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Santa Rosa, California CHRIS COURSEY

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This act has a few bugs in it

In the middle of the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, tucked between the thundering hooves and rabid bettors of the racetrack and the clattering coasters of the carnival, Jim Hobbs rolls out an act that fits into a wooden suitcase. "It’s a gentle little show," Hobbs says of his Alberti Flea Circus.
Hobbs’ act is a throwback to the days of the flimflam man and the snake-oil salesman, but what Hobbs is selling is escape. Escape from video games and special effects and e-everything. Escape to the imagination.
Fleas, after all, are practically invisible without a powerful imagination.
"See Paddy O’Reilly Shaughnessy wave the Irish flag!" touts Hobbs, arching his thick eyebrows under a black bowler hat. "See the Daring Dardenell make her death-defying dive! See Captain Spaulding shot out of a cannon at 40 mph!" You can’t see a darned one of them, of course. But as Hobbs cranks his antique street organ and the sounds of a circus fill the fair beneath the fairgrounds’ oaks, a crowd draws near. They crane their necks and stand on tippy-toes to get a better look at what he’s got pinched in a pair of tweezers.

"It’s OK for you kids to come sit in front," he calls. "Don’t worry. The fleas are trained professionals. They won’t bite." But the audience does. They not only bite, but they swallow the act, hook, line, and sinker, and they do it happily— almost gratefully. Here, in the middle of all of the commotion of the fair, is something simple, almost pure. Even though only one man in the crowd of about 100 claims to have seen a flea circus before, everyone seems to be reminded of something from their past.

Hobbs was 11 years old and struggling in school in 1950 when his grandfather took him out on the road for a summer as an assistant ringmaster for the flea circus, an act that dates back to the 1880s and Hobbs’ great-great-uncle. Hobbs says his grandpa taught him about fleas, but also had him figuring out train schedules, writing ahead for hotel reservations and keeping the acts books.
"He did a lot for me; he helped me grow up," says Hobbs. "And he did it painlessly—I felt like I was helping him."
Hobbs says he went on to earn a master’s in fine arts, specializing in the history of American theater. He became a lighting designer, working on Broadway plays for stars like Bob Hope and Ray Charles. Fifteen years ago, he was an associate professor at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
But he and his wife had adopted a boy out of foster care who, by the time he was 8, was having troubles in school. Hobbs remembered his grandfather’s cure and began talking to his son about building a flea circus. Soon the pair were performing in shopping center parking lots, then on the road for a tour of library children’s programs.

"I was hooked," Hobbs says. "I realized my teaching career was over."
He spends seven months of the year away from his North Carolina home, living in his van, towing the little trailer that converts to his stage. Hobbs says his is the only touring flea circus in the Western Hemisphere.
"I’ve had fairs . . . but I feel incredibly lucky to be doing this," he says, relaxing between two of his five daily shows. "I turned 60 in June, and I thought by now I’d know what was coming next in my life. I have no idea, and that’s fine."
He ends his act with a tiny plastic mouse—"Razor claws! Yellow fangs!"—that crawls around his hand, through his fingers, up his sleeve, a magic act as old as the Alberti circus itself. Then he offers little packaged mice for $1 apiece, and invites kids to gather ’round as he sits on his makeshift stage and shows them how to create the magic that turns the plastic critters into lively performers. The kids delight in their newfound skill.
The teaching career, you see, hasn’t really ended.
Call Coursey at 707-521-5223 or e-mail

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