CONEY ISLAND, NY — Tucked on a corner of Surf Avenue between the Cyclone and Nathan’s stands a squat building that beckons passersby with bold block letters beneath the windows: CURIOSITIES. WONDERS. SIDESHOWS.
The letters don’t lie — the building is home to the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, a rotating showcase of fire-eating, sword-swallowing, snake-charming and other talents performed by self-described freaks.
The show is a contemporary revival of the sideshow tradition that started in New York City in the 1800s and enraptured audiences across the nation well into the 20th century, according to Dick Zigun, the founder of Coney Island USA, the nonprofit that runs it.
“It’s visceral entertainment — things that make you applaud or scream or close your eyes or throw up,” Zigun said. “It’s a different kind of performance than going to Broadway, arriving at a certain time with everybody else and sitting silently for two hours in the dark, paying attention.”
The show’s current home was built in 1917, amid the heyday of sideshows that accompanied circuses and carnivals around the country. They have their roots in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, Zigun said, a gallery of oddities that opened in 1841 at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in Manhattan.
Barnum’s museum eventually burned down. But Coney Island became known for the continuous sideshow featuring a slate of acts that repeats throughout the day, according to Zigun.
“It spreads out into World’s Fair expositions in Buffalo and Chicago, and then it spreads to amusement parks and traveling carnivals where it thrives into the mid-20th century as a major form of low-cost popular theater and entertainment,” Zigun said.
Then the sideshow started to die out in the 1960s, he said. Zigun attributes that to economics — minimum-wage laws made it tough to support big casts of performers when automated roller coasters could make money a lot more efficiently, he said.
There were also protests over concerns that freak shows were exploiting their disabled performers. As one self-described “natural-born freak,” KooKoo the Bird Girl, puts it: “The disability rights movement killed the freak shows.”
While Zigun said he shied away from it at first, the Coney Island sideshow has evolved to embrace the word “freak” since it was founded in 1985. The show “unabashedly” features disabled performers along with classic acts, Zigun said. And they share a strong sense of community.
“There are a lot of people that say the freak show is a hack, that we are used for our talents and exploited because we can’t find work anywhere else,” said Finn Flexible, a Bensonhurst-born contortionist who joined the show last year. “That used to be true in old sideshow and freak shows back in the ’30s and ’40s, but now we are loved and cared for.”
The Coney Island Circus Sideshow features five performers onstage doing 10 acts in about 45 minutes for $12. The show runs continuously, meaning attendees can go in late and stick around for what they missed.
About 50,000 visitors come to see the show each season, with performances starting at 1 p.m. and going until after the last ticket is sold at 7 p.m., Zigun said. The show had its one millionth customer last year, he said.
The current cast features about a dozen performers. While the acts are out of the ordinary, there’s no blood or nudity in the show, Zigun said — “It’s just all-American weird.”
“It’s authentic and it’s cool,” Zigun said. “… You can watch television and on television see a magician make an elephant disappear — big f—ing deal. It’s a camera trick on television. But when you come to our sidehsow and the fire-eater does a blast of fire, all 100 people, if it’s sold out in the bleachers, can feel the heat of that fire and instinctively know without having to be told, there’s no such thing as cold fire.”
Here are some of the faces you might say if you pay a visit to the sideshow at Coney Island USA.
KooKoo The Bird Girl
KooKoo The Bird Girl traveled across the world — and through time — to get to Coney Island.
Hailing from Sydney, Australia, KooKoo, whose real name is Sarah, has a rare medical condition that gives her an “uncanny resemblance” to a freak-show character of the same name from the early 20th century.
The original KooKoo, born Minnie Woolsey, performed at Coney Island in the 1930s and ’40s and appeared in “Freaks,” a 1932 film featuring several other sideshow performers, Sarah says.
The contemporary KooKoo says she is “reincarnating and reclaiming” her predecessor in her current act, in which she performs aerials in a hoop suspended above a bed of nails. “I’m the only other person in the world who can sort of bring her back to life,” she said.
Sarah said she has worked as a circus performer since 2001 and has done sideshows since 2009. She’s appeared in Cirque du Soleil and got a lead role in a feature film, she said, but she wanted to come to Coney Island to be a part of its freak show tradition.
“Without people with disability there wouldn’t actually be a freak show,” said Sarah, now in her first full season with the sideshow. “And so it’s very important that we stay at the core of that culture, and nurture and lead in it as well.”
A twist of fate brought Insectavora to the sideshow. Angelica Velez grew up on Long Island but happened to be visiting the city from Minneapolis on the week of 9/11. Blockades in lower Manhattan kept her confined to the Lower East Side, where she was staying.
Eventually she went to a tattoo convention at the now-closed Roseland Ballroom where Zigun noticed the tattoos on her face and hands and said she should be in the show. Velez recalls that when she said she didn’t “know how to do any of that stuff,” Zigun replied, “Oh, you’ll learn.”
And she did. She joined in the spring of 2002 and started out eating live bugs. About three years in, another performer taught her to eat fire despite the show’s fire-eater saying he would “never teach a pretty girl” the skill, she said. The hardest part, she says, was putting a torch in her mouth for the first time.
The old fire-eater left and Velez won an audition to replace him. Now she twirls torches, makes flames dance on her lips and blows an inferno that heats up the front row.
Velez, now a Williamsburg resident, is back in the show this year after about a six-year stint working for a lighting design company in Austin, Texas. She touted Coney Island USA’s other programs, including the famous Mermaid Parade, the Coney Island Film Festival and the museum above the theater. But the show itself is special to her.
“It’s not only fun and creative, but the fact that you get every walk of life — rich, poor, middle class, young, old, every ethnicity, every sexuality, every gender, everybody in between,” she said. “They all sit under the same roof and all laugh at our silly jokes and applaud for our stunts and acts.”
“And for that 40 minutes, however it is,” she added, tearing up, “… all these different people come together and they are being happy. So that means something to me.”
Finn Flexible. (Photo by Noah Manskar/Patch)
Finn Flexible started developing his sideshow act early. He first got interested in contortion at age 3, when his sister became a cheerleader and he saw her doing the splits.
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He got into gymnastics and taught himself contortion by watching YouTube videos. He nurtured his talent along with a love of the sideshow — he said he grew up spending “every allowance here.”
In search of a job, Finn walked into the sideshow last summer and auditioned for Zigun on the spot, he said. He’s now added walking on glass and swallowing chains to his repertoire.
Finn says he gets energy from the crowd’s excitement. On May 25, his birthday, he told the audience it was a special occasion and they sang him “Happy Birthday.” It moved him to tears on stage, he said.
“There’s something about it where it’s like, hey, we’re the superheroes in those comic books that the kids are pointing at going, ‘Wow!'” said Finn, a Flatbush resident. “And it’s very fulfilling on the heart, when you leave the stage and there’s over 50 people, some kids, some adults, some men, some women, all screaming like they’re all the same age, enjoying pure happiness.”
The Texas Talker
Nikos Brisco is the Texas Talker. (Photo by Noah Manskar/Patch)
Nikos Brisco uses a self-described “gift of gab” to work as the Texas Talker, tasked with drawing people into the show from outside. Wearing a cowboy hat, Brisco explains to passersby what the show is, the sideshow’s history and its importance to Coney Island.
“You come to Coney Island, you should not miss this show,” said Brisco, who also lives in the neighborhood. “Literally that would be like getting on an airplane, going to Paris and avoiding the Eiffel Tower.”
Brisco is no stranger to the stage as an actor and musician also known as the Pink Velvet Witch, but has “no ambition” to actually be in the sideshow.
People can get scared by the show, Brisco said — some have even stormed out. But most just need a little more education.
“Most of the time you have people that are curious, and they just need to be — kind of (have) their hand held as they cross the threshold,” Brisco said.
The Sound Guy
Adam Bishop is the sound guy. (Photo by Noah Manskar/Patch)
Adam Bishop isn’t a freak, but the sideshow still drew him in. He saw the show for the first time in 2015 by himself with an audience of about four people. Then he asked the manager for a job application, threatening to come back every day if he didn’t get one.
He started out working in the ticket booth and the gift shop and now does lighting and sound for the show. He also makes custom music for the performers.
The show has gotten more polished over the years, he said — performers years ago had to hit play on their own music before running onstage. But the passion is always present.
“Whether it be two people in the audience or 50, or 100, these people are willing to put their lives on the line seven times a day and keep live entertainment alive,” said Bishop, of Midwood. “… This is literally the last place I know of in this country that has something like this and still keeps it going.”