The Tiniest Show in Town!

Acme Miniature Circus ringmaster Adam Gertsacov keeps a close eye on his stars.
Acme Miniature Circus ringmaster Adam Gertsacov keeps a close eye on his stars. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007

The magic of the flea circus climaxed during the chariot race. That's when ringmaster Adam Gertsacov persuaded the audience to fall in love with Midge and Madge, the tiny stars of his Acme Miniature Circus.

Yesterday about 40 people -- a mix of families and hipsters -- at the Palace of Wonders on H Street NE rose to their feet, craning their necks to get a better look at the action. Gertsacov, wearing a purple top hat, shot a toy gun and the fleas were off.

"We've approached the straightaway," he said, talking double-time, like a sports announcer. "It's going to be a very close race. Midge is making her move. Let's hear it!"

The audience screamed and one man broke into a chant: "Let's go, Midge! Let's go, Midge!"

Who won? Maybe the more pressing question is whether there was a race at all. "Professor" A.G. Gertsacov has worked to revive a tradition that's been mostly dead since the 1950s. He's also revived the question that has always accompanied the spectacle: Are there actually any fleas?

Tough to tell. There were two small chariots moving across the stage (about as big as a school desk) but any fleas pulling them were impossible to see -- even from the front row, even with Gertsacov's magnifying glass hovering above them.

Gertsacov, however, insists that his stars exist. "It wouldn't be much of a flea circus," he said, "without the fleas."

The 42-year-old resident of Yonkers, N.Y., started his flea circus in 1994 and has presented it more than 1,000 times. The clown college graduate first got the idea after watching Charlie Chaplin host one in the film "Limelight." Gertsacov initially pantomimed the act. Then a fellow performer gave him some advice.

"He said, 'Get rid of all the clown stuff,' " Gertsacov recalled. " 'You're so big, they're so little. You love the fleas. That's your show.' "

The Acme company is one of only a handful of flea circuses left in the world, he said. They were popular in Victorian days, but existed in New York's Times Square until 1957. Gertsacov revived the Times Square show in 2002, performing in the now-defunct Palace of Variety on West 42nd Street, about two blocks from the original location.

Gertsacov wouldn't reveal his secret for training fleas, but he did assure the audience that he uses only positive reinforcement.

"I treat them as if they are my own flesh and blood."

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