After a week of culture and exploring New York, and a wonderful morning at the Transit Museum, I headed over to Brooklyn and all the way to the end-of-the-line: Coney Island. I arrived early to get a Nathan’s hot dog and to wander around the board walk area. Then I walked over to the Coney Island Museum where I was to meet Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum to discuss the display and performance of people with disabilities in sideshows. This blog is a segue into a new series of blogs on exploitation, sideshow history, disability history, and more.
Dr. Birnbaum is on the Board of Coney Island USA and also a physician who has been studying sideshow performers with physical disabilities. Additionally, he is a Pediatrician with HEAT (Health and Education Alternatives for Teens) of which he is the founder, director, and physician. His specialty is treatment of HIV+ youth, and he provides medical care for HIV+ and at-risk children, including LGBT youth. More information about this fascinating work is available at HEAT’s website, http://www.heatprogram.org. Dr. Birnbaum has also studied Sideshow Performers, Congenital Malformations, Disabilities and the Medical Community. This is what we met to talk about on a Thursday in May at the Coney Island Museum.
Coney Island of today is very different from that of the late 1800s and pre-War era of the twentieth century. Luna Park and Dreamland are no longer visited daily by the masses, and the beach was empty while I was there, which is a stark contrast to the images of Coney Island from the past. However, there are still some organizations and small businesses that continue to share the history of this fascinating place and preserve that history for future generations.
One of the biggest attractions in the past at Coney Island, and in circuses and traveling exhibits throughout the world, was the sideshow. Many times, children with seemingly strange differences were taken from their families to travel the world to be gawked at by tourist paying a nickel to see the strange and unknown.
Today, Coney Island still operates one of the only sideshows in the country. Their website proclaims, “SIDESHOWS BY THE SEASHORE is the last permanently housed place in the USA where you can experience the thrill of a traditional ten-in-one circus sideshow. They’re here, they’re real and they’re alive! Freaks, wonders and human curiosities! “ More information is available at: http://www.coneyisland.com/sideshow.shtml. Dr. Birnbaum, as mentioned above, has studies sideshow, disability, and medicine, so he was a great source to speak with regarding my research.
When we arrived, they had just wrapped up their annual “Congress of Curious Peoples” (I am currently taking donations so that I can attend next year!), and Dr. Birnbaum told me about the 2012 Inductees into the Sideshow Hall of Fame and his nomination of Seal-o the Sealboy in the Born Different category. This is the kind of information I was looking for in my research as opposed to the self-inflicted “freaks” that dominate shows today!
Dr. Birnbaum and I discussed many aspects of sideshows and people with disabilities, and he told me about several people he knows who do participate in sideshows or other types of shows to raise awareness about disability issues. One example is Matt Fraser, a “seal boy” or person with phocomalia, who is a disability rights activist who uses his disability in his act. He uses the disability to make the audience uncomfortable for laughing and having fun, since almost all people are conditioned not to.
He explained to me that in the past, the disability community often viewed people who performed to be taking place in something equal to pornography. Today, however, many in this population see it as a rock’n’roll career.
I’m interested in the “born different” people from the past, but most especially those with cognitive developmental delays, medically called those with mental retardation. This will be spoken about much more in my research to come. I have come across several examples of this such as Zip and Pip, and Schlitzy, who were referred to as “pinheads”, and Zip the “What is it?” who may or may not have had microcephaly.
My next blog will feature a Q&A with one of the Coney island Performers, Black Scorpion. The website describes him as, “a human oddity known for his bizarre & surreal stage performances, from future Austin, Texas. He is unlike any other performer, for he was not born of our time like you or I. When you see him perform you will understand how nature’s beauty takes shape in many different forms. Witness his attempts to change preconceived negatives into a positives throughout space & time.” You can read more about him at: http://www.coneyisland.com/per.blackscorpion.shtml
The museum has a bar and a great giftshop (also available online at: http://shop.coneyisland.com/) with Coney Island beer as a specialty and incredible one-off art such as my pink and green two-headed deer.
I encourage you to become a member of Coney Island USA to help build this area of New York back to a semblance of what it used to be. The Unofficial Mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, and the wonderful folks at Coney Island, USA (the non-profit arts organization) are doing great things at this historic site, and they can do much more with your donation. For obvious reasons, I would love to be able to be a “Sideshow Professa,” and who wouldn’t?