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Much skill is on display, some of it arguably inspiring. Still, the tawdry, seedy and kinky are evident, too, while male and female tourists, locals and professorial types in the audience engage in rubbernecking and chin stroking.
When Zigun launched his sideshow in the mid-’80s, the art form had largely disappeared. Among the challenges he faced, he said, was securing funding without “getting condemned by the nonprofit cultural world for being exploitive and pornographic… In the early ’80s, we were doing something unprecedented. Now students get PhDs in burlesque and sideshow studies.”
Local fundraising among neighborhood Jews, was less daunting. “It is part of Jewish culture to contribute to the arts,” he noted. “Brooklyn is Jewish friendly. And my being a New England Jew without a Brooklyn accent and a Yale education opened many doors.”
Since that time, Zigun has created a sideshow school and is in the process of planning a legitimate theater, which will serve as a platform for plays, written by himself and others, that explore Coney Island topics and themes. Ironically, prior to Sandy his company had received a fully funded $1 million HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning — grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. The grant will indeed make a year-round theater viable.
But nothing will replace his beloved Mermaid Day Parade and scantily clad women-cum-mermaids prancing down Surf Avenue. The high-camp event is far more complex than a burlesque-coupled-with-Halloween parade, though those elements are surely present, he said.
But so, too, is a mix of “West African aesthetics, a summer solstice water celebration, Greek and Roman pageantry, Coney Island razzmatazz, cheese cake based on Mardi Gras, but also based on the Miss America contest in Atlantic City, which grew out of the earlier parade on the boardwalk,” he said, smiling slyly. “Most people don’t know it’s an art event or that it’s run by an arts organization. I’m tickled pink.”
At the moment our interview ended, a mouse scuttled across the floor.
Today in Coney Island, the temperature is rising, the boardwalk is crowding up, Dick Zigun’s sideshow is ready in the wings. And as for the mouse, well, it may or may not be around. I wish the creature well.
Simi Horwitz recently won The New York Press Club Award for Journalism in entertainment news for her 2012 Back Stage story on buskers.