Brooklyn Magazine: Coney Island’s Dick Zigun: Carny to the core


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Geographically, Coney Island is only about 70, 75 miles from Bridgeport, Connecticut. On the spiritual map, the two couldn’t be closer. Huckster showman P. T. Barnum lived in Bridgeport and served as the town’s mayor in the late 19th century. The Frisbie Pie Company was founded in Bridgeport, and the city is credited as the birthplace of the Frisbee.

It is also the birthplace of Dick Zigun, who today resides year-round in Coney Island, as he has since the late 1970s. He is the co-founder and artistic director of Coney Island USA, the arts nonprofit behind the Mermaid Parade, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, and the Coney Island Museum and Burlesque at the Beach. He is also the self-appointed, non-elected unofficial mayor for life. Just ask him.

Zigun, a South Brooklyn booster and carny to the core, is the latest guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” He traces his path from Bridgeport to Coney Island by way of Yale Drama School where he studied playwriting under David Mamet and Charles Ludlam in the class of ’78. After a brief stint in LA. he landed not on Broadway but among the freaks, weirdos, barkers, performance artists and burlesque along the boardwalk.

You know, the fun people.

“I wanted to make popular culture. Everything I knew was wrong. People did not appreciate the irony of performance art. People did not want to pay even a few dollars to go into a theater and hear world music. They turned out to like drag performances and freaks quite a bit,” he says of those early days. “I wanted to pay the rent and that’s what people wanted.”

In those early days, Zigun befriended local old-timers like the chamber of commerce’s Matt Kennedy or Lillie Santangelo, who owned and operated a wax museum in Coney Island from the 1920s—relationships that make him a direct conduit to the Coney Island of the turn of the last century.

“Coney Island in the late ‘70s was really incredible research for me,” he says. “An opportunity to mentor myself to working class visionaries in the entertainment industry.”

Today he’s the local old-timer. Zigun has partied with Lou Reed and sparred with Fred Trump. He describes about how Coney Island has changed since the early 1980s and how it had already changed several times over in the preceding 100 years. He laments the impact the coronavirus has had on the performance community he’s so much a part of, and looks forward with a note of optimism to 2021.

Stick around and he’ll with you the one thing people always get wrong about the neighborhood he loves.

The post Coney Island’s Dick Zigun: Carny to the core appeared first on Brooklyn Magazine.

Brooklyn Magazine