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Flea Circus is the biggest little show at Hastings fair

By Heather Hooper

HASTINGS— An expectant hush fell over the audience, eyes grew wide as saucers and heads tilted back as Jim Alberti introduced his first performer by thrusting a pair of tweezers in the faces of the audience. The entertainer Paddy O’Reilly Shaughnessy needed a lot of encouragement, which the audience readily gave him by applauding enthusiastically as he waved the Irish flag and jumped an incredible height into Alberti’s hand.

The other performers were equally amazing. Harry the Hurdler jumped three hurdles, Captain Spaulding was shot from a cannon, and the darling Dardenell did a high dive into a can of water. The troop was a part of the traveling Alberti Flea Circus appearing at the Adams County Fair. Alberti said the flea circus was a family tradition started in the 1880s with a great-uncle and later carried on by his grandfather. "We’re still trying to get the bugs out of it," he quipped.

Alberti, wearing a black vest over a red t-shirt, topped with a black bowler hat, was part magician, part comedian, and all entertainer. Even the most skeptical children were captivated by the show. The children were asked to cheer the fleas on. "And fleas have small ears. If you want them to do something, you have to say it really loud," Alberti explained. The fleas, though very small and hard to see, made signs apparent to the audience they were there. The group was quick to point out errant performers, such as Merlin who got lost during a hoop-jumping act and later drained the glass of "flea nectar." And Dardenell made such a splash with her high dive that water sprayed the faces of the front-row audience members. After the show, however, some were still skeptical. Shane Schmidt of Minden said he didn’t believe the show was real. "A flea couldn’t have made that big of a splash," he said. The James sisters of Lincoln also were skeptics. Melinda, 11, said she thought they were just black spots. And Kim, 9, said the performer held by the tweezers looked suspiciously like an ant. But Jeff Hester, 8, of Kenesaw, had helped Alberti hold the ring while Merlin the flea jumped through. Jeff said he saw Merlin wearing a green t-shirt, just like Alberti said. Alberti has traveled throughout the country with his flea circus for about five years to county fairs, festivals, and other events. Before becoming a full-time flea master, Alberti was a design director at North Carolina School of the Arts. The flea circus is still based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

He learned his flea circus trade at age 12 by traveling with his grandfather. When asked where he got his performers, Alberti said, "everyone has their fleas." The history of the flea circus goes back many years. Alberti said before soap and hot water fleas were a big problem and there were many jokes about them. The flea circus may have been a way to laugh off a real problem, he said. "And who would’ve thought that fleas make such great performers?" he asked.

Alberti will perform with his circus at various times Sunday and Monday at the Adams County Fair.

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