Adam the First Real Man presents the Coney Island Variety Show
Sideshow vet Adam the First Real Man returns to Coney Island for his monthly extravaganza.
Wed Aug 8 2012
Photographer: Don Spiro
The sideshow renaissance man is back with another edition of his Coney Island Variety Show.
Time Out New York: You could be considered a sideshow renaissance man. Not only are you a human blockhead, sword swallower, fire eater, a glass walker and a bunch of other things, but you also produce shows and serve as a master of ceremonies.
Adam the First Real Man: You actually find quite a few performers in sideshow who both produce shows and do a number of acts. I guess I am doing quite a bit, though.
Time Out New York: And you are also a professor of the sideshow arts; you teach classes at Coney Island USA.
Adam the First Real Man: That’s right. I teach students all the working acts of the sideshow.
Time Out New York: Who are your students?
Adam the First Real Man: It’s a total cross section of humanity. You get the clichéd doctors and lawyers; you get teachers, business people, computer people, techies and bartenders. And performers, too.
Time Out New York: How old were you when you first became attracted to the sideshow arts?
Adam the First Real Man: I was 12 or 13. I actually grew up in Coney Island.
Time Out New York: So you had a head start!
Adam the First Real Man: Exactly. I’m a Brooklyn boy; I lived literally three blocks away from the boardwalk. This was in the ’70s and ’80s.
Time Out New York: So there was actually sideshow at Coney Island at that point? I was assuming the ’70s were probably a low point for the art form.
Adam the First Real Man: Well, Sideshows by the Seashore started up around 31 years ago. It was originally right at the boardwalk. At that point, they had some of the last of the golden-age performers working in the show. You had Melvin Burkhart, who made the Human Blockhead the act that it is today; he ended his career there. You had Otis Jordan, who was billed as the Human Cigarette Factory; prior to that, he was working in traveling shows, billed as the Frog Boy. There was John Bradshaw, who was the outside talker; he was the one who pretty much put it together. You had Mike Wilson, who was the Illustrated Man. They were the last of the last of the sideshow performers. Literally—they’re all dead.
Time Out New York: These are the guys who you were seeing as a kid?
Adam the First Real Man: Yeah, and I was just blown away by them. I was in awe. They were the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I would go back week after week, until it got to the point where I knew all the spiels by heart. But I was never that kid who would be tugging on their sleeve, going, “Teach me this, teach me that.”
Time Out New York: But did you have some inkling that this was something you wanted to do?
Adam the First Real Man: I had always wanted to do it. But things happen. I found rock & roll, and was like, Yeah, rock & roll is the answer. So sideshow went by the wayside. But fast-forward some 15 or 16 years, and I’m looking on the Internet, and I see something about sideshow school at Coney Island USA. I’m like, “Wait, sideshow school? I gotta do this!” I took the class and learned the acts. Boom—that was it.
Time Out New York: Do you consider yourself to be a sideshow historian?
Adam the First Real Man: I know a lot; I’ve certainly read along over the past 12 years. But there are so many people who know so much more than I do.
Time Out New York: Do you know if the traveling shows still exist? I can remember seeing sideshow acts at various state and county fairs when I was a kid.
Adam the First Real Man: At this point, it’s pretty much just Ward Hall’s World of Wonders. That’s really the one show that hits all the state fairs. The reason that the traveling sideshow is pretty much over is because of the amount of room it takes and the amount of money it costs. When a carnival owner can bring in a ride, which takes maybe two men to operate at most, why would they bring in a sideshow with five to ten performers? It just costs too much. But it’s a big loss for the audience; they’re really missing out on some great entertainment.
Time Out New York: I guess we New Yorkers are lucky that Coney Island and Sideshows by the Seashore exist.
Adam the First Real Man: And they’re here to stay.
Time Out New York: Hasn’t the Coney Island USA building, which houses Sideshows by the Seashore, been designated as a landmark?
Adam the First Real Man: Yes. It was originally the Child’s Restaurant building, which I believe was built in 1917. We’re not going anywhere. And as much as the neighborhood is changing…well, we’re not exactly going to change with it. We have to be the cool factor of the neighborhood.
Time Out New York: How did you first get involved in producing shows?
Adam the First Real Man: The Mermaid Ball started ten years ago. I was at the first one, not as a performer but as a guest. It was at Peggy O’Neill’s in the Cyclone’s stadium, and it was poorly advertised, poorly attended and, actually, a kind of fun show. There were a couple of burlesque girls, [tiki bandleader] Fisherman was up there.… But as I said, there weren’t many people there, even though there were probably a quarter of a million people there for the parade itself. I was thinking, Why aren’t more people here? So the next year, I got a little bit more involved. I did a couple of acts and cohosted with Todd Robbins, who was the guy who trained me; he was the professor at the time, and had been doing sideshow for years. That was a real honor. We ended up cohosting for another year or two, and once he left, I started producing the entertainment part of the night, booking the acts and setting the schedule. And it’s been growing ever since.
Time Out New York: You had many hundreds of people for this year’s edition, right?
Adam the First Real Man: We had about 1,600 people. Moby was the headlining DJ, we had three bands, a full-on burlesque show, 23 go-go dancers and nine mermaids in the water. The coolest thing was to be standing in the [New York Aquarium’s] Aquatheater and seeing a wall of 1,600 people, all cheering. Goddamn it, that’s a rush.
Time Out New York: Was that the biggest show you had ever done?
Adam the First Real Man: It’s definitely the biggest one that I’ve ever had a hand in producing.
Time Out New York: And what about your monthly Coney Island Variety Show?
Adam the First Real Man: When you come right down to it, that’s the smallest show I produce. [Laughs] Wednesday nights in Coney Island are hard, I’ll admit. But it’s truly a labor of love. I really enjoy bringing on these unique, wacky acts.
Time Out New York: Who’s been the wackiest act that you’ve booked for the show?
Adam the First Real Man: Really, it’s gotta be Clownvis Presley. But one of my favorite artists to work with is Mistress B. She’s a balloon artist who looks like a dominatrix, and does these adult balloon sculptures. She’s a complete professional and is great to work with, but is right up there in terms of wackiness. And she’s very easy to get along with.
Time Out New York: Are there prima donnas in the sideshow business, as you might find in the other performing arts?
Adam the First Real Man: Sure there are. There are always people who show up late a lot or whatever. But to tell you the truth, everyone in this scene is really easy to work with. Everyone just loves what they’re doing. And because of that, everyone’s totally cool. You know, I produce strongman events as well, and at one point I had to introduce the Great Throwdini to one of the strongmen, Chris Rider. Throwdini is an officiant for the Record Holders Republic, and Chris wanted to set some record at the event. I’m like, “Hey, Chris, this is Throwdini, the world’s greatest knife thrower. Throwdini, this is Chris, one of the world’s strongest men.” I had to pause for a second and think, Well, how cool am I?
Time Out New York: That’s the kind of thing that can make you realize that you are living the kind of life that you want to live.
Adam the First Real Man: I’m in a great place, you know? I’ve met so many unique, interesting performers over the years. I know synchronized swimmers. I mean, who the hell knows synchronized swimmers?
Time Out New York: You mentioned Clownvis Presley before, and he’s going to be at your upcoming Coney Island Variety Show. Is this going to be an Elvis-oriented extravaganza?
Adam the First Real Man: It’s a total Elvis-themed variety show. Every act has to reference Elvis somehow. And Cardone, the magician, will be doing an Elvis séance. He’s going to attempt to bring Elvis back, wherever he may be. And, of course, Clownvis.
Time Out New York: That guy’s a trip.
Adam the First Real Man: I’m actually buddies with him now. He’s based out in L.A. We had done shows together in North Carolina, when he was touring with a psychobilly band, 7 Shot Screamers. After that, he found me on Facebook and said, “Hey, it’s Mike from the Screamers. I’m now doing this Clownvis bit.” So I check it out, and it’s the most amazing thing that I had ever seen! And then he completely mouthed off to Sharon Osbourne on America’s Got Talent, which was pure gold. So last year, we made plans to do some shows together. And that went so well, we’re doing it again!
Time Out New York: Is sideshow something you think you’ll be doing for the rest of your life?
Adam the First Real Man: Well, it’s something I have to do for my mental health. So yeah, totally. As long as I can lug my swords around, there’s no reason to give it up.
The Coney Island Variety Show is at Sideshows by the Seashore Wednesday, August 15.