Artist Marie Roberts, whose sideshow banners have adorned Coney Island USA’s building since 1997, has painted a new bannerline that pays homage to the landmarking of the building by acknowledging artists of the past. CIUSA artistic director Dick Zigun’s idea was “Marie Roberts channels Snap Wyatt.” Marie explains….
We chose Snap Wyatt – I always think of his forms as more Platonic and Piero like. We based the designs on his banners.
The central “Sideshows by the Seashore” banner depicts a stage with actual stars of the past… Bobby Reynolds, Jack Dracula, Sealo, Albert/Alberta, all performed in our building. The General Tom Thumb is for Dick’s past, Lionel is for mine.
The color is deep and rich recalling the polychroming on the Parthenon, the figures frieze-like, like Egypt perhaps.
The first time I wrote about Marie was more than a decade ago as part of a travel story for Islands Magazine. This third-generation Coney Islander spoke so vividly about her Uncle Lester, who had been a talker with the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in the 1920s, that I felt as if he were alive. Photos of him working and socializing with Lionel the Lion-Faced Man and other famous freaks left an indelible impression on Marie and continue to inspire her work.
Other sideshow stars portrayed in the frieze include…
–General Tom Thumb, who was 25 inches tall and weighed 15 pounds, found fame and fortune touring Europe with PT Barnum. He was born in 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which is also Dick Zigun’s hometown.
–Bobby Reynolds, sideshow legend and self-proclaimed “greatest showman in the world,” brought his museum of curiosities to the now-demolished bank building across from Coney Island USA in the 1990s. He returned to Coney to perform this spring at the Congress of Curious Peoples.
–Jack Dracula was first tattooed by Coney Island’s Brooklyn Blackie in the 1940s. He had over 400 tattoos on his body, including his face, and was famously photographed by Diane Arbus. One of the shows where he found work was Dave Rosen’s Wonderland Circus Sideshow, which occupied Coney Island USA’s building in the 1950s and ’60s.
The first time I wrote about David “Snap” Wyatt was in the late ’90s, when I chronicled the movement of sideshow banners into high-art venues for Art & Antiques, New Art Examiner and other magazines. Wyatt was a virtuoso who was snapping up work with traveling shows long before he attended Cooper Union and became one of the few banner painters with an art school education. During his 40-year career in the world of midway art, he also created figures of zombies and other creatures for several of his own sideshows.
My favorite Snap Wyatt banner is his Strange Girls gaff banner in the book Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls, which Marie has reinterpreted as Weird Women. Strange Men and the new banners of individual performers have yet to be hung.
Marie is teaching a banner painting workshop at Coney Island USA’s Sideshow School in August. She is also a tenured professor of art at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her painting student at FDU, Justina Cena, assisted with the pieces.
Related posts on ATZ…
January 10, 2011: Coney Island Building Landmarked, Joe Sitt Sees the Light