The Wonder Wheel is revolving, the air is awash in overly sweet smells and tinny music is everywhere. Soon the curtain will once again rise on the iconic Sideshows by the Seashore. The last time I visited, it was a windless, midwinter day. Brooklyn’s Coney Island was eerily desolate, and the only sound was that of the Atlantic Ocean gently lapping the shoreline. Small, dilapidated buildings were boarded up or blanketed in corrugated steel gates, including the theater that houses the sideshow.
I was visiting Dick Zigun, the sideshow’s founder and artistic director. Dubbed “The Mayor of Coney Island,” he is also the force behind the not-for-profit resident arts organization Coney Island USA, which oversees the theater, the Coney Island Museum and the legendary Mermaid Parade. Held each June, the parade will soon celebrate its 31st year. But thanks to Hurricane Sandy, the theater has suffered close to $500,000 in losses.
“Structurally we’re okay, but we lost our contents: the auditorium, the backstage area and the dressing room,” he said matter-of-factly in a small cluttered office one flight above the devastated restaurant space adjacent to the theater. “We lost our storage and a lot of memorabilia, those decades-old funky objects that gave a feel to the place, a patina of the traditional style. But then, all of Coney Island was affected by Sandy.”
This was not a good winter for Zigun, whose own home, several blocks away, was flooded with 4.5 feet of water, resulting in the loss of his furniture and of many prized possessions.
He also suffered a horrific accident with traumatic injuries, including broken bones around the orbit of his eye, a broken nose and severe cuts on his eyelid and eyebrow, all of it requiring reconstructive surgery.
“I went behind the snack bar to get a bottle of seltzer,” he said, and then paused. “I’m talking for the Forward, so let’s talk seltzer. It was seltzer. I had gone to Popeyes and bought a nonkosher chicken sandwich. I was eating lunch and tripped and hit my face on the edge of the counter.”
The medical bills were overwhelming. Zigun went online asking for contributions to help defray his costs, and they’ve poured in. Supporters have also contributed funds and materials — amplifiers, sheetrock, screwdrivers — and volunteers have been helping to rebuild.
Zigun is an amalgam — a Bridgeport, Conn., native who was raised an Orthodox Jew and is now an agnostic. Yet he continues to be proud of his Levite roots. “You’re either born a Levite or you’re not,” he said. “You can’t aspire to it.”