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Sideshows Make Magic in NY Amusement Park

  • Adam Phillips

NEW YORK — In an age of packaged entertainment, special effects and YouTube, Coney Island sideshows continue to stun and amaze, much as they have for more than a century.

The weird, the amazing, and the simply gross are alive and well at Coney Island, where sideshow performers test their limits.

Coney Island draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. For more than a century, the amusement park has offered tourists fantasy, thrills and cool ocean breezes at the southern tip of Brooklyn. The bizarre sideshows, a big draw, originated with the circus in the 19th century.

Dick Zigun founded Coney Island USA. The non-profit organization keeps that culture alive.

"If there is going to be one place left in America that is going to preserve sideshow or freak show of course Coney Island is the right place," said Zigun. "If you go to a sideshow, you are going to scream or laugh or cry or maybe even throw up."

Princess Pat of Nigeria - that's her stage name - is one of many sideshow performers here.

"I am from an artistic family, so when I got here, that was years and years ago. The first thing I did here was a blade box and slowly I started learning," she said.

Alejandro Dubois specializes in escape acts and dangerous feats.

"My inspiration from Harry Houdini had taught me to do is just keep pushing the envelope and see how far you can go before you end up killing yourself," noted Dubois.

Rush Hicks, another Coney Island performer is an extreme contortionist. He was born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare and sometimes life-threatening disease that makes his joints, skin and internal organs elastic.

"I realized I was home the first day I was here. It's a lot of relief being strange your entire life and being around people who make you feel normal," Hicks explained.

Coney Island USA also runs a sideshow school. Adam Realman is the teacher. He watched sideshows on Coney Island's boardwalk as a boy.

"I was blown away by it and would go back repeatedly week after week after week for years," recalled Realman.

He claims he has cranked out dozens of sideshow artists. For the students, learning how to wow the audience is a kick. For freaks and lovers of the bizarre, Coney Island is still the place to "step right up!"