Start Your Own Flea Circus

Most people seem to think the flea circus has always been nothing more than chicanery; a fast-talking barker fooling his audience with mechanical props, and no fleas controlling the action. This was often true. But in the early 20th century, trained performing fleas were a reality in the circuses of England and America.

The last true flea circus statewide was Professor Heckler and his Trained Fleas, which operated from the basement of the infamous Hubert's Dime Museum in Times Square until 1968. These days, a few retro traveling circuses perform sporadically throughout the world. The Acme does shows on occasion (albeit mostly along the east coast) and if you're ever at Oktoberfest in Munich, you can attend their annual Floh Zirkus. Both are allegedly authentic. But we need more flea acts, so I'm providing you with some training tips for you to put on your own show, courtesy of wikipedia:

"Human fleas are used for performances as other fleas are too small. For the same reason, female fleas are preferred over males. The fleas live only for a short time and hence training of fleas is an ongoing requirement.
Fleas are trained not to jump by keeping them in a container with a lid. Once trained, they are harnessed by carefully wrapping a thin gold wire around the neck of the flea. Once in the harness the fleas usually stay in it for life. The harnesses are attached to the props and the strong legs of the flea allows them to move objects significantly larger than themselves.
Chemicals such as camphor that repel fleas are placed on lightweight balls and the fleas kick them away, this makes the fleas look like they are juggling or playing football.
There are historical reports of fleas glued to the base of the flea circus enclosure, instruments were then glued to the flea performers and the enclosure was heated. The fleas fought to escape giving the impression of fleas playing musical instruments."


"Electronic Tonalities"

Louis and Bebe Barron were music graduates who married straight out of school and immediately delved into electronic music, inspired by cybernetics; the postulation that the natural laws which apply to living organisms can also apply to electronics. But this was still in the 1940's. Synthesizers were decades away. They had to build all their own equipment. Louis created the oscillator circuits, and fed varying degrees of electric current through them to create variations in sound. Often he'd intentionally fry the circuits with an overdose of electricity while recording to tape. The sounds would be treated in playback with additional splices, reverbs, and tape delays.

Bebe was exclusively the composer. She manipulated random bits of circuit noise into avant-garde soundscapes, using a variety of self-taught techniques. Nothing like this had been done before. For instance, changing the pitch of a tone was achieved by her manually slowing down or speeding up the tape during playback. Among other things, she's often credited with inventing the tape loop.
Operating out of their west village studio, the couple scored short experimental films before they were contracted for the soundtrack to MGM's Forbidden Planet. Here are some clips highlighting the score:

Unfortunately, Louis and Bebe weren't in the musicians' union, which demanded MGM to change "electronic music" to "electronic tonalities" in the opening credits. Because of this, the Barrons didn't qualify for an oscar, and they were denied union membership. It would be their only hollywood soundtrack.

The Barrons continued working together until Louis' death in 1989. Bebe passed away a few days ago, at the age of 82. Read her obituary here.


Futurechimp Theater: Man in Space

An excerpt from the Disney produced, pre-sputnik (1955) speculation of space travel, based upon the theories and designs of Werner von Braun and narrated by the guy who voiced the robot from Lost in Space. Get the DVD.