Last summer in Coney Island, I discovered that a freshly-spun cotton candy from Gregory and Paul’s was my equivalent of Proust’s madeleine. I was waiting for my order of crinkle-cut, Coney Island-style french fries, when the sight of cotton candy being turned out by a deft hand caught my eye. One, two, three twirls round a paper cone --- and it was done. But instead of handing the confection to the fellow who was putting the finished products into clear plastic bags, Gregory handed it to me.
“How did you know I wanted one?” I was incredulous.
“I could see it in your face,” the canny showman explained.
He was right. Though it never would have occurred to me to eat cotton candy as an appetizer to french fries, that’s exactly what I did at Coney Island that day. And blissfully. The moment the magical stuff began to melt on my tongue, I was transported back to the little New England carnivals of the 1950s and '60s, when I was a carny kid who had the run of the midway, and “floss,” as we called it---along with french fries, hot dogs, popcorn and snowcones --- was everyday fare.
Though my concessionaire parents had never taken me to Coney Island as a child, I knew that it was the midway of midways, the place where the hot dog was invented, the roller coaster was perfected, and the carnival spirit was most alive. By the time I got there in the early ‘80s, Coney’s three grand amusement parks --- Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase --- were ghostly memories. New York City newspaper articles routinely portrayed the neighborhood as crime-ridden and the amusement area as on the decline.
But I was drawn to the Coney Island style that is evident in everything from the gloriously gaudy horses of the B & B Carousell to the full-tilt action of Astroland’s thrill rides to the all-out exuberance of the weekly fireworks displays.
And I have been lured back to Coney Island again and again by Sideshow by the Seashore’s colorful banners trumpeting entertainers who have disappeared from the modern carnival: Serpentina, the snake-charmer; the King of Swords; the Human Blockhead, a fellow who nonchalantly hammers a twentypenny nail up his nose! It may be a new generation of self-declared freaks and geeks playing these roles today, but the art of ballyhooing a crowd is the same as it was when Coney Island was home to dozens of live shows and the talker was the storyteller on the midway.
“I want a one o’clock bally!” booms Dick Zigun from his perch behind the ticket counter, "in costume!"
It’s five minutes to one, and the talker (we carnies never say barker) and the tattooed man have just strolled into the sideshow. Since Zigun came to Coney Island’s fabled shore in ’79 looking for cheap loft space in which to produce plays, the Yale Drama School grad-turned-midway impresario has revitalized the amusement area with splashy events that have won media raves and public funding.
“The perception now is Coney Island is on the upswing," Zigun says. "Coney Island is safe. Coney Island is hip. It’s sort of honky-tonk chic.”
As artistic director of the nonprofit Coney Island, USA, he stages the annual Mermaid Parade, as well as an “old school burlesque and modern vaudeville” revue and the only traditional ten-acts-in-one sideshow in 21st century America. On weekends from Easter through September, the 45-minute sideshow is performed 15 times a day.
“Come in, come over, you’re just in time," shouts the talker. "We’re having a free show right here at the freak show. Come on over to the front. I’ll pay you for listening!”
Every 15 minutes, Tyler Fleet, the dapperly-attired outside talker appears on the "bally" platform, which juts out onto the sidewalk. He waves his magic dollar bill in the air.
“You know how you can tell it’s real?” he asks a little girl, who actually gets to hold it for a second in order to verify its authenticity. “The smell of mint. Government,” Fleet says as he pulls, stretches, winds, and twists the single around his finger.
People of all ages, races and countries of origin crowd up close to get a better look at the strange cast of characters who have taken the stage. Eak the Geek Who Tattooed His Face Like Space wears a black hood over his head. Serpentina, a six-foot-tall, curly-haired beauty, has an albino Burmese python draped around her neck. Four-foot-tall Koko the Killer Klown, whose specialty is twisting balloons into shapes for the kids, has a winsome grin. The missing sideshow virtuoso is the Fire God, Frank Hartman. Since he is also the Master of Magic, the King of Swords, and the Blockhead, he’s busy performing in the theater while the rest of the cast comes out to say hello.
By the time the talker has finished his introductions, he has the crowd wrapped round his finger as cleverly as that dollar bill. But it’s just a bit of razzle-dazzle to hold their attention. The real trick is coming right up.
“Remember how I said I was going to pay you for listening?” Fleet asks. The crowd is rapt. The posted price of a ticket is “Adults $5, Kids $3,” but the actual price is as flexible as Madame Twisto, the show’s contortionist. “Hey, Caesar! Put away the adult tickets!,” Fleet says, and for $3 apiece everyone has the chance to be a child again (and the adults have extra money in their pockets).
Inside the show, you’ll find that all the acts are indeed genuine. The only fraud in the place is the Fiji Mermaid, though she is a genuine replica of the replica of P.T. Barnum’s most famous hoax, in the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut --- which just happens to be Dick Zigun’s hometown.
“It's a place where it is patriotic to believe in elephants and freaks,” Zigun tells me later as we share a table in the Freak Bar adjacent to the sideshow. As a youngster growing up in the ‘50s, he was exposed to the round of parades, shows and freak impersonators that were part of the hoopla of the annual Barnum Festival. “If you’re an artist, you make art of what you know,” he says.
Around the corner and up a flight of stairs, I find the Coney Island Museum, Zigun's current work-in-progress. A piece of paper posted at its entrance reads: “On a raw, preview, phase one basis, it’s certainly worth the measly admission of 99 cents --- cheap!” While the loft is undergoing renovation, only a small part of the museum’s treasures are on display: a lone horse from the racing derby that was Steeplechase Park’s most popular ride; wicker rolling chairs that once transported sightseers along the boardwalk; wavy funhouse mirrors and cast-iron shooting gallery targets; souvenir photos, postcards and bathhouse keys.
Coney Island hasn’t been an island since the creek that separated it from the rest of Brooklyn was filled in more than a century ago. But old-timers who were born and raised here continue to refer to it as “The Island,” holding onto the notion that they are from a distant place, apart from the everyday world. While a nickel subway ride brought the masses here in the 1920s, in the year 2000 Coney Island is still the closest beach to Manhattan, if you’re traveling on a MetroCard.
Summer or winter, take the B, D, F or N train to the Stillwell Avenue terminus, and your first sight of Coney Island will be a trio of New York City landmarks: The Cyclone roller coaster and Deno’s Wonder Wheel, are 73 and 80 years old, respectively, and still beyond compare. The Parachute Jump, the great granddaddy of vertical thrill rides, is now thought of as Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower.
I set off for Coney Island on the first Saturday of summer, when King Neptune and Queen Mermaid turn a giant key in the Atlantic to “open the ocean” for the season, to the delight of a half million mortals who come for the annual Mermaid Parade. Part performance art, part re-creation of Coney Island’s former Mardi Gras, the show begins the moment I board the subway in Manhattan.
On the train are several finny ladies in the company of pirates and sailors.
“How are mermaids different from mortal women?” I ask.
A siren wearing little more than a sequined fishtail and a sprinkling of glitter looks me in the eye and says, “Mortal women don’t have the boom-boom shimmy-sham that mermaids possess. For another thing, we have all that fantasy on our side.”
Everyone who comes to Coney Island partakes in that fantasy. In the staging area on West 10th Street, in the shadow of the Cyclone, I mingle with contenders for the title of Best Mermaid, Littlest Mermaid, Best Marching Group. There are mama mermaids pushing strollers with baby mermaids, devil mermaids from the depths of the deep blue sea, cowgirl mermaids from the Gulf of Mexico, and the “Mermaids of de Nile” with a pyramid in tow.
Once the parade gets underway, heralded by a fleet of antique cars with splendiferous tail fins, the local luminaries come into view. The sword swallower --- the Great Fredini --- walks by carrying the official Queen Mermaid, his four-year-old daughter, Katerina Kahl. King Neptune, the elaborately mustachioed and white-bearded Rabbi Abraham Abraham, who is best known as the leader of one of Coney Island’s winter swimming clubs, keeps jumping out of his rolling throne to dance a jig.
They're led by the Mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, who acquired the title by buying the costume --- an antique bathing suit and a spiffy top hat --- and playing the role of Coney Island’s biggest booster. As the cavalcade floats down the boardwalk, with the jam-packed beach and Atlantic Ocean on one side and the whirling rides on the other, a record-breaking crowd cheers them on. I can almost believe that Coney Island has reclaimed its title as the world’s premier playground by the sea.
On another sunny Saturday I meet Marie A. Roberts, a third-generation Coney Islander who was taken to Steeplechase Park as a child in the ‘50s and was raised on her family’s reminiscences of Dreamland. Today, she paints the sideshow banners that emblazon the façade of the Coney Island, USA headquarters.
“You can smell the ocean where my family’s house is," Roberts says when we meet in front of the Stillwell Avenue station. "You can’t from Ditmas Park or Park Slope,” she adds, referring to Brooklyn's yuppified neighborhoods. With her long hair tucked under a saucy straw hat and a rolled-up banner in hand, she looks the part of Coney Island’s artist-in-residence.
It’s just before noon and the sideshow is shut tight as a drum. But high above the corrugated-metal shutter, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, banners advertise Albino Pythons, Electra, and other oddities. Along with Nathan’s Famous, the B & B Carousell and the Coney Island Museum, these carny canvases are among the amusement area’s few year-round attractions.
“A few of them were painted by my students,” says Roberts, who is an associate professor of art at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “The kids come down to the show and they think it’s cool and hip. I look at it as sort of normal. I feel really at home.”
“Lester would have been delighted to see the banners,” she adds. Lester A. Roberts, Marie’s uncle, was a talker extraordinaire with the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in the 1920s.
Photos of him working and socializing with Zip What Is It?, Lionel the Lion-Faced Man, and other famous freaks left an indelible impression on her. Some of those pictures now reside in the Coney Island Museum.
“These are photos of people having a good time, some of whom happen to be freaks," she says.
“I’m a freak because I never left this place. Most people get an education and then they go to ‘a better place,’” says Roberts, who still lives in the house on East 15th Street where she grew up and where her uncle brought Baron Paucci (“World’s Smallest Perfect Man”), the Milton Sisters (fake Siamese twins) and other sideshow entertainers to stay. Dreamland’s stars slept, and presumably dreamed, in the room where “Professor Marie” paints her vibrantly colorful faux-naif style canvases.
Roberts leads me past Nathan’s, where people are lining up for lunch. We pass the site of Steeplechase Park, where she once rode the kiddie rides and the grand carousel. A $31 million stadium for a Mets farm team is under construction and is expected to open this summer. The City has chipped in another $30 million for boardwalk improvements, bathhouses and retail shops. Even the long-unused but still proudly standing Parachute Jump is to be given a fresh coat of paint. Only the derelict skeleton of the Thunderbolt roller coaster ---not scheduled for any repair---mars the view.
“Why don’t they restore it?” I wonder aloud.
“Mark my words, in ten years, no one will remember why people thought this place was blemished,” Roberts says with boundless optimism, the badge of a true Coney Islander.
We shed our sandals and head for the shore. I had expected the beach to be teeming with people, but it’s not. Not every day. Perhaps it is the quality of the light, but the people look as if they have stepped out of a 1950s photograph.
"It’s lovely. This is like it was when I was a kid,” Roberts says. “You’d just come and plop. You’d get wet. You’d get dry. You’d ride the rides.”
She slings the banner over her shoulder as we walk to the water’s edge. Dipping our toes in the ocean, we turn to look at Coney Island’s skyline. We smile. Everyone else is smiling, too. Perhaps we have stepped into one of those postcards that millions of people have sent over the decades. The message is as timeless as an idyllic day the beach: Greetings from Coney Island!