"Mayor" of Coney Island, defender of amusements
Wed Sep 24 2008
Who are your favorite New Yorkers?
Dick Zigun: My favorite New Yorkers? Do they have to be living?
Dick Zigun: Probably favorite New Yorker of all was P.T. Barnum, who, like me, came from Connecticut as a young man and started a freak show at Broadway and Ann Street. He was my patron saint growing up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he’s been my role model: Leave Connecticut and go to New York.
What did he bring to New York?
Dick Zigun: He brought an American imagination and became—probably second to Abraham Lincoln—the second-most-famous American of the 19th century and invented popular culture. A little progression…so Barnum was my inspiration. When I got to Coney Island, it was all the old-timers who were in their eighties and still running their businesses here; they were healthy as can be but mentally crazy, and it was a bohemian community I wanted to join. My most influential teacher in grad school was Charles Ludlam of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. I’m talking about a lot of dead people, but they’re New Yorkers.
Do you think someone like P.T. Barnum could exist today? Is New York still open to that kind of imagination?
Dick Zigun: Sure, New York’s been open to me. If I’m carrying on in the tradition of my heroes, and by being ridiculous myself I’ve become a hero, then yes, New York is still open.
Who are your favorite living New Yorkers?
Dick Zigun: That’s a tough one. I think David Byrne is a great New Yorker. He’s a renaissance artist who does everything from Talking Heads to his most recent project, buildings that play music. Richard Foreman of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, for putting in decade after decade of bizarre, wonderful theater. And, you know, not so silly, but for a politician, Marty Markowitz—for giving the parachute jump a pulse again, by putting the lights back on it.
With all that’s going on with the area’s redevelopment, is there still a place for Coney Island’s tradition of imagination and freakery?
Dick Zigun: That’s become my mission in life. One of the reasons people pat me on the back—if there’s less and less of that in New York, I set out to create a national center of Americano bizarro and achieved that, so we’ve institutionalized it. If it’s endangered, then it needs to be looked after, and we’ve created a permanent institution. We now own the building, and the programming will live beyond me, and that’s exciting. And I’m grateful for that. I’m still the founder and artistic director; I’ve just hit my 30th year in Coney Island. But what is exciting is that up until a year ago, it was a constant struggle to keep it going and to pay the rent, and thanks to city funding, we own the building; it’s paid for. There’s not even a mortgage. And we’re transforming the organization from a struggling nonprofit into an institution, increasing the budget and staff and making sure it can live for a hundred or 200 years.
Do you see that threatened by the Thor Equities development plans?
Dick Zigun: No, we’re not threatened in the least. We’re absolutely secure and fine. Coney Island in general, I’m worried about, but we’re fine. It’s the general neighborhood, the amusement park itself. People should unequivocally know that the Mermaid Parade and the freak show and all the fun things we do are secure and are going to keep going—but we don’t want to do it surrounded by empty lots. We want development, but we don’t want a shopping mall. We want a 21st-century amusement park.
What would that look like?
Dick Zigun: It would look like a combination of old-school Coney Island with 21st-century Vegas or Orlando state-of-the-art entertainment. I don’t have any problem redoing Coney Island, as long as we’re doing it as an amusement park. I’m pro rebuilding it, but rebuilding it right.
What’s the biggest thing that’s happened to the city in the past 13 years?
Dick Zigun: The biggest thing that’s happened is I think New York has matured as a multicultural city, where race and religion and ethnic origin isn’t quite the demarcation that it used to be. We truly have become a melting pot, and it works, and I love it. You know, Coney Island these days is Hasidim sitting next to homeboys. You see it in day-to-day life, which is where it’s important. I have a multiracial marriage. My wife is Nigerian, and it’s nice not to be such an oddity. Not to get stares, just to be accepted as interesting people.
What’s your favorite place or thing in New York?
Dick Zigun: Sometimes it is Katz’s Deli. I have to have a corned beef sandwich on rye with a Cel-Ray—Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray.
Are you a hot dog fan? Do you eat a lot of Nathan’s?
Dick Zigun: I’m a hot dog fan, I love Nathan’s. Also Totonno’s pizza is not to be missed.
What’s your personal favorite New York moment? Where were you, and what was happening?
Dick Zigun: It was 1981 at the World in Wax Musée, when 81-year-old Lillie Santangelo, the owner, asked me to curate the John Lennon in Wax exhibit, because she got incredibly outrageous and told me to call Yoko Ono and ask for John Lennon’s clothes, which was incredibly tasteless, except the album he had just recorded that was released the day before he was shot and died had Lillie’s voice on it. So it led to this bizarre circumstance where I got in touch with Yoko, was told Yoko laughed at the request, didn’t give us clothes, but we went on; and I curated “John Lennon,” which was the last wax exhibit there, which led to writing some articles, which led to doing a show Halloween 1981, which was the start of the whole organization.
What kind of show was it?
Dick Zigun: It was “Tricks and Treats at the Wax Musée,” and it was a 12-hour show of performance art and art installation at the old wax museum, which is all gone now. It was Stillwell Avenue and Coney Island.
What’s there now?
Dick Zigun: There’s a bodega now, unfortunately. But it was that wonderful tasteless moment when Lillie told me I was going to curate “John Lennon” and I should get in touch with Yoko Ono that bizarrely led to the creation of the whole arts organization.
What’s the future of New York? What are your hopes, and what needs to happen?
Dick Zigun: New York has a good mayor but needs to elect somebody who’s not a tough guy or a rich guy as the next mayor, and we need to get comfortable without ourselves again.
What do you mean?
Dick Zigun: I think Giuliani was a response to lawless New York, out of control; and Bloomberg was a response to 9/11 and trying to get our economy on track. New Yorkers aren’t normal, but we need to get back to being New Yorkers and not afraid about the economy or of our society. We just need to be exciting, rude, wonderful and brilliant New Yorkers.
What do you see New York looking like in the next five, ten years?
Dick Zigun: I’m excited about it becoming a big city. Because my wife’s Nigerian, I hang out in Lagos, which is twice as big as New York. So I’m glad that New York is growing; we’re up to 8.3 million. I’d like to see us hit 9 ½ million. I like that the mayor puts a big focus on parks, but I’m afraid everything is beginning to look like everything else. Everything is turning into condos and Starbucks. We not only need parks, we need uniqueness. For a lot of people, Coney Island represents uniqueness, and that’s why we are fighting shopping malls.
What would an ideal New York look like?
Dick Zigun: An ideal New York would have new buildings, all of which are as quality as the Chrysler Building. I’d like to see Coney Island have a Surf Avenue trolley again and ferry service again. But yeah, more Chrysler Buildings—not copies of them, but quality architecture. People like Rem Koolhaas, who just built that outrageous building in Beijing for the Olympics that looks like it can’t even stand up. Rather than what’s going on near Ground Zero, which is sort of bland and not that innovative, you know more Frank Gehrys, more Rem Koolhaas, more Chrysler Buildings, and Coney Island needs the Surf Avenue trolley back. Our transportation system could be a tourist attraction in and of itself. Look at New Orleans; look at San Francisco.
If you could have a drink with anyone else on this Top 40 list, who would it be?
Dick Zigun: Jay-Z, so I could invite him and Beyoncé to be king and queen of next year’s Mermaid Parade.
What does Time Out mean to you?
Dick Zigun: Time Out New York is definitely a publication to see what’s happening that week. But it’s also the provocative publication that’s again and again come back to us, but other interesting people too, like with the “3 questions for” and features like that that are really provocative to take somebody who’s in the news and just hit ’em with three offbeat questions. I’ve always liked that feature a lot.
Complete the sentence: New York is…
Dick Zigun: New York is the capital of the world, but L.A. is the capital of America.
Why do you think that?
Dick Zigun: Because I think New York is truly a world city but not representative of America. Without taking away from New York’s wonderfulness, the big American city is L.A. L.A. is all abut boob jobs and plastic surgery and cars and houses and these American fantasies, where New York is more about world domination, whether it’s in the arts or the economy. That goes back to being the Big Apple.
Next: Sarah Michelson >
The New York 40:
Kiki & Herb
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Upright Citizens Brigade