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COLUMN ONE : Hard Times for Human Blockhead : Step right up to see the shocking future that may await Coney Island's seedy sideshow. This is not for the faint of heart, folks. This crumbling calliope of gasps and ghosts could become--a McDonald's.


CONEY ISLAND, N.Y. — Oh yes, the sideshow here has had its woes. Diabetes forced the Tattooed Man into early retirement, and the escape artist was sacked for too much booze. With fewer acts, Demonica, the snake charmer, has had to double as the Elastic Lady, contorting inside a coffin as it is jabbed every which way with blades. As always, the Ghastly Gourmet is getting plenty of roughage, but the glass-eating is finally wearing the enamel off his teeth.

On a brighter note, Miss Kiva, the fire-swallowing "queen of kerosene," fell in love with the Human Blockhead, he who hammers those five-inch nails up his nostrils. But now the two have a baby, and child care is such a costly burden on a working couple with long hours. "After paying off the baby-sitter, I lost $50 on the Fourth of July weekend," the "angel of arson" complains, munching a poppy-seed bagel in that mysterious crematorium of a mouth.

Dick Zigun manages Coney Island USA, this 10 1/2-year-old sideshow on America's most famous beach, one of the few remaining structures along the glorious seediness of the storied old boardwalk. A graduate of the Yale drama school, he has been good enough at extolling his exotic acts as "populist theater" to attract a long run of public funding. But now the money is drying up, and Zigun, a sad sack of a businessman, has fallen behind on the rent.

The landlord wants to evict this lively collection of deadbeats, and a hearing in housing court is scheduled for Wednesday. While more prosperous Coney entrepreneurs have offered to rescue the sideshow and pony up the $34,000 in arrears, the owner of the decrepit theater seems determined to enlist a more conventional tenant. He has shown the property to, among others, that very standard-bearer of American gustatory conformity, McDonald's.

The Ghastly Gourmet is aghast. "The idea of it turns my stomach," he said in between his meals of 60-watt light bulbs.

Miss Kiva, too, is burned up over the prospect. "This country is turning into one big mall. Everything is sanitized and prepackaged and all perfectly McDonald's."

On stage, at the show's conclusion, it is Miss Kiva's job to do the "blow off," beckoning the suckers from the rickety grandstands to a dark anteroom where they pay $1 extra to see something "so shocking and hideous and controversial" that it could not be advertised on the outside.

"Folks, don't wait until next time," she warns them soberly. "Next time, all you'll find in that room is a big bag of French fries."


Coney Island, a breezy spit of land at the bottom tip of Brooklyn, is one of the great haunted relics of American culture. Time's brutal drift may have changed a once breathtaking playland into a second-rate amusement park, but something wonderful and seductive remains. The wind-swept surf reaches toward the whirling machinery of the midway, and each ride tosses back a spray of excited light. The senses turn cartwheels with the watching of it.

This is not homogenized America. It is smelly and offbeat and a little bit sleazy. The late Brooklyn historian Elliot Willensky once said: "It was the nature of Coney Island that you would encounter strangeness. You would encounter the unencounterable." And all that is still so. Coney is steadfastly indecorous and outlandish, and the endangered boardwalk sideshow flows from the spiritual bloodlines of a hundred eccentric forerunners.

Out front, the Human Blockhead is doing the "ballyhoo," enticing people into the theater for a mere $3. He tells them about the gyrations of the Elastic Lady--how "she'll twitch it and she'll twatch it and you'll all get to watch it." His half-lies are braided with his half-truths, and people go in a few at a time, their curiosity tickled by the feather of his tongue.

Inside, performing now, Blockhead's voice becomes adenoidal as he twists an ice pick up his nose. Then Demonica comes out to shimmy in a loose black dress, her black fingernails big as spoons and her slim hands caressing the nine-foot python that she has draped around her shoulders. She is only 23, a bored part-time waitress with deadened eyes. But on stage she somehow makes an audience believe she possesses all the mystic secrets of the ancients.

Surreal Bafflements

The grandstands are full, about 100 people wilting in the summer heat like parched houseplants. They perk up at the best of the surreal bafflements, the swallowing of a shiny sword or the crunching of the glass on the Gourmet's troubled molars. Spectators are not shy with comments. When Mr. Indestructible dons a straitjacket, he mentions that it is the very same kind worn by the mentally and criminally insane. "That's half of New York!" someone shouts.

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