Jim Alberti has fleas, but only travels with five of them — six, actually, if you count the understudy. "We have accidents, you know," he said, "and sometimes we need someone to step in quickly."
Alberti is the ringmaster for one of the smallest circuses in the nation; not in popularity, but in performers. The Alberti Flea Circus and Strolling Street Organ is a comedy and magic show that recalls vaudevillian days but manages to entertain a current generation of mesmerized young fans. Alberti, a former D.C. resident, brings the flea circus to Arlington for the first time in over a decade when it performs at the Arlington County Fair, scheduled for August 17-20 at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center.
Denise Marshall Roller, a manager for Arlington County Cultural Affairs, said a colleague saw Alberti’s flea circus and recommended the show for the Arlington County Fair. She said it may be the event’s "biggest new attraction this year."
Alberti said there will be three shows per day, for about 30 minutes apiece because "the fleas don’t have great stamina."
AH, YES, THE FLEAS. Alberti talks about them like any manager would his talent, going as far as to say they’ll be available for lunch with intrepid reporters during the fair. There’s Paddy O’Reilly Shaughnessy — "He’s Irish," Alberti reassures — who twirls a flag.
There’s Captain Spaulding, who is shot from a cannon. There’s the "bikini clad" diving daredevil Dardenell, who continues a standard flea circus tradition with a death-defying high-dive.
But are they real? Alberti and his Web site, www.albertifleacircus.com, never indicate otherwise. Another site called Walt Noon’s Flea Circus Page (www.flea-circus.com) details flea circuses through the centuries, including ones that used real "trained" fleas, glued dead ones to circus equipment, and ones that didn’t seem to include any fleas at all.
Alberti’s clear about what his circus offers. "A flea is going to be performing in the hand of a child," he said, calling his miniature carnival a full participatory show. "The children learn very quickly that they’re part of it. As they respond, the fleas respond."
ALBERTI’S GREAT UNCLE began what’s become a family business, and Alberti’s grandfather followed suit. He worked with his grandfather in the 1950s but didn’t immediately continue the legacy of the flea circus.
He worked in theatre and design until his 40s, when he entered the world of sideshow attractions. Now in his 60s, Alberti has an appreciation for the history and the skill involved in his art form. "Flea jokes and flea stories go back a thousand years," he said. "I do very little…the fleas do it all.
They’re just intrepid and irrepressible. When they put that to performing, it’s just impressive." What it all boils down to, he said, is a sense of good-natured fun and family entertainment for all ages — and, of course, fleas that can juggle and run the high hurdles. "I really think it’s really about the relationship between the fleas and the audience," he said.