With the clang of a bell, the sideshow barker turns a few heads his way; his masked companion, dressed in black from head to tattooed shins, turns a few more. Before those glances have a chance to stray, the barker launches into a convivial if not-yet-up-to-speed litany of marvels awaiting the curious, the intrepid, even the impossibly jaded, just beyond the archway: the Human Blockhead, able to drive an ordinary household icepick into his skull; the Glass Eater, who not only chews but swallows an entire lightbulb; the Snake Enchantress, boon companion to an albino python rescued from the New York City sewer system; the Feminist Fat Lady (oops, no Fat Lady today); the Illustrated Man, whose intricately patterned lower legs have already hinted at the wonders in store…. All this and more, AND if you buy your ticket in the next three minutes, you get in for half price. The diffident knot of passersby who’ve lingered this long breaks up, but the crowd’s not a total loss: a dozen or so onlookers decide to be parted from their dollars and disbelief in a moment of holiday indulgence. That’s the point, after all, of a Coney Island outing, and Dick Zigun, who has produced Sideshows by the Seashore for eight summers running, thinks there’s more than hucksterism at work.Order now
Zigun grew up, as he likes to point out, in P.T. Barnum’s hometown of Bridgeport, Conn., a coincidence entirely suited to Zigun’s role as Coney Island impresario and preserver of America’s popular performance traditions. In 1980, armed with an M.F.A. in playwriting from Yale School of Drama, Zigun founded New York’s Coney Island, USA, a museum and theatre company dedicated to reviving – and in some cases, reinterpreting – the parades, sideshows, live performances and exhibits that characterized the amusement park in its heyday. In addition to the sideshow, the arts center sponsors an annual mermaid parade, a Friday-night music series, an off-season theatre production and exhibits by local artist – all Coney Island-inspired.
“Everyone in the world has heard about Coney Island,” Zigun notes. “And that sense of Coney Island’s history is an introduction to our work. When people come here, they’re not coming to see an avant-garde theatre company, they’re coming to an amusement park.”
Of course, the Coney Island people have heard about may not be the one that greets them at the nether reaches of the B, D, F and N subway lines, where the Atlantic Ocean stops Brooklyn in its tracks. Little remains of the glorious turn-of-the-century playground whose three grandly named pleasure palaces – Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park – offered every manner of diversion, from reenactments of the Boer War to the world’s first roller coaster. Decades of decline and profound demographic shifts in New York City’s urban makeup have erased that Coney Island, replacing it with a sprawling and derelict outpost of auto body shops and woebegone souvenir shacks. Ivy-covered skeletons of long-defunct rides rise above the clutter like ruins of an ancient civilization. Only the sea retains its former glory, its beautiful expanse the unruly neighborhood’s reward for having endured.
Zigun has passed a few endurance tests himself. He launched his Coney Island enterprise when the area’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, and little cultural victories were deemed less newsworthy than arson and gang warfare.
A brief post-graduate stint in California, where Zigun’s plays caught the attention of a couple of regional theatres in the late ’70s, gave the playwright the idea of starting his own company. “I was standing on the amusement pier at Santa Monica and looking at some of the archaic buildings for rent, thinking that would be a great place to try to do the type of theatre I want.” Before long, he had taken out a lease on a clapboard building on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue. Two months into renovation, the building burned down. “But by then,” Zigun smiles, his showman’s instinct steering the rest of his sentence, “I had sand in my shoes and saltwater in my veins; I was hooked on Coney Island.”
A new home was carved out of a 1939 penny arcade on the boardwalk. The space is modest: half is given over to a permanent display of Coney Island memorabilia, and the other half serves as a black box theatre with a small platform stage and stadium-style wooden bleachers. Though far better situated to catch the fancy of passing tourists and beachcombers than the earlier site, the theatre didn’t have much eye appeal until Valerie Haller came on board in 1988 as design director. “This used to be a seary place for a lot of people,” she acknowledges. Haller worked to create a welcoming facade, one that is old-fashioned while still expressing something of the company’s quirkiness. “We wanted a funhouse, an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of place. I call it |Amusement Park Deco.’ It’s helped us get our crowds. We don’t look like one of the rides that has blinking lights and disco music and video effects. We’re more handmade.”
And though definitely on the funky side of quaint – Haller’s hand-painted sideshow banners broadcast their oddities in luscious fruity colors like a roll of tropical Life Savers – the impression left by Coney Island, USA is of bizarreness on a human, rather than technological, scale. The sideshow, billed as the last of its kind in America, is finally less dependent on its grotesqueries than on its ability to kindle, however briefly, the imagination of its pick-up audience.
Zigun himself seems the unlikeliest of promoters. It’s hard to imagine this soft-spoken, self-effacing man parading around (as he has done) in an antique bathing suit and straw hat and calling himself the Mayor of Coney Island. But his reticence disappears when it comes to defending America’s vaudeville heritage.
“Thomas Edison innocently did a very evil thing. By the turn of the century, America was on its way to having its own version of commedia dell’arte. There was a very sophisticated American popular theatre in vaudeville, in burlesque, in minstrel shows and medicine shows. It was flourishing and probably would have created great American playwrights, American Molieres. But Edison invented the movies. And overnight, the popular American theatre died.”
Blaming it all on Edison is a little like singling out Columbus for centuries of European imperialism. There were certainly other contributing factors in what was a gradual decline in American popular theatrical traditions, including the control wielded by powerful producing cartels. Moreover, the increasing American appetite for realistic spectacle (pace Belasco) was better served by film than by the theatre, whose magic is in metaphor, not verisimilitude. But Zigun is right in recognizing that the immediate and overwhelming allure of the cinema, even in its newborn days, knocked the wind out of a fledgling indigenous theatre. (Yet film also preserved, let’s not forget, the titanic gifts of theatre artists like Chaplin and Keaton, and we owe much of our knowledge of the vaudeville stage to the film art that has immortalized it.)
Zigun, who cites Charles Ludlam and Richard Foreman (“Foreman is spookhouse, we’re funhouse”) as influences, is an apostle of cheap theatrics at their purest. He wants to reclaim those elements of America’s theatrical past that are often dismissed as naive, unsophisticated or vulgar: the unmediated terrors and pleasures of circus and sideshow, carnival midway and music hall stage. His own plays combine elements of carnival exhibitionism and avant-garde adventuring in unique fashion, frequently incorporating toys, found objects, burlesque turns and musical interludes in ritualizing American fads and fetishes. His Master’s Voice, a tribute to vaudeville, requires a first-rate ventriloquist; Three Unnatural Acts, subtitled “A Theatrical Response to the Public Lives of Karen Ann Quinlan, Charles Lindbergh and David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz,” treats its famous and infamous subjects with sideshow abandon; Red Letter Days is a musical celebration of holidays – part school pageant, part sociological vivisection.
Zigun’s nostalgia for the 19th-century American stage is not without reservation; he acknowledges the racism and the ethnic stereotyping ingrained in vaudeville’s history, but believes that attitudes would have progressed as the theatre evolved. (The Feminist Fat Lady is a case in point.) He’s not so sure that attitudes toward the kind of tradition he represents – and toward the site where he’s chosen to revive it – have changed.
The turn-of-the-century American critic and novelist James Huneker jibed, “Unlike Sodom, Coney Island can boast at least 10 good inhabitants – but they only serve to set off the repulsive qualities of their neighbors.” Maxim Gorky visited Coney Island in 1906, and promptly denounced the “slimy marsh of boredom” in a withering magazine article Zigun plans to adapt as this winter’s theatre offering. Many “serious” theatregoers today, Zigun fears, dismiss Coney Island, USA without bothering to investigate it.
Getting them there in the first place is more than half the battle. “Coney Island gives us so much,” he enthuses. “A staging area full of drama, with the sea, the sun, the horizon, the rides. A mass multicultural New York audience: blue collar, hipsters, tourists, immigrants. Coney Island gives us a community hungry for the arts; and because of its history, it gives us the license to be bizarre, to redefine what theatre art is.” A diverse spur-of-the-moment audience is built-in; what’s been agonizingly slow to develop is recognition within the critical community and among some segments of the funding world. Respect, in other words. “There are certain people who are not coming here because they’re not going to set foot on a third-world beach. It’s wrong,” he laments, a decade of buried anger momentarily erupting, “it’s just morally wrong. Not for my sake, but for our audience’s.”
Zigun’s long-term commitment to Coney Island may depend on his landlord: the company’s lease expires in two years. “If we had to start all over again,” he muses, “I think we would try Miami Beach. It’s still the beach, it’s still funky, but there’s money there.” Catching himself sounding (deservedly) world-weary at 39, he cuts short his catechism of complaints. “I’m a playwright with my own theatre,” he says, still sounding surprised by it all, “and a hell of a front yard.”
Janice Paran is a critic, a dramaturg at New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre and a frequent contributor to this magazine.