Coney Island - Sideshows by the Seashore
Brooklyn, New York
Coney Island U.S.A. was established way back in 1980, when visiting Coney off-season (and sometimes in-season) was a truly frightening prospect for travelers.
With the area in decline, Yale School of Drama grad Dick Zigun found his calling: to revive the rakish and democratic popular culture traditions of this world famous hub of fun. The non-profit organization not only reestablished classic forms of entertainment of the past like the ten-in-one sideshow and boffo burlesque nights, but also sponsors the annual artsy marching bacchanal known as the Mermaid Parade (in June of 2010, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson reigned as King Neptune and Queen Mermaid.)
Coney Island USA has hosted lectures, sideshow school, an annual Tattoo and Motorcycle Festival, film programs, live game shows, a haunted house ("Creep Show at the Freak Show"), and banner painting classes (by Marie Roberts, who paints the sideshow banners). Originally located on the boardwalk, they moved to their current home in 1995. A former Child's Restaurant, the Spanish Colonial Revival style structure was built in 1917 and later housed a nightclub, a freak show, and even spent some time as a warehouse. Coney Island USA owns the building, so they're not going anywhere anytime soon.
The sideshow is the big draw. Unlike sideshows of the past, which displayed the congenitally different, today's players are a voluntarily freakish and uniquely talented band: pierced and tattooed fire eaters, chain juggling human blockheads, shapely snake charming contortionists. Don't fret: you are still encouraged to gape.
After your exposure to entertaining otherness, you can shop for souvenirs, drink in the spacious "Freak Bar," and climb the stairs to the second-floor museum. Temporary exhibits share space with a permanent collection of joy-evoking artifacts (fun house mirrors, vintage bumper cars, etc.) as period footage plays continuously on a video monitor. You never know who may drop by: when we were there, the great great grandniece of George Tilyou, founder of Steeplechase Park, was soaking up some family history.
Coney Island redevelopment will soon be in full swing, and there's no doubt that major players are bent on replacing most of what's funky, sleazy, eccentric (and often decrepit) with a more sanitized, corporate version of leisure time fun. Which leaves Coney Island USA as the area's primary beacon and booster of the weirdly wonderful. Bless their little twisted hearts.
Complete event schedule at www.coneyisland.com [ADB]