Well, it happened. After sixteen months, after hunkering down alone in my apartment during a global pandemic, after experiencing nothing but zoom readings for all this time, I finally sat down, in a theater, indoors, as an audience member. I finally saw a show. Not a Broadway show, of course – the reopening of the Great White Way is still a few months off. But a show nonetheless, and to my way of thinking even more of a New York fixture than anything to be found in midtown Manhattan.
That’s right. For my return to live theater, I went to the Coney Island freak show.
It was the Fourth of July, of course, and if you’re a real American and can get to Coney Island on the Fourth of July, you get to Coney Island. I wasn’t there in time for the hot dog eating contest, however – competitive eating is not my thing – and thanks to a last-second text invitation to a picnic get-together that evening, I didn’t stay at Coney Island for very long. I didn’t see the fireworks, I never even made it to the boardwalk. I did, however, beeline to the modest building on Surf Avenue that houses what’s officially referred to as the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. Mask firmly in place, I stood in line as the barker did his spiel, bought my ticket, went inside, and mounted the small little venue’s bleachers to take my seat.
As described on their website, the Circus Sideshow keeps alive the old vaudeville tradition of the ten-in-one sideshow attraction. I’ve attended a few times over the years, and while the individual performers have changed the fundamental experience has remained the same. The acts are such old-time staples as sword swallowing, fire eating, contortionists, the human blockhead, and the like. There’s a modern patina to the presentation, but in substance these acts wouldn’t have been much different if I’d seen them a century ago. As with much of Coney Island, the whole thing is a strange mix of genuine skill, tawdriness, and goofiness.
I love it.
Partly I love it because it’s a tradition, and in times like these any tradition that’s managed to survive another year – heck, another day – is a good thing. Partly I love that, underneath it all, there’s genuine skill and dedication on display. But I also think it’s an important inspiration, especially now. As I’ve said ad nauseum, theater is more than Broadway. For all we fetishize the expensive musicals that play the Broadway houses – and for all the hopes we’re pinning on them as our post-pandemic economic salvation – the actual theatrical activity that makes them possible happens in much smaller venues, in far less glamorous circumstances. You don’t get further from glamour than the Coney Island Sideshow – even though, for most of human history, our performing artists have borne a far closer reference to the blockheads and fire eaters of Surf Avenue than to anybody on Broadway.
Long may they belch their flames.