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When Jim "Alberti" Hobbs, popularly known as Jim Alberti, sees the entire audience craning their necks to follow the flight path of Captain Spaulding, Alberti knows he has the audience where he wants them.

And when this daring, flying flea wearing a leather aviation helmet and a white silk scarf makes his gentle landing in the powder puff on stage - and a puff of white powder emerges - Alberti, listening to the thunderous applause, really knows he and Captain Spaulding have scored a hit.

"It's such a stunning flight," Alberti says. "And the way he lands in that powder puff, I think, catches the people by surprise."

That scene was just some of the action that took place at the Festival for the Eno last summer in Durham. But the feats of the Alberti Flea Circus performers probably lingered in the imaginations of the audience far longer than some of the other performances that day.

Since Alberti's stage performance is very likely the first flea circus many kids - young and old - have ever seen, he wants to get it right. In this age of computer video games and spoon-fed entertainment, a live,up-close performance where a child must use imagination to appreciate the show has become a rare treat, indeed. There is no room for cartoons or digital imagery during Alberti 's live theater of the mind.

Alberti, the ringmaster, studies his audiences carefully during each performance, making finely tuned adjustments. What flies in Durham may not work in Shelby or Wilmington.

Just like any professional troupe of Vaudevillian performers, the Alberti Flea Circus knows that a reputation is built by word of mouth from its latest show. And Alberti, a dapper Winston-Salem resident who wears a black bowler hat and green vest with red T-shirt on stage, has painstakingly honed his reputation -and that of his fleas -since the mid-1980s.

"This is a work in progress," Alberti says.

Learning the ropes

A few years ago, Alberti had eight fleas in the troupe, and the entire show lasted only 15 minutes. The brief period, while exciting, didn't give the audience enough time to get to know the performers or let their personalities shine through. So, today Alberti uses four headliners with one waiting in the wings as a backup, if needed. Each show runs 30 minutes, and the troupe may do four performances a day.

"Each flea gets fleshed out, becoming a more accomplished journeyman, learning to work with the audience," Alberti says. "Each flea does one flea-feat, which is a lot for one flea to do." That's an understatement.

Let's take Darling Daring Diving Dardenelle. She's the gutsy flea that does the death-defying high-dive act, gliding swanlike a full two feet into a large tank of water. And lest anyone question that she, indeed, makes that dive, Alberti puts enough water into the tank to drench the first few rows of kids.

Opening the show is Paddy O'Reilly Shaughnessy. He does a flag-waving routine, using a tiny orange, white, and green flag of Ireland -especially when the audience gives him a loud round of applause.

Last summer's audience at the Festival for the Eno provided Mr. Shaughnessy - and Alberti - that much appreciated round of applause. The Alberti troupe has appeared at the music-and-arts fest -a fund-raiser to preserve this historic river - for the past four years. And if Greg Bell, festival coordinator, gets his wish, Alberti will perform for many years to come.

"Jim has so much energy and enthusiasm that it's contagious," Bell says. "His show is delightfully fun, and he involves everyone in the audience. Also, he is a font of knowledge about the theater."

According to Bell, Alberti's presence at the fest goes beyond entertainment. The flea troupe is a valuable draw, attracting large audiences.

"There's a tremendous marquee value of having a flea circus here," Bell says. "From an advertising standpoint, it's a great gimmick. We'll have him back as long as he'll have us."

Joe A. Goforth is another satisfied customer. Goforth is fair manager for the Cleveland County Fair in Shelby, the largest county fair in the state. Alberti has performed there twice, and Goforth, who seeks out live acts for the sideshow area, likes the attention Alberti generates for the event.

"It makes our fair more unique," Goforth says. "Whoever heard of a flea circus? We get an interest from all ages. He keeps the crowds fascinated. "

On the road again

Alberti and his fleas, like any professional circus, have a show season. They hit the road in June and may not roll back into Winston-Salem until November. The troupe will travel and work in a trailer pulled by a van and will rack up thousands of miles, performing at fairs and festivals throughout North Carolina, up and down the East Coast, as far west as Washington state and up into Canada.

Winter can be just as busy. For much of that season, Alberti works with teachers on their certification training and with young children in the Imagination Workshop in both Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia as part of the Smart Start program. There, the teachers learn to use the imagination of their students to communicate ideas. He has been doing this off-season for 15 years.

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