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The Rebirth of a Sideshow At Coney Island

As they have for a more than a century, they will stream to this dangling, windswept finger of what the Dutch named Breukelen to watch hard-earned cash vanish into the thin air. Most likely, they will leave smiling, the time-honored Coney Island miracle.

 

Here generations have come to stuff themselves full of cotton candy and grease, spin dizzily in questionable mechanical devices and marvel at mankind's achievements. Here they have rocketed to the moon, tumbled in the Barrel of Love, gawked at a village of 300 midgets, wandered a replica of the Gettysburg battlefield.

 

"Yowzah! Yowzah!" the archetypal barker shouts. "Now isn't this the American way?"

 

But so is what happened to the nation's gaudiest playground after World War II. People moved to the suburbs, became hooked on television, started going to antiseptic Disneyland. Rides ground to a halt. The greatest amusement park was less and less amusing.

 

And the last year has been particularly rough on this planet's most famous Boardwalk, particularly where the wooden walkway intersects with Brooklyn's West 12th Street. That is the home of a quirky treasure, Coney Island U.S.A.

 

It is part sideshow, part museum, part lemonade stand, oodles of preposterous fantasies and incalculably more. The stern landlord is growing sterner. A former colleague ran off with the snakes, the electric chair, most of the performers and much else. And there still is no board chairman capable of organizing the avant-garde arts types needed to keep this oddest of Off Off Off Broadway theaters going.

 

So are Dick D. Zigun, the Yale Drama School graduate who started the sideshow in 1985, and Valerie Haller, the visual artist who came to ogle a few years later and fell in love with the impresario, about to give up?

It is to laugh.

 

They have pieced together a new sideshow, plan to adapt the scathing Gorky essay quoted above to the stage for their annual fall play and, miraculously, are taking in more money than they have in years. Still not enough to repay their debts, of course, much less achieve that most elusive of goals, even a tiny profit.

 

"It sounds really corny, but we're just really, really happy," Mr. Zigun said.

 

If it weren't for the rains, this would arguably be a better year for Coney Island in general. There are a half-dozen new attractions -- including a nifty baseball batting cage, a giant slide, and competing shows featuring a giant killer rat and a two-headed baby. The city has paved many streets and provided more police officers.

 

"It would be very exciting to grow older and see Coney Island get bigger," Ms. Haller ventures.

 

But both these summer dreamers remember Coney Island's long deterioration, and a salty realism tempers their sprigs of optimism. "Last year, Coney Island was looking very small, and it was scary," Mr. Zigun says.

 

Living a Dream

 

The two warmly welcome a visitor to what they term their living room. Opened this year, it is a small bar, or more accurately a refreshment stand with a couple of chairs. Passers-by can step through an imaginary wall, sit back to marvel at the meandering multitudes, and sip Ms. Haller's wonderful homemade lemonade.

 

Geronimo, the king of Coney Island Dalmatians, will most likely be resting at their feet. A few feet away, the barker will be exalting the wonders of the fat lady, the totally tattooed man, the fellow who drives nails through his tongue. In the background, screams of people riding the Cyclone will be tantalizingly audible.

 

Mr. Zigun is talking about the poverty in the national imagination, the wheezing, gasping and moaning of the arts scene. "I'm disappointed in the younger generation; I'm worried about them," the 36-year-old man says. "They don't care about the arts as we did -- as an alternative, as something worth sacrificing for."

 

He has heard too many people say they are postponing their dreams until they have more money. "With me it's always been, 'This is what I want to do, and if I do it, who needs money?' " he said. 2 Showmen's Influence Mr. Zigun grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., P. T. Barnum's hometown. Each year, the showman's memory is celebrated there with elephants, children impersonating midgets and much, much more. Nearby is Stratford, where Shakespeare festivals were long held.

 

"I grew up with Barnum and Shakespeare," Mr. Zigun says. "There was nobody to tell me that you can't put them together."

 

Certainly not his father, who owned a used furniture store and specialized in concocting outlandish stories about each battered chair. Naturally enough, the young man came to worship America's tellers of stories, particularly Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.

 

He received a scholarship to Bennington College, where one of the first plays he wrote and staged, "The Vermont Medicine Show," called for beer and hot dogs to be sold to the audience as part of the show. He then went on to the Yale School of Drama to hone his playwriting skills.

 

After graduation, he found himself in Los Angeles putting on his play "Lucky Lindy," in which the character of the famous aviator is played by a model airplane. Epiphany came on the Santa Monica beach when he noticed the many warehouse buildings and judged them the perfect locale for experimental theater. Might there be something like them in New York?

 

He had never been to Coney Island, but he became interested in a friend's play about the murder of a Murder Inc. thug in the old Half Moon Hotel there. The two unsuccessfully looked for a place to stage it on Coney Island but ended up settling on a SoHo loft in 1978.

 

One effect was crystal clear. "I had the Coney Island bug," Mr. Zigun says.

 

Accordingly, he made friends with the owner of a wax museum and began organizing shows for her. In 1981, on Halloween, he gathered tiny contributions from businesses and arts groups and staged a comic revue at the museum. It received several small reviews, good ones, but was unmistakably a one-shot deal.

 

Mr. Zigun and his circle of eccentric friends decided they needed a splashy event to capture press attention and financing. They hit upon the idea of a Fourth of July parade, but the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce said it already had too much going on that day. Any other day would be fine.

 

They conceived the urgent need to celebrate the summer solstice, and the Mermaid Parade was born. Why Mermaid? Simple, at least to these premature deconstructionists. Mermaids have no feet, so how could they parade?

 

The first parade was held in June 1983, and the event has grown ever since. The high point is the formal opening of the beach by King Neptune. Other participants have included mummers from Philadelphia, marching bands, fleets of antique cars, Haitian voodoo bands and an all-female samba band. "It put a smile on people's faces," Mr. Zigun said.

 

 Mermaids and Snakes

 

Then the money started to dribble in, from sources as varied as the National Endowment for the Arts and the Brooklyn Union Gas Company. Mr. Zigun took a job handling the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce's public relations and threw in most of his earnings.

 

He scouted around for a place to put his dream together. A deal to acquire a circus tent fell through at the last moment. Finally, he found the present location and plunged into debt to lease it. Coney Island U.S.A.'s premiere year, 1985, included a clown festival, a concert featuring both John Cage and Sun Ra, and the first of the annual fall plays.

 

The work was Mr. Zigun's "His Master's Voice," the story of a ventriloquist who, upon the death of vaudeville, set out to kill Thomas Edison. He saw the invention of movies as the fatal blow.

 

Perhaps more important, a folklorist directed him to one John Bradshaw, a showman who had scraped together a life organizing carnival freak shows. Mr. Bradshaw asked Mr. Zigun to locate an actress who wasn't afraid of snakes. He'd supply the snakes.

 

For four days over the 1985 Labor Day weekend, a nonstop line waited to see the snake charmer. It was the only thing that had made any money. What to do, but use that as a basis to borrow some more? Beats going bankrupt.

 

No Freak Show

 

The next season, Mr. Bradshaw and Mr. Zigun collaborated on opening a side show. The playwright had strict standards. "Nobody would be exhibited because of a deformity," he ruled. "It must be performance-oriented, rather than gawker-oriented."

 

As such, Coney Island U.S.A. revived what is know in the trade as the "10 and 1," meaning a show that offers 10 acts and throws in one for free. There were a contortionist who could breathe through one lung at a time, a man who could roll a cigarette with his tongue, a bearded lady juggler.

 

To Mr. Zigun, this is both a celebration of American tradition ("an experiment with native American dramaturgy") and avant-garde art ("a sideshow for the 21st century"). Whatever, it has been paying the bills for the organization's seemingly more serious work, from the museum of Coney Island artifacts to the dramatic performances.

 

And its not-so-serious endeavors. Since 1988, Coney Island U.S.A. has staged an annual tattoo festival.

 

Bouncing Back

 

Then, late last summer, Mr. Bradshaw's 5-year-old daughter was hit in the leg by stray gunfire near their apartment in Far Rockaway. Enough New York, already! Mr. Bradshaw was gone like a flash, taking his snakes, all the performers, the banners, the coffin blade box and anything else that wasn't nailed down with him.

 

As Dr. Gonzo once said, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Mr. Zigun and Ms. Haller fought back splendidly. Ms. Haller studied the work of traditional banner painters, down to the kind of paint they used, and put her new knowledge to vivid use. The two doggedly tracked down an elusive expert in designing necessities like electric chairs.

 

Most significant, they replaced their stars. An actress, Katy Dierlan, brought more than 500 pounds and a feminist rap to her role as fat lady. John Robbins, formerly a clown with the Big Apple Circus, was hired immediately when he auditioned by chewing up a light bulb. A man named Fred Kahl learned to hammer a nail and 10 tiny spikes into his head and joke about it afterward. Just when it seems the illustrated man cannot add another tattoo, he finds room. And so on.

 

Perhaps the most popular addition, though, is a reptile. Mr. Zigun provides just the sketchiest details of how the new freak albino python was acquired from the sewers of the Bronx, where it is rumored to have lived among alligators. "Ed Norton sold us the snake," Mr. Zigun assures.

 

He says that including the popular snake as part of a larger show proves his commitment to the customers. Like the two-headed baby of a competitor, it could have lured people all by itself, he speculates.

"From a capitalistic point of view, we're wasting the snake," he says, almost seriously. Next, the Elephant?

 

The truth is that Coney Island U.S.A. is doing its best ever, although this means only that it is still swimming in red ink and one step ahead of the bill collectors. It would be nice, Mr. Zigun says, if an expert in raising money for the arts could be persuaded to come on board.

 

But Mr. Zigun and Ms. Haller continue to dream the larger dreams. It would be so superb to rebuild the legendary Coney Island hotel in the shape of an elephant. And, maybe, someday, the trees they planted in a vacant lot down the street will tower over a revitalized community.

 

Ms. Haller tells the story of the daughter of the owner of a nearby concession stand who came by to sell Girl Scout cookies. She told the girl they had no money to buy any.

 

"You're not poor," the Scout insisted.

 

"Yes, we are."

 

The girl's brow furrowed. Then, she smiled as broadly as a seaside rainbow. "You're not poor," she declared. "You've got style."

 

By DOUGLAS MARTIN NYT Published: September 04, 1992

 


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