This weekend, the 13th Annual Coney Island Film Festival will screen 88 films in 16 different programs beginning with Friday’s opening night film and a kickoff party featuring sideshow, burlesque and an open bar. This year’s selections include films starring Coney Island characters past and present—photographer Matt Weber, sideshow talker Scott Baker, sideshow performer Tyler Fleet AKA Tyler Fyre, Coney Island Dancers “Commander in Chief” Rican Vargas and Ruby’s longtime bartender Sammy Rodriguez. There are also films featuring vampire bikers played by veteran actors from ‘The Warriors,” Coney handball champs, Coney strongmen, and Superstorm Sandy. A special late night screening of “The Warriors” is scheduled for Saturday.
Here are ATZ’s top 10 picks for this year’s Coney Island Film Festival. Yes, all of the films on our must-see list happen to be documentary features or shorts! The last three films are part of the popular Coney Island-themed Program 16 that closes the festival on Sunday night.
More Than the Rainbow – Opening Night- Friday, September 20, 7:30pm
Matt Weber’s striking black and white photos of Coney from the 1980’s –The Atlantis, the ruins of Stauch’s Baths, signage for Philip’s Salt Water Taffy, the Cyclops atop Spook-A-Rama — were our first intro to his work. “I’m very nostalgic, I like things from the the 30s, 40s and 50s,” says the New York City cabbie turned street photographer in this clip that follows him and his young daughter around Coney Island. Couples on the beach, a family in front of Nathan’s and daredevils diving from the pier are among his subjects. Directed by Dan Wechsler with cinematography by Arlene Muller, this engaging character study is set to the music of Thelonius Monk. Documentary feature, 83 minutes.
One Wall: Kings of Coney Island – Program 3 – Saturday, September 21, 3:00pm
From September 25-29, the U.S. Handball Association’s National One-Wall Championships will be held at Coney Island’s Seaside Handball Courts at Surf Avenue and West 5th Street as they have for more than 50 years. If the sport were basketball, volleyball or tennis, chances are you’d know about it already and the names of the players would be on the tip of your tongue. As Coney Island-born handball champ Joe Durso says in Joe Glickman’s film, “You need an iconic figure that can capture the public’s interest. There is no future of handball without such a figure.” The film follows Durso and other athletes as they compete for the championship in 2011. You can watch the trailer on Vimeo. Documentary feature, 86 minutes.
Mad Santa – Program 5- Saturday, September 21, 5:00pm
The Coney Island Sideshow’s longtime outside talker Scott Baker is a trained actor with many stage and film credits, but we had no idea he is also New York City’s #1 department store Santa. This documentary short by Scott Shire follows “Mad Santa” as he brings seasonal cheer to young and old and tells tales from Christmases past. Baker also appears in two other films at this year’s film festival: The documentary short “The Rehearsal” (Program 15 – Sunday, September 22 – 5:15pm) follows Baker’s rehearsal of his new magic act. “Welcome to Madness” is a horror film set in the world of the theater (Program 8 – Saturday, September 21, 2013 – 8:00pm).
Scattered – Program 5 – Saturday, September 21, 5:00pm
Filmmaker Lindsay Lindenbaum uses home movies from her childhood in the 90s to delve into family memoir and discover the true story of her late father. Based on the riveting trailer, it’s clear he liked to take her to amusement parks. The clips show Six Flags and Wildwood in New Jersey, and Disneyworld as well as local fairs and carnivals in the tri-state area, says Lindenbaum. Earlier this year, she successfully raised more than $13,000 on Kickstarter to complete the film. “I started this film in the fall of 2011, soon after my father passed away. After being estranged from him for most of my life, I was left with many questions that I thought would forever be unanswered. As I started putting the pieces of his life together and delved through over 100 hours of his home movies, I began to see his world and understand his story through his own eyes.” Documentary short, 26:28 minutes
The Commander in Chief – Program 11 – Sunday, September 22 – 1:00pm
Photographer and videographer Jim McDonnell’s Coney Island Dancing videos compiling a summer’s worth of dance moves have been something to look forward to every September since 2010. ATZ has enjoyed and posted every one of them. Last year, Jim, who works professionally as a footage guru, got the idea to make a documentary feature about Rican Vargas, the founder and “Commander in Chief” of Coney Island Dancers, and his Boardwalk dance parties. With the idea of showing what is takes to get ready for the season, filming began in the fall, just after Sandy, and ended on the first day of summer at the Mermaid Parade. As it turned out, a few weeks after filming ended, Vargas made claims of racism against some members of the community, went into seclusion, and disbanded Coney Island Dancers, leaving many of his followers baffled by his actions. It will be interesting to see what “Commander in Chief” reveals in retrospect about this charismatic and controversial Coney Island character. Documentary Feature, 77 minutes. World Premiere.
Bending Steel – Program 13 – Sunday, September 22 – 3:00pm
“Bending Steel” opened at the Tribeca Film Festival to stellar reviews and is currently on the film festival circuit with upcoming screenings in Calgary, Maine, Kansas and Florida. Dave Carroll’s documentary touched viewers because the introverted Chris Schoeck doesn’t look the part of an old time strongman nor does he have the panache of a sideshow performer. His quest to become both is inspirational. The film follows Schoeck as he attempts to become a professional strongman, from training in his small basement storage unit and getting pointers from a fraternity of strongmen to his first performance onstage in Coney Island.”The sight of this very strong man tackling a moment of complete vulnerability gives ‘Bending Steel,’ however briefly, the hold-your-breath drama of a fine sports film,” said a review in Hollywood Reporter. Before and immediately after the screening, there will be live strongman demonstrations from three of the films stars–Chris Schoeck, Chris Rider and Adam Realman. Documentary feature, 93 minutes.
The Down Home Daredevils – Program 15 – Sunday, September 22, 5:15pm
The Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow‘s Tyler Fleet aka Tyler Fyre was the outside talker, fire-eater and sword swallower at Coney Island Circus Sideshow from 1998 till 2004. For the past several years he and his wife “Thrill Kill Jill,” snake charmer and sword swallower, have been touring the country in their Airstream. The arrival of two boys – Hank and Duke – has made for some adorable family photos, not to mention the challenge of juggling their sideshow career with parenthood. The documentary by Corcoran College of Art new media photojournalism students Ben Dorger, Jenny Harnish and Emma Scott follows the family from their home in West Virginia to the Hell City Tattoo Convention in Columbus, Ohio. Documentary Short, 12:07, World Premiere.
(Update October 6, 2013… You can watch the short online here.)
Sammy’s 80th Birthday Party at Ruby’s 2007 – Program 16 – Sunday, September 22, 6:00pm
Sammy Rodriguez came from Puerto Rico and worked as a porter, fry cook and bartender in Coney Island for six decades. The story goes that he had a job at the spot “under the boardwalk” before Ruby Jacobs bought the place and kept him on. As one of my friends says, “He helped create Ruby’s as we know it.” Sam’s birthday is October 1st. When Lou Dembrow shot “Sammy’s 80th Birthday Party at Ruby’s 2007,” old friends came out to meet and greet the beloved bartender, who had already been retired for five years. Dembrow won Best Documentary Short at the 2012 Coney Island Film Festival for her film about the Wonder Wheel. Documentary short, 4:30 minutes, World premiere.
The Storm – Program 16 – Sunday, September 22, 6:00pm
Last October, Coney Island historian Charles Denson took dramatic photos and video of the devastation at Sea Gate on the western end of Coney Island the morning after Hurricane Sandy. He rode out the hurricane in Sea Gate where his apartment flooded up to the windows and his car floated away, ultimately destroyed by the storm surge. The film covers preparation for the storm, the surge at Coney Island and Sea Gate, and the storm’s aftermath. In 2009, Denson’s film “The Prince of Mermaid Avenue” was awarded Best Documentary Feature at the 9th Annual Coney Island Film Festival. You can view some of his films and trailers on his Coneyologist channel on YouTube. Documentary short, 20 minutes. World premiere.
Last Ride…First Ride – Program 16 – Sunday, September 22, 6:00pm
When Daniel Turkewitz shot footage at the Eldorado Bumper Cars and Arcade “Last Ride of 2012″ party, it wasn’t clear if the famed attraction would reopen for the 2013 season. The lease renewal was up in the air. Posters advertised “Bump Your Ass Off…The End of an Era” and everyone came out to party one last time. There were sideshow stars and go go dancers on the Skeeball lanes and a raffle of Eldorado merchandise. A few days later, the lease came through but the Eldorado was wrecked by Sandy. The documentary chronicles the last ride of 2012 and Gordon Lee’s struggle to reopen in the spring. After the film, everyone will troop next door to the Eldorado for the Coney Island Film Festival Awards Ceremony followed by a spin on the bumper cars. Documentary short, 13:10 minutes. Brooklyn premiere.
The 13th Annual Coney Island Film Festival, September 20 – 22, 2013, at Coney Island USA, 1208 Surf Avenue, Coney Island
Related posts on ATZ…
February 2, 2013: A Coney Island Classic: 60th Anniversary of “Little Fugitive”
December 28, 2012: Amusing the Zillion’s Top 10 Coney Island Videos of 2012
Movember 15, 2012: Zipper: Coney Island Documentary Debuts at DOC NYC
January 13, 2011: ATZ Saturday Matinee: Shorty at Coney Island