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How the Coney Island Sideshow Still Thrills Crowds in the Age of Netflix

Reading Time: 7 minutes


We can all go mad together
That’s what friends are for

-“Sideshow by the Seashore” by Luna


It’s the seaside destination that was once reserved only for New York City’s upper class. It’s the birthplace of the hot dog, the roller coaster, and soft-serve ice cream. It’s Coney Island—and it’s making a comeback.

Once a great American landmark destination, whose popularity peaked during the first half of the 20th century, it declined rapidly during the 1960s. Later years saw it fall into neglect and disarray — a landscape littered with broken amusement park rides, and faded pavilions.

At the center of this rebuild is Dick Zigun, a fully-tattooed Connecticut transplant who has tapped into the soul of Coney Island’s once-fantastic past to create not one but two authentic spectacles that are capturing the attention of today’s discerning audiences.

But in a landscape littered with brands and media conglomerates attempting to connect with a new generation of audiences through immersive storytelling, what ultimately makes an “authentic” experience these days?

As it turns out, building authentic experiences starts by being a stone-cold ‘authentic’ yourself — particularly when you don’t know what devastating surprises lie in wait for you around the corner.

Bright Lights, Curious Sights

If there is a higher power, it couldn’t have plotted Dick Zigun’s entry into the sideshow business more perfectly.

Born and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut — the hometown of circus magnate P.T. Barnum — Zigun was thrown into circus culture from the moment he could walk.

In a diner across the street from his 100-year-old Coney Island Sideshow building, Zigun explains. “At seven years old, I’m already a Barnum scholar, and I’m a know-it-all who’s convinced that elephants and dwarfism are patriotic,” he says, between bites of a cheeseburger and sips of a monumental chocolate shake.

“My grammar school was literally next door to (Barnum performer) Tom Thumb’s house. Around that age, I also went to the James E. Strates Show, the largest sideshow at the time, when it came through with the town’s annual Barnum festival. One of my sisters threw up at the performance so, naturally, I fell in love with sideshows immediately.”

His fascination and love for sideshow culture stayed with Zigun through college, where he earned two degrees in theater, including an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. But while his classmates were aspiring to roles in major Broadway productions, Zigun had a slightly wackier idea: Coney Island, at that time in a state of disrepair, could be the staging ground for his own performance art.

In 1979, in a move he describes as “half-brave and half-stupid”, Zigun packed his bags, signed a 10-year lease on a Coney Island loft, and set out to create his stage character. But just months later, after a freak fire accident, the building and everything he owned were in ashes.

Devastated, there was no choice but to leave the sandy beaches and hot dog stands of Coney Island and head back to the bustling streets of Manhattan—a one-hour subway ride away—to plot his next move over the following months. The result? A one-day Coney Island parade that would provide an outlet for his performance art, but wouldn’t require a dedicated physical location.

“So I went to the community board, NYPD, the local precinct, the elected officials, and said I wanted to do a 4th of July parade. They just laughed at me, because that was the busiest day of the year on Coney Island, and they already had more than enough to handle,” says Zigun.

Not easily discouraged, he pushed further and asked again. This time he suggested a different date — the Summer Solstice — and a specific theme. In a neighborhood with streets named Surf, Mermaid and Neptune Avenue, it seemed only natural that the parade would celebrate mermaids. Thus, the Mermaid Parade was born.

Now an iconic annual event, participants of the parade dress as mermaids and navigate a route through Coney Island and into the ocean, where the parade ultimately ends. Ironically, the event now rivals July 4th as the biggest day of the year for Coney Island with over a half-million people in attendance.

“For me, the parade is all spectacle—a prelude to an offering to the water gods,” explains Zigun. “One year we were on the beach, about to do our final procession into the water, and there were lightning bolts coming down. The Parks Department said, “No! Despite your permit, you can’t go. It’s too dangerous!” But to me, it was like the gods were talking back, and they were right there. It was great.”

With the runaway success of the Mermaid Parade, it became apparent that this return to sideshow quirkiness and boardwalk Americana was a winning formula for generating new interest in Coney Island. In 1985, Zigun decided to take all of the elements that made the Mermaid Parade so successful and create a permanent seaside attraction.

Sideshows by the Seashore

“We opened on the Boardwalk in ’85,” explains Zigun, pointing towards the ocean with a handful of french fries. “With a sense of irony, we named it Sideshows by the Seashore—even though it didn’t actually have a sideshow. It had performance art, and poetry slams; there was jazz, and world music—all of which went terribly! Then, at the end of the season, for four days over the Labor Day weekend, we tried having a small cast perform a sideshow. For those four days—Friday to Monday—there was a never-ending line at the door. It was a blowout success.”

No surprise, then, that Zigun decided to put the sideshow front and center for the following season. But promoting a sideshow to thousands of sun-drenched, hot dog-eating passers-by is one thing; finding and managing a team of ‘one-of-a-kind’ performers is an entirely different challenge.

“There are no normal people—whatever that means—in the sideshow,” says Zigun, taking another sip from his chocolate shake. “They are all weirdos. Some of them are functional. Some are dysfunctional. And your employees, who you’re insuring, are doing extremely dangerous stuff. Unlike magic, which is an illusion, everything in the sideshow is real. They really eat fire. They really swallow a sword. They really lie on a bed of nails. And they really hammer nails in their noses. You don’t want people going to the hospital or fucking up. So, as well as doing artistic quality control and casting, you’re also a life coach and a surrogate father for a dysfunctional family.”

Zigun’s “Ten-in-One” Sideshow by the Seashore is the last of its kind. Among those who have joined the rotating cast over the years are The Illustrated Man and Ruby Rodriguez. “Michael Wilson, with his heavily tattooed face and piercings, was a pivotal figure in the American Primitive Movement, and Ruby was a hairdresser from the South Bronx, who had two-tone hair, long fingernails, an ammo belt, and showed up wanting to become our snake charmer,” says Zigun. Then there’s Mat Fraser, who went on to become a regular cast member on American Horror Story. “Mat, with those Mick Jagger looks and great acting chops, knocked on my door in the off-season. I took one look at him and said, ‘Welcome home’.”

Zigun’s own special sideshow skill was simply keeping everybody—including the audience—in order.

“I never became a performer after all,” he says. “Which is why, after a whole generation grew up influenced by what we did, I felt like I was being very academic and standoffish. I have other duties. I can’t be in a stage rotation. So I went ahead and did four sleeves of tattoos on my arms and legs, one for each of the four elements—earth, water, fire, and air. If you look closely, you might even find some Coney Island-inspired elements, too.”

Despite his heavily-tattooed appearance, 64-year-old Zigun has become the number one spokesman for Coney Island over the years—the so-called “Unofficial Mayor”—responsible for everything from city planning and community events to being the guy that gets the call when celebrities want a personal tour of the Boardwalk. “Lou Reed and David Byrne were great; so were Neil Patrick Harris and Harvey Keitel,” he says.

Although he had almost single-handedly organized and rebuilt an authentic Coney Island experience, Zigun could never have foreseen what would soon become the most devastating event in his—and Coney Island’s—history.

The Place Beyond the Boardwalk

In October of 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit the shores of New York and devastated everything in its path—causing some $75 billion worth of damage to the city. But, well before the high winds had knocked out the power and put the East Village under 14 feet of water, they had already hit the humble little seaside town of Coney Island.

“Personally, it was akin to living through an apocalypse—like a major war or natural disaster where your community is destroyed,” recalls Zigun. To make matters even worse, he was recuperating from a serious accident.

“I came out of the hospital, and my truck, my business, and my home were all flooded. And my number two at the Sideshow had quit. Being who I was—a leader—in the community, I had no choice but to put all that aside and step in to lead the efforts to recover.”

But like so many other setbacks in his life, Zigun didn’t see Hurricane Sandy as merely a disaster; it was also an opportunity to take everything that was Coney Island at its best and make it even better.

The rebuild, which is still in progress, is a complete overhaul that spans nearly the whole length of the Boardwalk. There’s a sharp focus on preserving—even improving—the existing landmarks, including the infamous Sideshows by the Seashore building that the performance has called home for decades.

“I had almost given up on the idea of building and developing Coney Island,” Zigun says. “But suddenly it’s happening, and we’re preserving the same attitude and authenticity that made Coney Island so great in the first place. It’s the mixture of family-friendly and wise-guy-wild-woman bars that makes it all feel very Brooklyn, and different, in America’s largest city. And the sense of history—the Cyclone roller coaster, the Wonder Wheel, the Parachute Jump, Sideshows by the Seashore, the Amphitheater—means there’s still so much here from the glory days of Coney Island. Some of this stuff is already in the best shape I’ve ever known it to be—and it’s just the start of getting even better.”

Wonders and Astonishments

There’s no denying that the Coney Island story is one of the most interesting, and oddest, chapters in contemporary American history. And woven tightly into that story is Zigun—a small-town Connecticut kid with a love for all things circus—who helped hold it up and take it on the rollercoaster ride that’s an inevitable part of the ever-changing New York City landscape—with or without a hurricane thrown in.

“It’s visceral entertainment, and people want authenticity,” he says, glancing at his Sideshow building across the street while sipping the last of his chocolate shake.

“It’s not like going to a movie theater, or a Broadway show, where you sit silently in the dark and pay attention; sideshows make you laugh, or cry, or scream, or throw up like my sister did, because every five minutes somebody eats fire, or hammers a nail in his head. It’s the extreme, and the fantastic, and when it’s done live, you’re close enough to feel the heat, and know that it’s not fake fire.”

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