SoHo Journal: The Magazine of Arts and Politics in SoHo and the Hamptons Soho Politics Blog Hamptons Politics Blog

April 1st, 2004

Coney Island!

by Elaine Cedrone

With your eyes shut, it almost sounds like someone eating potato chips. Eyes open, you can’t ignore the fact that the gangly man on stage is deliberately biting into a light bulb, the shards of glass making a sickening crunch as he grinds them with his teeth. Behind me, a woman gasps out loud. “Oh no he didn’t,” she whispers. “He nasty.” Step right up folks, and meet Todd Robbins, dubbed in the program of his new off-Broadway show, Carnival Knowledge, as the “Post-Modern Master of the Sideshow.” Robbins is a part of a group of “educated freaks” that includes Professor Marie Roberts and Dick Zigun that is bringing Coney Island back to its days in the spotlight, not just as a place to see the freaks, but as a respectable showcase for the arts.

During the 20’s, Coney Island had a number of sideshows, visited by thousands of people who wanted a glimpse of something strange – whether it was the “real freaks” (people with physical abnormalities, such as the bearded ladies or Siamese twins), the “self-made” freaks (heavily tattooed people) or the “working act” (like Robbins, “regular” people who can swallow swords, walk on glass, etc.) Eventually, the sideshows’ popularity waned, and by the 1970’s, they had all but died out. That is, until Dick Zigun moved to Coney Island and started “Sideshows by the Seashore,” the nation’s last traditional ten-in-one show (ten separate acts strung together).

Today, Coney Island is once again the place where sideshow performers want to be. “Coney Island is the place where the younger generation wants to pass,” says James Taylor, creator of the sideshow journal series Shocked and Amazed and consultant to The Learning Channel documentary “Sideshow: Alive on the Inside.”

“We were the ones who opened the Pandora’s box,” Dick Zigun says, his tattooed arms leaning against the sales counter in front of the Coney Island museum. Zigun’s long hair and tattoos give him the appearance of a retired Hell’s Angel, but his eyes glint with the sharp wit of an old-time Coney Island showman. “We?ɂstarted a new generation of circus idiots for the 21st century.”

Zigun is Coney Island’s “Permanently Un-Elected Mayor;” the man who brought the sideshow back to Coney Island when it seemed that the place was all but forgotten. “People had given up on Coney Island. It was perceived as dangerous,” he says. “The place was still here, but nobody knew how to get out of the dilemma. There was no direction at all for the future.”

Zigun was perhaps destined to be the person to give Coney Island its future, as the sideshow infiltrated his life nearly from birth; he grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, otherwise known as P.T. Barnum’s hometown. “As a kid, I grew up thinking elephants and midgets were patriotic and all-American,” he says. From such auspicious sideshow circumstances, Zigun went to college to study theatre, first at Bennington College and then later at Yale School of Drama, where he got his Masters. Of course, Zigun brought his love for sideshow with him throughout his education, and when he graduated, he wanted to do something that reflected this interest. “Instead of thinking Broadway was where I wanted to go, I had this wacky idea of checking out Coney Island as a staging ground,” he says. “Instead of doing art about amusement parks and sideshows for some avant guard audience in a loft for forty people, I decided to do it for tens of thousands -if not hundreds of thousands-of Coney Islanders.”

Zigun is in charge of Coney Island USA, a non-profit organization that runs a number of programs in Coney Island, including the Coney Island Museum, the Mermaid Parade, and, of course, Sideshows by the Seashore. The performers there are a close-knit community, whose bonds akin to something like a family, with Zigun at its head. “We’re a dysfunctional family and I’m the big daddy,” he says proudly.

Someone who would certainly agree with the familial bonds at the Coney Island Sideshow is Professor Marie Roberts, sometimes known as simply “The Professor,” as she teaches painting and drawing at Farleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. Roberts’ connection with the sideshow runs deep; her grandfather, Lester A. Roberts, was the Acting Battalion Chief of Coney Island and fought the fire the burned Dreamland to the ground in 1911.

After the fire, the freaks quickly reconvened in a tent on Surf Avenue under the name the Dreamland Circus Sideshow, and Roberts’s Uncle Lester acted as the “outside talker” for the show, standing on a small stage and giving a sales pitch or, in carnie speak, a “bally,” for the crowd. Her father and uncles all hung out there, and Roberts grew up with their wild stories of the sideshow and its cast of characters-Lionel the Lion Faced Man, Zip “What is It?” and Baron Paucci, among others. It is from hearing their stories of the old days-always spoke in a sideshow lingo called “carnie”-that Roberts picked up both their language and their love for the sideshow.

Roberts became involved with the sideshow herself after Uncle Lester died. One day she picked up a copy of the New York Times and saw an article about a man from Yale who was starting a sideshow. She grabbed Lester’s old photographs and brought them to the man, who turned out to be Dick Zigun. Immediately, she felt as if she had found someone special. “He looked at a photograph of Lester’s that was taken at an annual dinner party at the sideshow and he said, ?ɬit’s nice to know Lionel can put on a silly hat and go have a good time.’ He gets things like that.”

To Roberts, Zigun was also a kindred spirit in his duality – like her, he belonged to both the intellectual world as well as that of the sideshow. “He was the first person I met who knew who Zip What Is It? and who Piet Mondrian was,” says Roberts, who received a BA from Brooklyn College and an MFA from Queens. “What’s so strange to me-Dick has an MFA from Yale, I have an MFA from Queens-I mean, everybody down there is just loaded with degrees. And people from Dreamland, they only went to school?ɂso here we all are, educated freaks.”

Zigun lost his sideshow banner painter before the ?ɬ97 summer season, and Roberts asked him for the opportunity for her and her art students at FDU to have a chance. He agreed, and that summer they painted twenty-five banners for the sideshow. “I had been showing in Manhattan and around the country,” she says. “But?ɂI really wanted to do something for where I was from.”

Roberts credits Zigun for giving Coney Island an identity outside the past. “I think Dick was probably the turnaround,” she says. “The problem with us Brooklyners, we always live in the past. We are still talking about Coney Island and Dreamland. Dreamland burned in 1911. I wasn’t born until 1954. We’ve got this thing with the past. What I think Dick did is that he made a present and a future. He respects the past, but brings it in the future.”

Today, Roberts is on the Board of Directors at Coney Island USA and is the Artist in Residence at the Sideshow. She also teaches banner painting at the sideshow’s new “Sideshow School,” and accepts no compensation for her banners or services-it’s all a part of helping out her “family.”

Roberts lost her mother the year that she began painting for the show, and she believes the two are cosmically related. “You lose one thing, another thing takes its place. I was so upset I lost my last family member, and I couldn’t talk carnie with anyone anymore. It’s funny, they became my family.”

One of the “family members” who Roberts can freely converse in carnie with is Todd Robbins, Chairman of the Board of Coney Island USA and the Dean of the Coney Island Sideshow School. Todd began learning carnival tricks at the age of twelve in a quiet suburb in Southern California, after a carnival came to town. He was immediately hooked, and when he found a neighbor was a retired carnie, he pestered him until he agreed to teach him everything. It paid off-Robbins has been in over one hundred television appearances and has performed everywhere from CBGBs to Carnegie Hall, and now he’s made it to off-Broadway with Carnival Knowledge.

It’s a late Sunday afternoon, and Todd Robbins has just finished another performance of Carnival Knowledge. Leaning against a metal foldout chair, he is obviously tired but still in performance-mode, telling the handful of people gathered in the lower level of the Soho Playhouse about a harrowing encounter with a neon light sword that broke in his throat. “And I’m thinking, am I dead?” he deadpans. “I wasn’t. But I don’t use neons anymore.”

Robbins uses this humor, combined with a few bawdy jokes and the rapid-fire delivery of some sort of carnie Eminem to entertainingly infiltrate his show with some history of the sideshow. Respected throughout the scene for his extensive knowledge of carnival history, Robbins seems particularly excited about the bond between circus performers. “This was the original counterculture,” he says, his large blue eyes widening. “The hippies in the 60’s, the gangstas?ɂthe carnies were the originals.”

And this “original counterculture,” led by Roberts, Zigun, and Robbins, are the ones bringing the people back down to Coney Island, and giving them something perhaps a little smarter than they would expect. “When people say art-they think of Williamsburg now, they think of Park Slope, they think Brooklyn Heights,” says Roberts. “But you know, we’re alive and kicking in the other end. We’re out there.”

Elaine Cedrone

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | New York

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