ones seen scratching themselves as they walked around the fairground. The show would be run by a charismatic character, I shall call him "the Maestro" as I can't remember any names, in a top hat and scarlet jacket with gold and silver embroidered decorations.
"Roll up! Roll up! See the World's smallest circus" barks the Maestro. "See fleas performing feats of daring far beyond the capabilities of humans".
"Mite the Magnificent, and the Fabulous Fifi, ladies and gentlemen, have enjoyed playing before and on the crowned heads of Europe." Adding as an aside "No money returned after the show has started!"
This flea show always gets a full house. This is the moment for us lads to slip in unnoticed (sometimes) and soon the entrance flap goes down and the Maestro stands in front of his audience to begin the show.
"Ladies and gentlemen. No fleas will be hurt during this performance. I treat the fleas as if they are my own flesh and blood." A few titters. "Did you know," he asks the audience, "That fleas are the world's champion jumpers? If a flea were the size of a woman, it could jump over the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt in a single bound."
Looks of amazement.
"So one of the most important things is to train the fleas not to jump. I do this by putting them into a test tube and leaving it horizontal. They jump up and down in the test tube banging their heads on the glass. They soon learn to walk instead of jump". Laughter!
The Circus is Revealed.
Then gasps of wonder arise from the spectators as he exposes the contents of a large suitcase lying on the table. Inside lies a beautifully detailed miniature circus ring with a "high" wire, a diving board, a circus ring, a pair of miniature chariots parked in front of the infamous Cannon of Doom and a tiny caravan with an open top. Here the stars, Mite and Fifi, are resting whilst waiting for their turn to perform.
During all this time the Maestro delivers a non-stop stream of trivia and jokes. He even recites some flea verse such as a short poem that goes "Fleas: Adam had 'em." I've never heard so many bad flea jokes.
Act One: The Roman chariot race.
With a pair of tweezers and his large magnifying glass to his eye the Maestro carefully picks out the two fleas from the caravan and gently places his minuscule stars at the helm of chariots with shirt-button wheels.
He gives a running commentary "I'll just adjust Mite's harness a little" and gives pieces of useful information such as, "Do you realise, ladies and gentlemen that fleas can carry 131,000 times their body weight", as he prepares for the race.
At this point, the Maestro divides the audience into two sections and coaches each side to shout for their designated flea during the race to come.
During some of the shows one of the fleas may refuse to perform.
When that happens and despite encouragement from both audience and master, one of the fleas - the Maestro takes a look with his magnifying glass to determine that it is Fifi - is found to have gone on strike and refuses to race. Only one of the chariots has moved. He apologizes "Sorry ladies and gentlemen, but if you return for the next show I'm sure the race will go ahead".
If there are no problems and the race goes ahead, the audience, egged on by the Maestro, shout encouragement to either Mite or Fifi as the chariots slowly travel around the circus ring to the winning post. Cheers for the winner! Back to the caravan go the fleas.
Act Two: The Tightrope Walk.
The Fabulous Fifi is next to performs on the high wire. But whilst the Maestro is reciting the flea version of Shakespeare's "Hamlet": "To flea or not to flea ... " Fifi, star of the high wire act, has escaped into the audience. "I need to think like a flea to catch a flea," says the Maestro, who ultimately tracks her down with the magnifying glass in the hair of a bemused man in the front row and recaptures her with his tweezers.
Placing the recalcitrant flea on the wire stretched between two foot-high standards Fifi carries a tiny chair and pole as the maestro views the action through his glass. He describes her tortured traverse across the high wire as the audience oohs and aahs.
Almost as an afterthought, he notes that she is blindfolded, to the roar of her audience.
Act Three: The Dive of Death.
This is a World record attempt in which Mite the Magnificent will dive from a 12 inch diving board and perform nine summersaults before landing in a thimble of water. The record stands at eight.
The audience sees the spring board vibrate as the potential record breaker starts his dive. The Maestro describes with an outstretched finger each summersault in turn as the audience join in with the count "one, two, three, … nine" and as the record breaker splashes into the thimble a big cheer goes around the marquee.
Finale: The Cannon of Doom.
This is the exciting finish to the show: the Cannon of Doom. Both stars are to be shot from a cannon, through a ring of fire, and straight into their caravan! "Never before has this daring and foolhardy feat been attempted on these shores". The Maestro carefully places the fleas, now on their best behavior, into the cannon. But first he calls for a moment of silence in memory of Freddy the Fearless, brother of Mite and Fifi, who died doing the cannon trick two years earlier. The Maestro lights the Ring of Death and the audience is primed for the blast that will send the fleas through the flaming ring.
Will the Fleas Survive?
3....2....1.... Pop! A puff of smoke shoots the fleas through a flaming hoop, over the ring and into their sumptuous, fur-lined caravan. Nervously the ringmaster carefully lowered his magnifying glass to the performer's trailer and inserted his tweezers into their doorway. With relief he announces, as he wipes his brow with his large silk handkerchief, "Mite and Fifi have both landed safely". Cheers from the audience!
The Maestro thanks the audience asking them to come again soon to see even more spectacular acts and to much applause the satisfied customers leave well satisfied, most scratching, at the show they had witnessed. "What a wonderful show!" and "It's amazing how he trains those fleas"
"Mammy," says a little girl, "I couldn't see the fleas."
Famous Flea Circuses.
Flea circuses appear to have originated in England in the 16th century, but they entered their golden age in 1830s through the efforts of an entrepreneur named L. Bertolotto, who ran flea exhibitions in London. The P.T. Barnum of his day, Bertolotto had flea orchestras playing audible flea music, flea foursomes in games of flea whist, and flea dancing companies complete with dresses and frock coats for a flea ball. Other fleas drew miniature coaches or warships, and still others portrayed Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. By way of finale, the fleas were often allowed to sup upon the arm of their manager, a man whose dedication to his art can only be described as awesome.
What You Should Know About Fleas.
Mite and Fifi would have been "Pulex irritans," better known as the human flea. There are over 2,000 species but human fleas are the traditional circus fleas as they make the best performers being larger and stronger than other species and can live for up to two years. Dog and cat fleas have a short life of only a couple of months. Today, human fleas are rather rare, but at one time, they were all too common. About 100 years ago, everyone had fleas and some ladies even wore a flea trap in their bosom. It was a piece of jewelry that was baited with blood and honey. The blood lured the fleas, who got trapped in the honey.
The last time I saw a flea circus was on the TV with the Michael Bentine Show. It was a bit of a let down for me as he didn't use real fleas like in the shows I saw, as a lad, at Seaburn Fairground, all those years ago. Before Halton.
Joe Bosher (74th).