Welcome to the Freakshow - Coney Island

Published: 29 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 221, February, 2013

As the sun sets on Coney Island, Adam Rinn, better known as Adam Real Man, or The Professa, tells stories about the Brooklyn sea shore community of old and its heyday…


Or maybe not its heyday, since the art of sideshow was dying out when Adam grew up here in the ’70s, just a couple of blocks away from the beach.

“Even so, I had the best backyard in the world. Imagine being a kid and living a couple of blocks away from this,” he says, looking out towards the amusement park. “Although, at this time the sideshow was dying down, because of political correctness and modern medicine. Freaks just weren’t being born like they used to. Moving into the ’70s and ’80s, Coney Island still had a dozen permanent sideshows, but things moved in the direction where there were no freaks. Video killed the sideshow star. Why pay for something when you have entertainment in your own home?”

And alongside the cultural downfall came a general decline of the neighbourhood.

“It was very rough here in the ’70s, like the movie Warriors, but without the inter-racial gangs. It was bad, the area fell to neglect by the city and the landlords. We had a lot of beautiful architecture along this street, like palaces and bath houses,” he says and points down the street. “But they’ve been torn down during the last 40 years.”

Today the area is a lot safer… and more boring, according to Adam.

“It’s like New York City 15-20 years ago. Times Square was filled with junkies and prostitutes; now it’s become a sanitised version of itself, but it’s also lost its edge. I like the edge. I prefer to keep it a bit gritty; we’re the link to the grittiness, the old Coney Island.”

Even if Adam had the greatest backyard in the world, it took him a long time before he himself got involved in the world of oddities and freaks.

“In the mid-80s I started going to sideshows and I was blown away, but it looked really dangerous and I didn’t want to pester them. It wasn’t until 2000 that I took some classes and now I’m a teacher at the school here.”

Not only that, he’s also ‘the dean’ and a performer of everything from human blockhead to sword swallowing, fire eating and glass walking – but only part-time.

“Most of the cast do this full-time, but I’m lucky enough to have another job as well. But that’s a different story.”

Even though he’s seen this culture at its low, he’s also seen it rise. When he got started, the sideshow was already experiencing an upswing, a boost that remains even today.

“About 20 years ago, Jim Rose toured Lollapalooza with his sideshow and that brought attention to the masses, at least the alternative masses. He was probably the first guy doing this that they’d ever seen, and in the last 12 years it’s grown enormously. There’s not a small town without a sideshow performer today.”

One of the explanations could be the ever increasing interest in tattoos, in which aspect Adam could be considered the freak.

“I don’t have a single one and have no interest in getting one. I walk the line between normal and freak, and it’s a beautiful line to walk.”

As darkness approaches on this mid-October evening only a few rides are open. The occasional scream from a roller coaster or the ‘cloinks’ of a slot machine are heard when you walk down the boardwalk, but the season is basically over and most of the restaurants will shut down along with the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. However, Halloween is a-comin’, and the activities at the sideshow haven’t quite died down yet…

“We have what we call ‘Creepshow at the Freakshow’, a play in pure Halloween spirit featuring dead presidents. Altogether we have 40 programs, like Burlesque at the Beach, the museum and the sideshow school, for instance. It’s an insane amount of programing considering the small staff.”

And next year it could be even more.

“This year we’re closing down due to construction. Otherwise we would have had a year-round program, but next year we will have theatres, varieties and much more.”

Adam proudly talks about the sideshow and its cultural heritage. Founded in 1982 it’s the only permanent show of its kind in the United States alongside the much, much younger Venice Beach Freakshow in Los Angeles. Not that there haven’t been other people trying to establish themselves, some of them right here in Coney Island.

“Most of them close down after a few weeks. We had one that lasted one or two seasons, but we outlast them. Of course there is always room to improve, but we’re the superior show.”

And he thinks he knows why.

“Nowadays there are less naturally born freaks and more working acts, like sword swallowers and fire eaters, but the last couple of seasons we’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of born freaks. In the golden days they were the highest paid and many went on to start their own sideshows.”

The lobby-slash-bar-slash-gift shop has the same at-ease spooky atmosphere as a homemade haunted garage or cellar in a small American town around Halloween; the main difference being the history that goes into these spooky items contrary to the plastic Walmart cob webs, witches, and skeletons that ornate every house in the US throughout October.

As the anticipating creepshow attendants sip on their beers, either watching the black and white horror movie displayed on the big screen or just chit-chatting, Adam continues to talk about the positive trend that has hit this beloved passion of his.

“It’s a little more mainstream now. You still see the occasional punk rocker here, but you get all types. Not hipsters, though,” he says with a smirk, “but families, people from the neighbourhood, and even Hasidic Jews. Coney Island’s always been a working class area. It’s affordable. For a few dollars you can spend a whole day here, the sideshow costs less than a movie – and it’s live!”

So if you ever get the urge to bang your head against hard material or shove a sharp, long object down your throat, Coney Island lets you pursue that dream. Here you can learn all the freak skills as well as banner painting and magic – but it might be hard considering the popularity the sideshow school has now attained.

“We have people coming from all over the US and Canada. We even had a guy coming in from Portugal, I think it was. Some of them go on to be a part of our show.”

As the curtain rises I see a deceased Abraham Lincoln before me, as dead as all the items in the lobby…

History

Coney Island is a peninsula and beach on the Atlantic Ocean in southern Brooklyn, New York City. The site was formerly an outer barrier island, but became partially connected to the mainland by landfill.

Coney Island is possibly best known as the site of amusement parks and a major resort. The attractions reached their peak during the first half of the 20th century, declining in popularity after World War II and years of neglect.

In recent years, the area has seen the opening of MCU Park and has become home to the minor league baseball team, the Brooklyn Cyclones.

The neighborhood of the same name is a community of 60,000 people in the western part of the peninsula, with Sea Gate to its west, Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach to its east, and Gravesend to the north.

Between about 1880 and World War II, Coney Island was the largest amusement area in the United States, attracting several million visitors per year. At its height it contained three competing major amusement parks, Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park, as well as many independent amusements.

Astroland served as a major amusement park from 1962 to 2008, and was replaced by a new incarnation of Dreamland in 2009 and of Luna Park in 2010.

The other parks and attractions include Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, 12th Street Amusements, and Kiddie Park, while the Eldorado Arcade has an indoor bumper car ride. The Zipper and Spider on 12th Street were closed permanently on September 4, 2007, and dismantling began after its owner lost his lease. They are to be reassembled at an amusement park in Honduras.

On April 20, 2011, the first new roller coasters to be built at Coney Island in 80 years were opened as part of efforts to reverse the decline of the amusement area.

In June of 1956, Walt Disney made a visit to Coney to see how the park was run. He was in the process of building Disneyland in California. Coney’s president, Mr. Schott, was a ‘paid’ consultant for Disney on the new park project. He was paid $1 for his services.

 

Credits

Text & Photography: Simon Lundh

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