Q. I remember seeing an old building in Times Square with a window saying “Flea Circus.” Do you have any information on this place?
A. You are likely thinking of Hubert’s Museum, which once stood at 234 West 42nd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues.
From 1925 through the 1960s, Hubert’s was a little slice of Coney Island in Times Square. In addition to its popular flea circus, the dime museum — so called because admission cost 10 cents (originally, anyway) — offered acts like Albert-Alberta, the “half-man, half-woman;” Jack Dracula, a man covered in tattoos; and Jane Barnell, a.k.a. Lady Olga, a woman with a foot-long beard.
Among the future celebrities who frequented Hubert’s Museum were Diane Arbus, who photographed many of the museum’s acts, Bob Dylan, Tom Wolfe and Lenny Bruce. In a 1959 television special, a copy of which is preserved in the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Bruce interviewed “Professor” Roy Heckler, the flea trainer who operated the circus.
Over the course of the 10-minute conversation (in which Bruce, the infamously profane comedian, plays the unlikely straight man), Heckler divulges some of the secrets of his craft and introduces a few of his performers, using tweezers to remove them from what he calls the “flea hotel,” a box filled with cotton or wool, in which the insects’ feet get caught.
There’s the triumvirate of Napoleon, Marcus and Caesar, each pulling a contemporary conveyance of war; Prince Henry, who “juggles” a ball with his six legs; Rudolph, who rotates a miniature merry-go-round 300 times his weight; and Petey and Peaches, “dancers” wearing “skirts” (who end up looking more like hermit crabs).
And how does he feed his performers, which are of the variety that prefers human blood, as opposed to the species one might find on a dog?
“We just place them on a volunteer’s arm, and they help themselves,” Heckler says. “They’re not a bit bashful. All they need is the opportunity.”
The building once dedicated to unlikely stories had its own unlikely story.
Built in 1872 as a Catholic boys school, the future museum was soon converted into apartments for bachelors. John L. Murray purchased the property in 1907 and remodeled the bottom three floors into Murray’s Roman Gardens, possibly the city’s first theme restaurant; the venture was successful until Prohibition forced it to shutter in 1923.
Offering six floors at its opening, Hubert’s soon found itself downsizing. Within a decade, it was relegated to the basement; a penny arcade sat above. Hubert’s formally closed in 1965, but a few of the acts lingered in the space, some staying for years.
By the time Jon Voight walked past the building’s facade in the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy,” Heckler’s flea circus — apparently the last act of its kind in the United States — had packed up.
In the ’70s, the peep booths took over. The building was demolished in 1996 to make way for Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, part of the city’s effort to revitalize the Times Square area.