"I substitute imagination for discipline," Alberti says. "I do a number of programs at franchised after-school day care centers."

He is also in the final stages of updating his website (www.albertifleacircus.com). The site will post pictures of 150-year-old flea circus posters, including one that Alberti's grandfather used for his flea circus in 1910, and a history of the flea circus in America from 1835 to the present.

Flea circuses actually go back hundreds of years in Europe and have long been a key part of vaudeville, America's disappearing world of live stage entertainment, according to Alberti. Based on long-ago conversations with his grandfather, Samuel Alberti Hancock, Alberti feels flea circuses offer a safe way to joke about a pest that has bothered people for so many years.

Arguably, the longest-running Broadway show ever had a solid flea connection. Professor Heckler's Flea Circus first made its appearance on Coney Island in the early 20th century and later moved to Times Square. This fabled flea circus operated for almost 50 years and is still talked about in the industry.

Making a name

As popular as the Alberti troupe is, clients don't automatically come knocking on his door to sign him up. The winter time is spent laboriously sending out letters and brochures, making phone calls, updating his website, and networking with other performers. He also has a video, taped by his wife Barbara, showing highlights of some of hiS performances. The video's message is that the Alberti show can be enjoyed by everyone.

"Our video is almost exclusively kids' responses at first," Alberti says. "When the camera pulls back, it isn't just a few kids; it is several hundred people. And it isn't just children; it is people of all ages."

Each December, Alberti and the fleas -along with 450 other acts - attend the convention of the International Association of Fairs and Expositions to strut their stuff in front of fair managers and booking agents. "I'll get a list of members and mail materials to 500 Of them," he says.

His wife Barbara, a very supportive spouse, voluntarily relinquishes the dining room and the immense wooding dining table to this task, while it is transformed into "The War Room," as they call it each year, and the surface gets covered with paperwork.

One season, Alberti primed the Pump in Ottawa, Canada, a city where he would be performing, by sending humorous, obviously fake, press releases to the editor of the newspaper in advance. " Alberti fleas turned back at border!" cried the first one. "Alberti fleas rejoin the flea circus after sneaking through town!" announced the second. "Alberti fleas discovered having lunch with fair manager!" proclaims the final one shortly before the performance.

"After the editor gets the first one, We have baited the hook," Alberti says. Sometimes a fair manager may say "I'm interested in you, but what else have you got?"

On those occasions, Alberti will pull out his street organ, an ornate box custom-made just for him by an English artist named Alan Pell. The sides are decorated with paintings copied from a 14th-centUry French manuscript, and the grillwork on the front side is created by a carriage painter in New York City's Central Park. "I looked for one for 10 years," Alberti says. "It's a substantial investment."

Pursuing a dream

Alberti, a Washington, D.C., native, has been honing his stage presence since he Was 12, when his maternal grandfather Samuel Alberti Hancock, a postal worker by day and former flea circus Operator, gave him the "bug" for live performances.

"All my initial knowledge of flea circuses came from him, " Alberti says. "He had a charismatic personality and loved people. He had a way of getting people to open up that was a pleasure to watch."

As a youth, ALberti began doing magic shows at parties, using equipment built by his grandfather. The flea circus wouldn't emerge unitl years later, though, as the idea simmered on the back burner.

Finally in the late 1980s, after a stint in the U.S. Army, years studying drama and theater, and a career as a lighting director - brushing elbows with the likes of Ray Charles and Bob Hope - the road started to beckon.

"I built a flea circus," says Alberti, who by this time had relocated to the North Carolina School of the Arts in Wmston-Salem. "Being a set designer and having been around a long time, I had a sense of what things should look like. I could ...picture a fantasy, a dream of what a flea circus should look like. "

The flea circus also needed to fit into a leather suitcase. So, when Alberti wasn't teaching lighting design, production, and theater classes, he was out doing flea circus performances. "Finally, I knew it was time," Alberti says. "We had booked enough dates to where I bought a VW camper. "

As before, Alberti learned from experience and by listening to the audience, honing the act.

"Children are not too embarrassed to be bored and to let you know it," he says. "I learned from them what didn't work. David Mamet says that if you want to make a good movie, throw out the first reel. So, by scrapping the first part of our show, it really began to work. "

Alberti continues to pick up great stories while out on the road. One woman told Alberti that when she was a little girl, she had seen a flea circus just like his, except that the fleas had been real. "Then, she paused and grinned and said 'Oh, my God!' " Alberti says. He wants today's youngsters to have that same experience when they become adults looking back on his show.

And how does he handle the doubters who just can't see Captain Spaulding and the other tiny performers? Once, after a show, a young lady told Alberti matter-of-factly: "There were no fleas." Asked why she said that, she responded, "Because I couldn't see them." Alberti picked up the little red chest housing the performers and talked to them. "They just said they couldn't see you,"Alberti told her. She retorted: "Well, you tell them I was sitting right down front!"

Karl Kunkel writes from his home in High Point.
Taken from the July 2003 Our State magazine

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