Heckler’s Flea Circus

This one goes out to Adam Gertsacov, a good friend to the author of this blog decades before it was even a twinkle in my eye, and the principle and only instigator of the Acme Miniature Circus, one of those little facts of life that make life worth living. 

The Heckler family was was inducted into Coney Island USA’s Sideshow Hall of Fame in 2008. Who were the Hecklers? I’d like to be able to claim that they were the people who invented yelling at stand-up comedians, but that would be even more outrageous than the Hecklers’ own whimsical pretensions. The Heckler dynasty were among the most prominent purveyors of that beloved show business institution known as the “flea circus”.

The Hecklers didn’t invent the art form. In Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, the great Ricky Jay says he has traced the tradition going at least as far back as the 16th century. Flea circuses may be the ULTIMATE in theatrical flapdoodle — everybody’s in on it, and everybody LOVES it. It appeals to the imagination. It inspires poetry! The flights the professors go to in their descriptions of what the little beasts are up to. The heroic names they give them. It’s in our heads…but the Professor is the midwife, with his use of descriptive language combined with the flimsiest and most hilarious artifices, mechanical contrivances, and tiny props glued to the insects. (My apologies to any Buddhists offended by this level of flea abuse in the cause of our entertainment. But I am no extremist. The creatures are vampires! And caused me much misery as a child when our cats brought colonies of them home on their backs).

At any rate, the Heckler saga began with Professor William Heckler, a native of Switzerland, who presented his show at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and also spent many years (obviously) at Coney Island. It is said he was originally a builder; he obviously was mechanically inclined. Then he operated various concessions until he found himself the owner of a flea circus. In 1915 he wrote his book Pulicology, which purported to describe the “science” of his trained beasts.

Circa 1923 he moved to Hubert’s Museum, Times Square, where his circus was to enjoy its greatest prominence as a New York institution. William passed away in 1935, bequeathing his tiny show to his son, Roy, or Leroy, who ran it until the 1960s. If William was renowned for his humorous verbosity, Roy was known for the comic slowness of his delivery. It was said that he belonged to an organization known as “The Slow Talkers of America.” Today, Heckler’s Flea Circus lives only in the mind’s eye. But isn’t that where it always lived?