Dick Zigun is the owner of the Coney Island Sidesow, and “unelected Mayor of Coney Island”. Dick has been the Spokesman for Coney Island Amusement Park since 1980. Since day one, he has been a champion for the Coney Island cause in this era of Development, and has been instrumental in making Coney Island fashionable again, while keeping the original spirit of the place intact. Dick Zigun now owns the building where the sideshow performs. This interview was done before the funds for the building had been raised.
Dick Zigun Interview
June 14, 2003
Dick and I are sitting together on a busy Saturday before Fredini’s show “This or That”.
NA: Can you describe your role in this industry?
DZ: I am the founder, president and producer of a 23 year old not for profit arts organization, Coney Island USA. All non-profits have to have a mission statement and he purpose of Coney Island USA is to defend the honor of American popular culture. From the time we got started in 1980, it’s all been about the blue collar, popular American arts: the sideshow, or burlesque or tattoos or vaudeville, all of which up until our generation were considered unworthy of serious academic interest or scholarly interest, and never taken seriously as an art form that you could make reference to. It’s hard to imagine now, when people can get PHDs in tattoos or sideshow, when not so long ago, all of this was totally disreputable.
Probably the best choice I ever made as an artist was to take Coney Island the neighborhood as a framing device to make my personal obsessions accessible. I was at the right place at the right time. People understand the history of Coney Island. They’re still nostalgic about it. New York regards it as part of its legacy.
The early days in Coney Island were about taking things that I didn’t invent, that were all very underground, and putting them – not in a huge venue, but a quasi-respectable one. Hundreds of wonderful people, yourself included, didn’t necessarily start here, but have passed through here, because it’s in New York and this place exists. It’s been a wonderful public forum in New York City for all this stuff that we all do. Certain people like Michael Wilson, who was a very pivotal figure – one of the first Modern Primitives-- emerged here.
NA: You didn’t start out wanting a sideshow?
DZ: When I first came to Coney Island, I didn’t realize it was going to get this big or that I was going to be a real sideshow. I was gonna have my own theater. I was thinking of myself more like a Sam Sheppard, like an off, off Broadway playwright who was going to win opie awards; but I wanted to be like Charles Ludlum, or Richard Foreman with the Ontological Hysteric and have my own wacky theater rather than be at the Public Theater on Broadway. I wanted to do an eccentric version. I was going to do a couple of plays, and the plays would make reference to amusement parks, or vaudeville and ventriloquism.
The board of directors named it Sideshows by the Seashore when it opened in 1985, but we basically booked a season of performance art, world music, poetry slams and all this stuff that had me going bankrupt so fast it was ridiculous. Bob Holman of the Bowery Poetry Club, Pedro Juan Pietri, and Paul Mc Mann were all there the first season -- I was running weekly ads in the Village Voice and all of that and it still wasn’t happening.
We had booked John Bradshaw for the end of the season labor day weekend. He was basically a one man sideshow, but he said, “I’m bringing all the stuff. When I get there, have an actress waiting for me who’s not afraid of snakes.” So I hired this woman Louisa Jatoba. She was from South America. I forget what the connection was, but she was comfortable with snakes. The two of them put on a show for three days and there was a non-stop line at the door. So I borrowed more money to survive till the next year, and that’s when we decided that Coney Island USA would have a resident theater, and a troupe - and that would be a sideshow. The audience and the Coney Island history told us what to do. I think out of our people’s culture there are these archetypal theatrical figures that are as strong as Pierrot, or like Comedia del Arte and there are these performance traditions that are not about Stanislowsky method acting that you lose yourself within your character. You know, Amanda has this virtuosity of flexibility and you don’t shy away from that, you put it into the different roles that you play and you show off. You’re not a method actor, you’re a show off – and what skills do you have? If you can’t juggle – if you can’t hammer things up your nose then to Dick Zigun you’re useless.
NA: How did you do your recruiting? How did Michael Wilson find you?
DZ: The wonderful thing about this place is -- you know, I rented it, built it, opened it, but it doesn’t mean shit unless people show up. Luck always has a lot to do with it. The last major ten in one, the one that Melvin worked in for 30 years, the one that Otis had been in, was with the James E Straight’s Carnival -- the largest touring carnival in the country. Wiley Sutton had a sideshow there, and it closed in ’85. So in ’86, legendary Melvin Burkehart and Otis Jordan were looking for work. We needed a new snakecharmer – a new “actress not afraid of snakes” and this time we discovered her right in our audience – she was a Puerto Rican hairdresser from the South Bronx – Ruby Rodriguez. And then Michael showed up. He had been a legendary person since the late hippy days in San Francisco, but they wouldn’t tattoo his face there and he figured since it was underground and illegal in New York, maybe they would do it here. He decided to come to New York, ended up livin in the men’s shelter, got some tattoos on his face and then showed up at the sideshow and got a job like that. That’s when it became not a “frozen in time” southern-hick sideshow from the 1950’s, and turned New York City, late 20th centkury. It became what it is, when Ruby and Michael met Otis and Melvin. That was the fusion. Other people like Fredini showed up – as a young geeky magician and an apprentice for a while and then over the years came into talking the show.
NA: What about Todd Robbins? How did you meet him? Did he ever actually work a season there?
DZ: When Bradshaw left I was running ads in the Village Voice looking for sideshow help and Todd showed up for an audition. Once he, hammered things in his nose and ate a lightbulb it was clear that Todd, you know – gooba gabba, one of us! It’s interesting how in a generation --Jim Rose and me and James Taylor are all within a couple years of each other -- Todd a little bit younger – It’s like turn of the last century in Paris, that all these artists are sort of discovering cubism on their own a few blocks away from each other and a bunch of people arrive at the same thing at the same time. These things happen.
NA: You’re from a place that made you particularly interested in this right?
DZ: I come from a very particular set of circumstances that I thought were unique which led to my obsessions, but then Jim Rose will tell you that his back yard fronted the field where the carnival set up every year, so the carnival came to his back yard—
In Bridgeport Connecticut, PT Barnum was the patron saint – the statues, the streets – the festival are all named after Barnum. You grow up – if you’re a good boy in Public school and pay attention to your lessons you learn all about PT Barnum when you’re like five years old, they indoctrinate you.
I went through this very schizoid thing where I went from lower middle class public schools in the ghetto of Bridgeport, Connecticut to the wealthiest college in the world – to Bennington. Artsy fartsy Bennington. And I was smart enough to realize that I didn’t have this wealthy upbringing and I couldn’t compete with any of my classmates on their level and if I invented this persona I was like this streetwise experimental guy who had all these references that they didn’t have I could stick my tongue out and say “You don’t know shit”. I started writing plays with ventriloquists or plays where uncle sam on stilts is delivering a monologue you know while there’s a Chuck Berry record playing and things like that. So it started out within the structure of theater pulling things into the black box of the theater and then the rebellion of finding myself was about breaking out of that whole structure.
NA: What exactly are your degrees?
DZ: I have an MFA in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama which was a 3 year program and it’s a doctorate equivalent although it’s not a phd, in my field, in playwriting it’s as high as you can go.
I got this incredible gift of scholarships of drama, internships, fellowships, I was given every opportunity to pay the world back by being an off Broadway regional theater playwright, and then I went “See ya, I’m goin ta Coney Island”. So that was where it broke free, something clicked. Opportunity only talks if you’re listening. It’s synchronicity, it’s things clicking, and not being afraid. Coney Island certainly partly chose me but it also burned down my loft, it chased me out and I ended up at this great place in soho, and you know I could have lived this whole snobby soho life and have money now. We were one of the original shows that opened Here Gallery of Soho. We also did the hardcore version of Coney Island USA at the Cutting Room of NYC.
NA: So why do you struggle with it?
DZ: Cause I like it. Now the most interesting game to play is “How long can I keep it going?” It’s like going for the record or something.
NA: Is that the biggest problem you face as the owner of the sideshow?
DZ: There is a good reason why sideshows died. They don’t make money, they can’t make money, they’re a pain in the ass and I can’t afford the right staff at this place and as a result, the thing that bothers me the most is that 60% of my life is dedicated to being the accountant of a freak show. I hate all the accounting and minutia – the filing and the reports – the arithmetic. It’s not why I got into it. That’s the price I have to pay to do it – I would love to give that up.
NA: What’s your greatest dream for the Coney Island sideshow?
DZ: My greatest dream is to buy the building and to establish a national center of Americana Bizarro, that goes on when I retire and when I’m dead. Wouldn’t that be the greatest gift of all? So even if the world scorns sideshows, there’s one place that’s keepin’ it real and keepin’ it sleezy. If Disney came to town especially, I’d like to have security – I’d like to not worry anymore. The other space we had on the boardwalk was taken by Mc Donald’s.
NA: What was the most unusual gig this sideshow ever had?
DZ: It might have been Yeshiva University. They wanted the show, hired the show, and then censored the show. Certain banners had to come down, and when Eak (the tattooed man) took his shirt off they ran up and the shirt had to go back on! They were caught in a funny place. Even people who are very rigid let their hair down and they wanna be loose, but then they’re afraid to let it go too far. That’s probably the weirdest booking we ever had. There have been some great mistakes that happen here – like when Jason Strain’s pants catch on fire and he drops them on stage and he’s not wearing underwear! Or when the baby’s head gets stuck between the railings surrounding the stage on the Fourth of July – things like that are certainly memorable.
NA: What do you think of TV freak shows like Jackass and Fear Factor? Are you in competition with them?
DZ: No. The trade-off for your body falling apart when you get older is wisdom. Having lived long enough to see something that was extremely avant-garde become so main-stream that it has permeated everywhere, that’s wonderful to see. That there’s all these tv shows, that it’s almost a stereotype, that rock videos have sideshow stuff in it, that the New York Aquarium is now advertising with an ad on buses that looks like a sideshow banner, -- all these terrible things that are teaching kids to swear and alter their bodies and become individuals, I whole-heartedly approve of! Go naked and get drunk in the afternoon!
NA: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
DZ: The Mermaid Parade is pretty awesome. The Mermaid Parade has a life of it’s own, It’s alive. I have tried to kill it, it won’t die. A couple years ago at the stadium it stood up and slapped me in the face a couple times. The Mermaid Parade started out my creation, but now it really is a genuine holiday. It’s celebrated by New York City. It’s like art about popular culture turned in to popular culture. It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s a very powerful thing. I was obsessed with very intellectual notions about the sociology of theater, and getting theater out of a cool loft that holds 40 people, and out of a cool neighborhood, and taking it to the streets. Wanting to be political, but not telling you who to vote for – whether it’s vote republican or vote socialist workers—I could care less. The Mermaid Parade actually structured a community and got politicians and police and business people to collaborate on ritual and ceremony – some of it blatantly pagan – and that’s been a hoot.
NA: Do you have plays in stock that you’re ready to sell?
DZ: My greatest desire is to give up the bookkeeping and some of the work here that I don’t have to do, except I can’t really afford to pay somebody else to do – and detach a little bit from the day to day toilet cleaning and write a couple of plays. That would make me very happy. I haven’t sat down and write a couple of plays. That would make me very happy. I haven’t sat down and written a play in some time. I’ve done some journalism in the past couple of years, but haven’t had a chance to write a play in a while. (Silence from both sides)
NA: (Quietly) - Where do you see yourself in ten years?