Opinion

Flea circus impresario made Ontario his stage

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

An advertisement of the day captures the big excitement from a tiny amusement, the Bertolotto flea circus.

An advertisement of the day captures the big excitement from a tiny amusement, the Bertolotto flea circus.

Flea circuses were a thing at one time — peaking in the late 1800s. They started with Louis Bertolotto, who was born in Genoa, Italy in 1802 but who moved to Ontario in 1856.

Working with fleas was not unknown — watchmakers had been showing off their chops by building little locks and chains for tiny watches to fasten to fleas since at least the 16th century.

But the first record of flea circuses is from the 1820s — the first notice is for Bertolotto’s “extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas,” on Regent Street in London, England.

Bertolotto was the first to make the flea the centre of attention, not the fine metal work of a watch maker. He attached chariots — many times the size of the flea — and held races for audiences. Fleas with small swords took part in duels. Fleas performed waltzes and polkas to the music of a tiny flea orchestra (OK, fleas with tiny instruments glued to their little legs, but not actually playing music). Flea jugglers amused patrons by rolling large balls of cotton about.

Bertolotto was featured in Punch Magazine in London along with his circus performers. He also wrote a book that was published in a number of editions starting in England in 1833 right through to later North American editions, including The Curious and Amusing Exhibition of the Educated Fleas, with Notes, Observations and Interesting Anecdotes, by L. Bertolotto, The Original Inventor, which was published in New York in 1876.

It’s not clear how rewarding economically it was to run a flea circus. It appears Bertolotto augmented his income serving as a butler. In English census records, he’s shown as a London servant, living around the corner from where his performances took place.

Still, he travelled through Europe with his tiny show, including an exhibition in Paris in 1833. By 1835 he had made the trip across the ocean to bring his show to North America. Newspapers featured ads for his shows in New York starting in 1835 and in Toronto and Kingston in 1844.

When he first emigrated to Canada, he lived in Quebec and worked as steward for Sir Edmund Head, governor-general of Canada.

When Head returned to Britain, Bertolotto worked for Head’s successor, Sir Charles Monck, and later at the Stadacona Club. He continued to take his circus on the road, but not for the same long tours. One of his daughters was born in Ontario. By 1875 Bertolotto was living in Port Hope and eventually moved in with his daughter Emily.

There are still flea circuses operating in the United States and in Europe, with a special annual one taking place during Oktoberfest in Munich. And in Ontario, The Barrie Examiner featured a story by Ian McInroy last year about a flea circus, the Great Canadian Red Box Flea Circus, based in Innisfil (south of Barrie) and run by Steve White.

Bertolotto, most recently described as “the Andrew Lloyd Webber of flea circuses,” died in his daughter’s Port Hope home in 1887. His obituary noted that his illness was of short duration, “taken sick on Saturday and passed quietly on Monday evening.”

His (small, as in tiny, flea-sized) legacy lives on.

— Tom Villemaire is a writer based in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula.