People & Events
Born in 1953 and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the hometown of P.T. Barnum, Dick Zigun was aware of American show-business culture from an early age. This awareness continued during his years at the Yale School of Drama, from which he received an MFA, but it wasn't until 1979 that he began to earn the title of "Mayor of Coney Island."
On arriving in New York that year, Zigun was unable to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan, so he moved out to Coney Island, where the rents were cheaper. Soon afterward, one of his plays was produced in Santa Monica, California, in conjunction with a play about Kid Twist, the legendary underworld figure killed at Coney Island in 1908. As Zigun tells it, he was standing on the amusement pier there when he had his epiphany: rather than putting on plays in the rarefied atmosphere of Soho lofts, he could merge his dramatic interests with the tradition of the neighborhood in which he lived.
The organization that resulted, Coney Island USA, put on its first event, "Tricks and Treats at the Wax Musee," on Halloween 1981 at a Coney Island venue no longer in existence. The show received notice in several periodicals, including the Yale Drama Review, and spurred Zigun and some friends to inaugurate the Mermaid Parade. Now celebrating its 18th year, the Mermaid Parade draws participants, both in and out of costume, both professional and amateur, to the Reigelmann boardwalk each June in an effort to prove that mermaids can indeed walk, despite all evidence to the contrary.
In 1985 Coney Island USA opened Sideshows by the Seashore, and Zigun has been producing it ever since. Billed as the only "ten-in-one" sideshow still in existence in North America (the term refers the number of acts that can be seen for a single price), this venue has presented such curiosities as the late Michael Wilson, known as the Illustrated Man for his profusion of tattoos, and Otis Jordan, a quadriplegic who rolled his own cigarettes using "only the mouth and the lips." The newest addition to the roster is Eke the Geek, who, as Zigun describes it, "tattooed his face with space."
Zigun, who also acts as a spokesman for Astroland, the park that runs the Cyclone roller coaster, remains optimistic about the future of his chosen home ground. "I had almost given up on the idea of Coney Island growing and building," he says. "But suddenly it's happening. There's been an amazing turnaround." In part, this turnaround is reflected in recent plans to build a sports stadium on the site where Steeplechase Park once stood.
No doubt the future of Coney Island will not repeat its past, and Zigun himself makes no pretensions to this effect. When he finds himself on panels with old timers who remember the sights and smells of the halcyon days, he says, he invariably gets "blown off the stage." Yet Coney Island still holds a unique place in contemporary America. If it does not overwhelm, it continues to offer its unique charm and its unpolished enthusiasm for everything strange. That it does so at all is largely due to the revivalist efforts of Dick Zigun.