If there is anyone person who has continued the “spirit of Coney” as established by George Tilyou at Steeplechase Park, it is Dick Zigun. Part P.T. Barnum, part Frederick Thompson and all Coney Island, Zigun has worked diligently to keep special parts of Coney’s past alive and ensure that its future remain bright. A graduate of the Yale school of drama he came to Coney in 1979 and the following year founded Coney Island USA.
Zigun borrowed from Coney’s history as a place where, according to Ric Burns & Richard Snow’s documentary, “the odd, the bizarre, the far-flung” were at home. In 1983 his group had their first Mermaid Parade. Borrowing an age-old tradition at Coney (Mardis Gras parades were popular attractions that went down Surf Avenue) the spectacle featured people of all sorts, such as “mermaids and mermen, six-foot lobsters, Neptunes, floats, marching bands [and] giant starfish.” Although it started out small the parade was embraced by many New Yorkers, including those in the city’s vast art scene. It now attracts over half a million people and reflects both the island’s past and future.
In 1985 the group opened Sideshows by the Seashore, a non-profit arts group. The show was run by John Bradshaw, a former carnival showman, for the 1985 Labor Day weekend and ran all of the 1986 season. The show, according to Zigun, is the first non-profit sideshow in history. It is a ten-in-one act that features sights that just cannot be found in traditional modern American theatre. Guests see everything the old-fashioned street side ballyhoo proclaims and more. From a sword swallower to a snake charmer to a tattooed man who sits on a bed of nails, Sideshows by the Seashore offers it all. This, combined with great jokes (the sword swallower said he had been told he could perform at other places on the island…but he would miss the lovely family audience), a vaudevillian attitude and audience participation make for a great attraction. Where else but Coney Island could you find such a unique place?! In one interview Zigun said, “I wanted to take a serious, curious look at this really off-beat form of entertainment that reflects the wacky forms of American culture.” To appreciate the sideshow it must be explained that this group is not the old style of exploitative extravaganza was once to be found all over the country. It is real performers that provide entertaining acts because of what they can do- not simply spectacles because of birth defects. Even those with “out of the ordinary” talents like a one-armed juggler and Sealo the Seal Boy are proud to be performing and the atmosphere is quite different (and much more positive) than one might expect.
New York is an expensive place to live and on occasion the sideshow has fallen on hard times. First, the National Endowment for the Arts withdrew their support in the early 1990’s. It was at a time when the program received flak for some of the things it sponsored. Instead of defending itself the N.E.A. cut many concepts which were not mainstream in hopes that it would better appeal to critics. Because of financial issues Zigun’s group later left their high-profile boardwalk location for a spot at Surf Avenue and West 12th Street. Besides financial difficulties there is always the problem of staff. In 1996 the Sideshow sadly lost one of its most famous artists, the “Tattooed Man.” Michael Wilson, who had tattoos on over 90% of his body, died as a result of diabetic shock. He had worked on-and-off at the sideshow since 1986 and was known both locally and nationally for his body art. In a 1996 article Zigun said that one large problem was keeping artists because the pay is low, the days are long and Manhattan, with hundreds of theatres, sometimes drew good performers away.
The good news is that the sideshow is again doing well and drawing over 70,000 people each year. Zigun said his goal is for Coney to be the “capital of the weird again.” Zigun and all of the acts at Sideshows by the Seashore have worked diligently to make sure that the art of Coney Island has survived along with the past. Also on the premises one can visit the Coney Island Museum. Although it is still being developed the museum offers unique exhibits like a horse from the Steeplechase Ride. Probably the most historically significant event the premises hold is a summer-long series called “Ask the Experts.” Here people who know about Coney’s past, present and future sit down and share their thoughts and unique tidbits about the island with an audience.
There is only one Coney Island and you can look all you want, but there is only one Sideshows by the Seashore. On your next visit stop by this great piece of unique Americana. It is open May 26 through September 3, Wednesday through Friday 2-8 p.m. and Saturday/Sunday 1-10 p.m. and costs $5 for adults and $3 for children (and often offer discounts). As Zigun said, “It is the one place left in America where you can see a traditional circus sideshow done the way they used to be with all of the traditional ballyhoo, the free demonstrations outside, gathering a crowd, getting people in, turning them over, running eleven hours a day without a break.”