Flea Circus

I touched O’Toole’s shoulder as we walked past the tent, snared by the vibrant orange posters—costumed mice jumping through hoops, swinging on a trapeze, juggling, all directed by a mustachioed mouse dressed in a ringmaster’s suit. The promise of an extraordinary Mouse Circus. O’Toole gave me a quizzical look as he paused. “We have to do this,” I said.

It was 1976. I was on a Scandinavian vacation, decompressing after three years of law school and the pressure cooker of the bar exam. What could be better—my college roommate, backpacking gear, Eurail passes, and a month with no itinerary. Our wandering took us to the carnival of Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen: the colored lights, the smell of smoked sausages, the roller coaster screams as the background music of our meandering. When we came across the Mouse Circus tent, my mind drifted to an evening 15 or 16 years earlier….

It was the early 1960s. I was about 11 or 12. We were on a family trip to New York City. The son of one of my father’s business associates was a Broadway playwright, Michael Stewart, who authored shows like Hello Dolly and Carnival. Through his associate, my father secured prized tickets.

My mother brought me and my two younger brothers up from Philadelphia on the train. We released our stored energy in our Times Square hotel room. My mother seemed to be everywhere as she tried to contain the damage. “Don’t jump on the bed!” “Stay away from that window!” My father drove up from work and joined us later. Although he too must have been exhausted, there was no denying my mother. In that moment, she would have killed for ten seconds of peace and quiet. My father graciously took the controls.

Later, when the day had transitioned from evening to night, my mother resumed supervision, encouraging us to go to sleep. “You’ll want to be ready for the matinee tomorrow. We’ve got an exciting day!” It worked for my brothers. They had run out of steam and soon were sleeping soundly on their rollaway beds. My mother too was ready to call it a night. I, on the other hand, was too excited, continuing my chatter, unable to be still. So, my father volunteered to take me on an excursion. My mother, too tired to do anything else, thankfully nodded assent.

On the street, we paused at a giant Camel cigarette billboard, with a man in a suit and narrow tie blowing actual smoke rings from his rounded mouth. We watched as one smoke ring after another was propelled, rose up, hovered, and then slowly dissolved into the night air. We navigated the nighttime crowd, drawn to the sweet smell of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor’s cart: a sterno “roaster” beside a pile of the brown nuts, and small brown paper bags that contained the charred treasures. One of those bags ended up in my hands. Turning towards the Times building, I felt the burn on my fingers as I dug into the peels, foraging for the mushy meat, watching the headlines dance their way across the triangular structure that stood at the apex of the converging streets. We crossed the street, coming to a brightly lit theater with exotic posters and flashing lights. My father paid the lady in the ticket booth and in we walked.

It was a circus sideshow, with sword swallowers, bearded ladies and jugglers. We walked by them all, stopping only briefly to stare, until we came to the snake woman.

For some reason, she fascinated my father. Perhaps it was the skimpy leopard bikini. Perhaps it was the giant boa constrictor wrapped around her neck, slithering up and down the dusky skin of her body. She was friendly as my father engaged her in conversation—blinking her heavily mascaraed eyes, the silky black hair shimmering as she moved her head, the bright red lipstick drawing attention to her mouth as she spoke. She gestured to me, offering the snake. My father started to shake his head, but I nodded vigorously—preempting any attempt at parental curtailment. The woman placed the snake on my shoulders and I shivered as it wrapped itself around me, moving over my chest, not slimy but strange, exotic and strong. A crowd gathered, laughing and encouraging. My father stood back, letting it happen, as I felt the snake move over me, testing my T-shirt. I touched it, looked into its eyes, and watched its tongue go in and out, keeping time with the rhythm of the crowd. The lady took it back and praised me for my bravery. The crowd applauded. She gave me a little hug, my short head briefly touching her breasts as I caught her musky fragrance—an exotic mixture of snake, perfume, sweat, and something else.

We went down the stairs to a new area: darker, mysterious, a little more hushed. In the middle, a table with a quiet crowd on one side and a thin man, with a white pointed goatee, round glasses and a tailed tuxedo, on the other. The master. A light hung down, its wide metal shade directing light through a giant magnifying glass. We elbowed our way in. It was not hard for me. I was little. It was a bit more difficult for my father, who succeeded by claiming the need to look after me.

The master was just getting started. We were about to see something that could be seen nowhere else on Earth. A flea circus. On the table, tiny circus apparatus. On the side, a square matchbox. The man pointed to the matchbox and, drawing out the drama, gently opened it.

They jumped out: a troupe of tiny costumed fleas. Through the magnifying glass, I saw the boy fleas dressed as strongmen, lifting barbells and kicking tiny footballs across the table. The girl fleas, dressed in tutus, were jumping through hoops and leaping from one swing to another.

I watched with total credulity. I was almost blasé. After all, it was little different than the Saturday morning cartoons or the Disney stories. But then, after the progression of one flea feat after another, the master called for silence. It was time for the main event— the chariot race. From the corner of the table, he pushed five golden chariots to a little track that had not been previously occupied. The fleas obliged. The boy fleas in their strongman suits grasped the little pole extending from the front of the chariots. The girl fleas in their tutus climbed into the carriages. The master asked us to choose a champion and, at the count of three, he blew a whistle. They were off. We cheered our champions and, when the lane two chariot was first to cross the finish line, we cheered even louder.

The master took a bow and opened the matchbook. The flea troupe dutifully jumped in and allowed itself to be confined as the shelf slowly closed into the cover. The show was over and we, along with the crowd, dispersed.

I do not remember leaving. Perhaps I became sleepy on the way back to the hotel and had to be carried. I do remember being tucked into my rollaway—my parents quietly talking as I fell into my dreams.…

I came back to myself in Tivoli, feeling that magical night at the Times Square carnival with its sweet smells and exotic people—turbocharged by the erotic at the edge of consciousness—and the spectacle of the flea circus. I was not going to forego the opportunity to revisit the experience, albeit with mice instead of fleas. We paid our money and went in.

As soon as we entered, I knew we had been had. Along one wall was a maze of plastic tubes with pinwheels at the intersections. Yes, there were mice. Those that moved wandered through the maze. A few took a desultory turn at the pinwheels. We didn’t stay.

Outside, I apologized to O’Toole. He was trying to say it was okay while I was trying to explain why I had been so insistent that we spend our money on something so silly. So, I told him that as a kid I had seen a circus that I thought would be similar, except that it was a flea circus, not a mouse circus. I told him about the fleas—the boy fleas in strongmen suits, the girl fleas in tutus, the hoops, the football, the chariot race. O’Toole’s expression was a peculiar combination of skepticism and sympathy. Registering this, my brain began hearing what my mouth was saying. How could I have seen such a thing? Fleas? Chariots? Tutus? Impossible! Had I imagined an experience that was so vividly recorded in memory? I acknowledged the improbability—the possibility that I was mistaken.

All was not lost. Even if there was some sleight of hand that might have fooled me as a child, I had access to an adult witness. My father. I was not going to let it rest.

At that time, it was not easy to make a telephone call from Europe to the United States. It involved a visit to a dingy post office, negotiations with a clerk, an exchange of money, and a gesture to a cubical where there was a desk and a phone. I followed instructions, sat at the desk and, several moments later, the phone rang. I picked it up and on the other end, bridging the Atlantic, was the voice of my father. After exchanging pleasantries, I got right to it, asking if he remembered that particular New York trip and the flea circus.

After three years of law school, one would think that I knew how to ask a question. After all, one of the things that’s taught is the difference between open-ended and leading questions. Open-ended questions require the respondent to supply the information. If I ask, “What is your name?” the respondent has to know his name to answer. If instead, I supply the answer by asking a leading question: “Isn’t your name Bill Smukler?” the respondent can simply say “Yes,” regardless of whether that is his name or, indeed, whether he has even heard of a person with the name of Bill Smukler.

There, in the European Post Office cubical, I left my meticulous training in the dust. I was so eager for an answer, so excited to hear what my father had to say, that I launched right into it, asking one leading question after another. “Do you remember that place you took me to in Times Square? The flea circus? My memory is that the boy fleas had strongmen suits and the girl fleas had tutus.” I went on, asking about the hoops, footballs and chariot races. At each point, my father verified the experience, saying that the flea circus was exactly as I remembered it.

Satisfied, I relayed the verification to O’Toole. He remained skeptical. I too began to have doubts. In playing back the conversation, I realized that my father had simply answered “yes” to a barrage of leading questions. My father had a sense of humor and a sense of wonder. He was not above pulling my leg. More probably, he could have easily decided not to disturb an enchanting childhood memory. It would be like a parent affirming the existence of Santa Claus.

My father stuck with his story until the day he died. But the improbability of what I remembered and the more rational likelihood that I was conflating the memory with something else fed my doubts. Perhaps we had seen a film in that basement, instead of something live. Perhaps I was thinking of something I saw in the Saturday morning cartoons. I also regretted my error of asking leading questions. Eventually, I decided that my memory was wrong. I had not seen what I remembered seeing.

Through the years, I would tell the flea circus story to law students or young law clerks as an illustration of the fallacy of memory. It was often in the context of a case where a witness testified with honest conviction to something—perhaps an identification of a defendant—when other evidence showed that the witness was demonstrably wrong. The flea circus story, with myself as the victim, was a perfect example of how this could happen.

So it stood, until I retired, went back to school, and found myself studying the work of Diane Arbus. On page 141 of the book Revelations, I came across a photograph that stopped me in my tracks. It was the entrance to the Times Square establishment of Hubert’s Museum—with a marquee running along the entire length: “The Home of the Trained Flea Circus.” As I studied it, the hairs in the back of my neck stood up. The book’s text spoke of Arbus’s relationship with the “freaks” at Hubert’s (and other sideshows), including the snake lady. It also spoke about a time when she took her husband, Alan Arbus, to Hubert’s. He was taken with the flea circus, particularly with the fleas that kicked the footballs.

There was no Internet when I was a child. There was no Internet in 1976 when I asked my father about the flea circus. That was not the case in 2016, when I stumbled across the photograph of Hubert’s in the Arbus book. I was right on it. The great seer Google provided an answer. Hubert’s was a Times Square institution from the time it opened in 1925 to the time it shuttered its doors in 1969. My own adventure would have been in the early 1960s, well within this time period. I learned that for 25¢, one could see a variety of exotics, including the “voodoo jungle snake dancer, Princess Sahloo” and, of course, Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus situated in the basement, where “real fleas attached to very thin wires raced miniature chariots on a teeny tiny track.” As I read, something shifted in my reality.

I have many memories, clear and foggy, of family trips, my father, the exposure of a child to the exotic. They were all there in that time between school and career when I was standing on the threshold of the mouse circus in Tivoli. Then, my brain began listening to what my mouth was saying, compromising the wonders of imagination with adult rationality. And now, at the end of that career and standing on a new threshold, I understand on a deeper level that wonder and rationality can coexist. Fleas can kick footballs. I can make art.