The Habitat of the Human Freak

Coney Island Side Show. Insectavora eats fire at the Coney Island Side Show. © Lauren Lancaster / Veras Images 2007

“It’s show-time! Circus time for the freak-side. Where strange and unusual people entertain. One word of warning—as you walk into that canvas threshold you are walking into another world, another realm, another dimension. The World of the Sideshow Freaks. You’re gonna see what they look like, hear what they talk about. Strange ones, old ones, from all over the world. They are all here; they are all positively alive. There is nothing in this show that is dead, stuffed, pickled, mummified, preserved in formaldehyde…” Used to draw crowds at the Coney Island sideshow

The Talkers' Pitch

On Coney Island at the corner of 12th Street and Surf Avenue, across from an empty lot and a dingy furniture store, in a building made of driftwood, held together with paint and plaster, stands America’s last sideshow, the Sideshow by the Seashore.

Enter into the Sideshow on any summer day, pass the albino snakeskins and banners of bearded, fat, electric ladies and you will find yourself swallowed inside a dimly lit cave of living wonders. On stage is an endless parade of bizarre acts: Heather Holiday swallowing swords, Insectavora dancing and eating fire, and Donny V. sticking nails, ice picks and scissors up his nose, deep into his face. After he removes each object, Donny V. licks them off and pretends to like it. Welcome to the ten-and-one, the heart of the sideshow. This show is a ten-and-one because it is made up of ten acts with an “extra” act thrown in for free. The show is the training ground for young performers, running continuously during the summer with upwards of 20 performances on the fourth of July.

Coney Island Side Show. Donny V at the Coney Island Side Show. © Lauren Lancaster / Veras Images 2007

“It’s a hard way to make an easy living,” Donny V. likes to say. In fact, he likes the phrase so much he had fellow sideshow performer Roc Roc-it tattoo it on his stomach. Recently, the Bloomberg administration decided to protect these endangered human oddities by helping the sideshow buy its building and add heating and air. The sideshow had been hoping to purchase a second location to house a museum, but large developers have bought up all the lots with plans for townhouses and condos, Starbucks and McDonalds. They are unwilling to sell and because of their interest in the area, the remaining property owners are unwilling to sell even dilapidated wrecks for less than a fortune. So the freaks are left with their one building to establish their year-round institute of “Americano Bizarro.”

Since its creation in 1986, the sideshow has grown into an international hub for the Weird under the guidance of its parent organization Coney Island USA, which is run out of the same building. Coney Island USA hosts a guest lecture series and burlesque shows in the summer as well as a creep-show film festival in the fall. The organization also runs the Coney Island museum and offers beginning and advanced sideshow classes.

Traditionally performers such as sword-swallowers only taught their act to one other person, guaranteeing the trick’s secrecy and preservation. That was before the sideshows disappeared; the sideshow school was created as a necessity to pass along the knowledge to the next generation of performers. The classes are taught by Todd Robbins the Sideshow Professor, onstage, with the banners of the past performers staring down on the students. The beginning classes teach a variety of the most basic sideshow acts such as walking on broken glass, sword swallowing, and snake-charming as well as how to speak in Carney, a code performers used for secrecy similar to pig-Latin. These classes attract a mix of sideshow aficionados ranging from high-schoolers to grandfathers, and from librarians and actors to hair-stylists.

Students in the beginning class learn that there is no secret to the sideshow acts. The flames burn in your mouth, the nail slips up your nose, the sword slides down your throat. “Most of the sideshow acts rely on physics and human anatomy, and since most people slept through those classes, the secrets are safe,” Robbins tells his classes.

Though the secrets might be safe, the acts themselves are not. Fire-eating, for example, involves placing a burning ball of cotton soaked in lighter fluid in the mouth and either closing the lips tight around it to deprive it of oxygen or breathing out and letting the carbon dioxide put it out. The flames are hot, the fumes are toxic, and the trick occasionally does not work. All sideshow performers lose teeth, bleed and burn if they perform long enough. Sometimes the injuries are serious, sometimes they are fatal.

Coney Island Side Show. Chuy the Mexican Wolf Man during his first week working in the Coney Island Side Show. © Lauren Lancaster / Veras Images 2007

The mementos of past acts gone awry are often as bizarre as the acts themselves. Donny V., who introduces each act, had his two front teeth knocked out by a mousetrap he was setting off with his tongue. Todd Robbins the Sideshow Professor used to swallow a neon tube that lit up inside him until it broke off while down his throat. Due to the death-defying dangers, it is rare to see an older sideshow performer, which is part of what makes the advanced sideshow classes so unique.

The advanced classes draw students from all over the nation and are held over a weekend once a year. These classes tend to focus on more dangerous acts, such as stabbing needles through the cheeks, escaping from strait-jackets, and using whips onstage. They are the closest thing to a sideshow convention that exists. At each class there are between four and six “professors,” each a veteran of the sideshow circuit. At the last advanced seminar, Red Stuart, the legendary sword-swallower and holder of two world records, stopped by unannounced and gave a spontaneous tutorial on the finer points of his craft.

Most of the students are professional performers such as magicians, clowns, actors and stuntmen. They treat the professors with a great deal of respect, bordering on reverence. There is a sense of passing along a tradition and every student, beginning and advanced, is given a packet written by Robbins on the history and habits of sideshow society.

Most of the modern sideshow tricks originate from wandering Fakirs or shaman who came out of northern India during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. These nomads were mislabeled Gypsies by Europeans from the belief that they were Egyptian in origin. During the 1800s, the Fakirs became enormously popular performers in England. Their acts were quickly aped by Anglo performers and spread to America where they were observed by a certain gentleman named P.T. Barnum. Barnum took the sword swallowing and fire eating acts and paired them with human oddities such as the little General Tom Thumb in a tent on the side of the main tent called the sideshow. From there, sideshows spread to other carnivals and circuses across the country. In the sideshow’s heyday there were over 300 full or partial troupes, a dozen in Coney Island alone. Now there are less than a dozen groups nationwide which include sideshow acts.

There are three tiers of performers in the world of the sideshow. The lowest caste is comprised of the working freaks, showmen who perform an act such as fire-eating or walking on broken glass. Working acts also lift heavy objects with their nipples, earlobes or eyelids, juggle chainsaws and eat glass. The second tier of the sideshow is made-freaks, or people who were born normal and turned themselves into spectacles, such as the Tattooed Man or, arguably, the Fat Lady. Most of the current Coney Island performers fall somewhere between working and made-freak.

The first tier in sideshow society is reserved for born freaks, performers who were born with disabilities or oddities such as the Bearded Ladies, Seal-Boys (performers born with phocomelia or shortened arms), Rubber-Boys (contortionists) and Dwarfs.

When the Sideshow by the Seashore was created in 1986, sideshow society was almost extinct, most of the human wonders having died, disappeared or retired to Florida. And then Dick Zigun, a Yale-educated performance artist, came to Coney Island. Zigun, who hails from Bridgeport Connecticut, hometown of P.T. Barnum, started the sideshow and Coney Island USA in hopes of creating a Coney Island revival. The first performances were single night events called The One Man Human Sideshow as part of a theatre series. “Suddenly the place that couldn’t sell a ticket had a line around the block,” Zigun, the “Mayor of Coney Island,” said in an interview.

The Sideshow by the Sea Shore has cultivated relationships with all three tiers of freaks in its rotating cast. Some, such as Ravi the Indian Rubber Boy, Jennifer Miller the Bearded Lady and Koko the Killer Clown, a dwarf comedian, first spent seasons developing their acts at the sideshow and now come back from time to time to perform at special events. “Coney Island is a family,” Ravi said, “This is a very close community, literally everyone knows everyone and we help each other out.” Ravi himself is married to a former Coney Island sideshow snake-charmer.

There is a decided postmodern tongue-in-cheek bent on the born-freak performances. Jennifer Miller, for example, prefers to be called a bearded-woman and gives lectures on the feminism and facial hair while juggling swords. Speaking of facial hair, the sideshow’s newest first tier performer is Chuy the Wolf Man of Mexico, a performer with hair growing all over his face.

Recently, a host of non-sideshow interests with deep pockets and a love of cheap real estate have come to Coney Island. Thor Equities, a large urban developer, bought Astroland, Coney’s last amusement park. Thor announced plans to build a $1.5 billion hotel, condo, and amusement complex. Many fear that Thor simply wants the amusement area rezoned to allow condos so it can be resold for a profit. They have already flipped 350,000 square feet of Coney property along the boardwalk to Taconic Investment Partners, another developer, who is planning to build townhouses and restaurants. Thor and the city are currently at a standoff. The city council is refusing to rezone the amusement area to allow condos and Thor is bulldozing the lots it owns, including games such as mini-golf and the batting cages, in order to increase the pressure.

The sideshow thus has to continue operation amidst this destruction and construction for an estimated three years, during which the screams of delight will be drowned out by the drone of pile-driving.

These proposed developments have created a division in the Coney Island community. Some people associated with the sideshow have been protesting against the developments, specifically the plans for condos in the amusement-zoned areas. Others, including Dick Zigun, are cautiously optimistic and hope that new amusements could bring a Coney Island revival. On the coneyisland.com bulletin boards, where the developments are being debated, Zigun sought to clarify his position. “I think that Coney Island, the way it currently stands, is ‘broken,’” Zigun wrote. “I too love the seedy charm but I do not wish to maintain the empty lots and furniture stores. Throughout Coney Island’s history, it has been ‘the world’s playground.’ It has been the amusement park of large, loud, urban New York City. The current Coney Island is neither.”

Coney Island indeed was once the greatest amusement park in the world, the basis for all other amusement parks; now it is mostly old landmarked rides and memories. To not develop is to risk oblivion, but by developing, Coney Island risks becoming a parody of itself, where a sideshow may seem out of place.

One thing is for certain, however. Thanks to a clause in the contract for Coney Island USA’s new building, the freaks at Sideshow by the Seashore will continue eating glass and breathing fire for at least another 50 years, even if they are surrounded by 40-story towers. “As wacky as Coney Island is,” notes Zigun, “it is within New York City and is the right place for a national center of Americano Bizarro.”

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Brian Childs

Brian Childs is a writer based in Brooklyn.