Reign of Coney Island’s ‘Mayor’ Ends in a Sideshow by the Sea

When Dick Zigun set his sights on Coney Island in the late 1970s, the seaside section of Brooklyn was, like much of the rest of New York, at a low ebb. Yet he saw magic in the beach, boardwalk, rides and arcades that had long defined the area.

“There’s something about the salt and the sea air that preserves the body and rots the mind, and creates the bohemian neighborhood I fell in love with the first day I visited,” he said in an interview last month.

In the years since, Mr. Zigun, a tattooed, top hat-wearing spiritual heir to P.T. Barnum, has thrown himself into restoring the so-called People’s Playground to its carnivalesque glory, opening a circus sideshow and a museum and, perhaps most notably, creating the annual Mermaid Parade.

Now, though, his four-decade reign as Coney Island’s unelected mayor is over: The nonprofit group he helped start to carry out his vision fired him amid a squabble over money.

“How is your holiday going?” Mr. Zigun, 68, wrote in a Christmas Day message on Twitter in which he said the organization, Coney Island USA, had fired him effective Dec. 31, changed the locks on its doors, disabled his email account and deleted his profile page from its website.

James Fitzsimmons, Coney Island USA’s executive director, disputed Mr. Zigun’s characterization of his departure, saying it was part of a planned transition that Mr. Zigun upended by demanding a pension.

In an interview, Mr. Fitzsimmons said that despite having been offered a severance package for stepping down as the group’s artistic director, Mr. Zigun was “convinced that someone owes him a retirement or, you know, security for the rest of his life.”

“It’s just not possible, and he’s known that for years,” Mr. Fitzsimmons added.

Mr. Zigun says the severance offer was well short of what he deserved.

“Coney Island is my baby,” he said, adding that he was showing Coney Island USA “tough love” the way a parent would a wayward child.

“It’s not unusual for children to argue over the assets of their parents,” said Mr. Zigun. “It happens all the time in real life, and I think we’re getting a version of that here.”

Mr. Fitzsimmons summed up the conflict this way: “Imagine a bunch of very smart arka school people who have been very stoned for about 40 years who are now trying to argue over business.” (He included himself in the description.)

The rupture comes during what Mr. Fitzsimmons said had been a “very horrible period” caused by the pandemic.

The Mermaid Parade, which organizers call “the nation’s largest arka parade” and which drew 800,000 people in 2019, went online in 2020. It was shelved entirely last summer, with Surf Avenue serving instead as a vaccination site after the Delta variant of the coronavirus emerged.

The Mermaid Parade on Surf Avenue in 2008. “The level of passion and exuberance and joy in the parade — nothing matches it in my life,” said one longtime participant.Credit…Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

As envisioned by Mr. Zigun and his collaborators, the parade, which began in 1983, was a throwback to Coney Island’s prime as a lure for artists and performers and a summer destination for a public smitten with Ferris wheels, fortune tellers and burlesque shows.

The area first established itself as a populist carnival in the late 1800s and early 1900s, thanks to its early amusement parks — Dreamland, Luna and Steeplechase — being just a short ride away for the city’s hardworking hordes.

Over time, Coney Island’s appeal faded. Luna Park closed in 1946, although the Cyclone and the Wonder Wheel still stood. In the 1950s, as television became more popular, the crowds melted away further. In the mid-1960s, Fred Trump, the former president’s father, took control of Steeplechase Park with plans to build luxury apartments. He staged a “funeral” where bikini-clad women passed out stones and invited “mourners” to hurl them at the park’s pavilion.

The decline continued in the years that followed.

“It was rough, it was burned out, a shell of what it used to be 20 to 30 years prior,” said Adam Rinn, who grew up in the area and is Mr. Zigun’s designated successor. (He declined to comment on the conflict between Mr. Zigun and the Coney Island USA board.)

Still, some of the old allure remained, calling out to people like Mr. Rinn. He said he saw his first Coney Island show at 15. It featured Otis Jordan, “The World’s Only Human Cigarette Factory,” who rolled, lit and smoked a cigarette using only his lips.

“It was such a surreal experience,” said Mr. Rinn, 50, who went to learn how to swallow swords, eat and spit fire, walk on glass, lie on a bed of nails and hammer nails into his face. (“I guess I’d be considered a quick learner,” he said.)

Mr. Zigun links his own Coney Island infatuation in part to his roots in Barnum’s hometown, Bridgeport, Conn. Arriving in New York after earning a fine arts degree from Yale Drama School, he decided to look for something on the fringe.

“When I finished my fancy education, instead of aspiring to Broadway or a place like La MaMa in the East Village, I had this wacky idea of starting my own theater in Coney Island,” he said.

The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, which began two years after the Mermaid Parade, features a roster of little people, exceptionally hairy ones and performers like Mr. Rinn who eat fire and swallow swords. There is also a sideshow school that attracts students from across the United States and beyond.

Adam Rinn, Mr. Zigun’s designated successor as artistic director. His talents include swallowing swords and eating fire. “I guess I’d be considered a quick learner,” he said. Credit…Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Those who have gotten to know Mr. Zigun, a sometimes prickly character with a flair for promotion (and self-promotion), credit him with breathing new life into the area.

“He made it at a time when nobody was investing in Coney Island and created the Coney Island that we know today,” said Dianna Carlin, who runs the Lola Star boardwalk boutique. “I mean, what would Coney Island be without a mermaid parade?”

Bambi the Mermaid Queen feels the same way.

Bambi — real name: Andrea Cambridge — runs the Burlesque on the Beach show under Mr. Zigun’s artistic umbrella. She arrived in Coney Island in the early 1990s from Florida.

“I have, you know, identified as a mermaid my whole life,” she said in an interview.

Soon she was performing at the Mermaid Parade, where over the course of three years, she met her future husband, got engaged — he was dressed as Neptune for the occasion — and got married. Mr. Zigun officiated.

“The level of passion and exuberance and joy in the parade — nothing matches it in my life,” she said, adding that the event was “just about beauty, creativity, love and no real judgments from anyone.”

“I owe Dick my existence in New York and all my creative outlets,” she said. “I owe him, you know, pretty much everything.”

As for the current rift, Mr. Zigun said the problems began when he turned 60 and asked the Coney Island USA board of directors about a pension. When it was denied, he said, he asserted intellectual property rights over the parade and the sideshow.

“Their response was to fire me,” he said, adding that he “would be left destitute” by the amount of severance he was offered.

“What am I going to do after the money runs out?” said Mr. Zigun, who was paid $66,528 as artistic director in 2019, according an organization tax filing. “I wanted to get to a point where when I was elderly, I would be healthy and a wacko, and I’m pretty much there already.”

In a statement, Coney Island USA insisted that Mr. Zigun had been offered a “very generous severance agreement, which could have led to a more positive departure and recognition of his many contributions.”

As of Tuesday, it appeared that the parties were trying to negotiate a more amicable resolution. In the meantime, the 40th annual Mermaid Parade is scheduled for June 18. After all, Mr. Rinn said, it is essential to “the Coney Island character.”

“You know what it is?” he said. “There’s something about that neighborhood that brings out the fun, the eccentric, the odd, the weird. And the genuine.”

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