Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

The Sea Beach LineThe MTA’s Sea Beach Line, better known as the N train, now has a fascinating new novel named after it, by Ben Nadler. The Sea Beach Line takes the reader from the Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach to Manhattan’s Washington Square Park and the Upper East Side.

The book’s narrator Izzy Edel has a mystical bent and is well-versed in Jewish texts, both real and imaginary. After getting kicked out of college for hallucinogenic drug use, he travels to New York in search of his estranged father, who is missing and presumed dead. A postcard with a tattooed mermaid and a letter with a return address in Coney Island lead him to his first clues at a private museum run by a business associate of his father’s. A runaway from a Hasidic sect and her relatives, Uzbek gangsters, and his father’s fellow book vendors are among the novel’s intriguing cast of characters.

ATZ asked novelist Ben Nadler, who lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at City College and the College of New Rochelle, to fill us in on the backstory of The Sea Beach Line in the following Q & A. You can preview the first chapter for free on the publisher’s website.

Q: In Stillwell Terminal there’s a sign for the Sea Beach Line which I rarely see anywhere else. What is the history of the line and how did it come to be the title of your novel?

A: The Sea Beach Railway was an independent line which went to Coney Island in the 1800s. It was bought by the BRT, but kept its name as The Sea Beach Line. The BRT was bought by the BMT, which, along with other companies, was in turn bought by the city. Eventually, everything was folded together into the MTA. So, The Sea Beach Line is known today as the MTA’s “N” train. But it retains its full name; in addition to the station signs, the words appear in the illuminated signs on the side of N train cars.

There are some crazy articles from around the turn of the twentieth century in the New York Times archives about independent “inspectors” throwing fare evaders off the Sea Beach Line, on the way to Coney. Some people were seriously assaulted, and at least two women actually died, after being run down on the tracks. These stories inspired me to invent the painting by the artist, R. Galuth, which plays a central role in my novel.

More generally, though, I’m really interested in the layering of history in New York. That’s a lot of what the book is about, digging up these layers of history, experience, and meaning. So referring to a common subway line by its historical name, and elevating into a more a mythic place, is very much in line with what the novel is.

Ben Nadler

Ben Nadler

Q: Tell us about your relationship with Southern Brooklyn– Coney Island, Brighton and Sheepshead Bay–all featured prominently in the book–along with Washington Square Park in the Village. Have you lived or worked here? Have any bits and pieces of your personal history turned up in the book?

A: I live in Midwood, Brooklyn, and have lived here over the entire course of writing the novel. This is sort of the very top edge of Southern Brooklyn, but part of the same world in some ways.

I have been fascinated with Coney Island, specifically, since I was very young. Several of my father’s relatives, including his grandmother, lived in the Amalgamated Warbasse Houses when he was a kid. They were Yiddish-speaking union members who moved down from the Lower East Side when the development opened in the ‘60s. My father always imparted to me that Coney Island is a special place. And because it was the location of the older, immigrant generation of his family, it always seemed more connected to the past than other places for me.

I first moved to New York City in 2002, and would often come down to Coney alone or with friends, to walk on the beach and boardwalk at night. In around 2008 I started dating my girlfriend, Oksana, whom I’m still with. She was born in Russia, but grew up in Coney Island, on West 23rd St. Some of her family still lives there. Oksana further introduced me to the broader Coney Island neighborhood to the west of the amusement area, as well as to Brighton to the east.

The Manhattan material has more of a direct connection to my experiences: I was a bookseller on West 4th Street for a few years. I came to New York to study at the New School in the West Village, and ended up working as a bookseller for the last couple years of college, and for a bit after. I don’t think there is anything from my own biography in the plot or the characters, but the accounts of the bookselling business, and the street culture around the park in the early 2000s, are very much a pastiche of my memories and experiences.

Q: The scenes that flash back to 11-year-old Izzy meeting and bonding with his estranged father as they go crabbing on the pier in Coney and make a meal of the catch are masterful. How did you come up with this chapter?

Thanks. This was actually the very first part of the book that I wrote. Everything grew from there.

Basically, a friend and I were spending a lot of time crabbing and fishing on the pier that summer. It was mainly an excuse to make ourselves get up early, ride our bikes down Ocean Parkway at dawn, and drink on the pier in the morning. So the scene started to come together in my mind over successive weeks, sitting on the pier bench, waiting for the tug on the line. The characters were birthed from the setting, to a degree.

Q: The mix of Jewish mysticism and noirish plot drew me in. Can you talk a little about what inspired that combo?

A: Honestly, this wasn’t a planned combination. These are just things I write about.

That being said, I think there are some natural connections between the two elements. Hasidic tales in Eastern Europe were all about taking complex religious and mystical traditions, and bringing them into narratives that could be accessibly shared amongst common people. And noir/ hardboiled/ pulp novels in America were a way of taking the literary form of the novel, and making it into something accessible (in terms of plots, language, and the actual ownership of books) to a wider, and largely working class, audience. So they fit well together. Especially in the streets of Brooklyn.

More than anything though, we are talking about different forms mystery. The search for what’s hidden.

Sea Beach lineQ: Have you written anything else about Coney Island (nonfiction/journalism) or set in Coney Island (fiction)?

A: Yeah, over the years I have done some freelance nonfiction writing about Coney Island for different blogs and publications. My favorite example of this is the article my girlfriend and I wrote about the reconstruction of Steeplechase Pier after Hurricane Sandy.

Several years ago, an editor from Sea Gate tried to start a local Coney Island newspaper. He got a publisher who was supposed to sell ads and fund it, and he hired he me and a photographer to put together some stories. I did a lot of great interviews, and got to meet some awesome people, but then the publisher skipped town, and the paper never got printed.

Coney Island pops up in a lot of my writing. A chapter of my out-of-print first novel, Harvitz, As To War, takes place in Coney Island, in the projects. One of the pieces in a comic book, Line & Hook, which I made with Alyssa Berg and is forthcoming next month from Perfect Wave, is written from the perspective of an old drunk on the Coney Island boardwalk.

Q: You seem very familiar with Coney Island – for example, putting the fictional Galuth Museum on 18th Street, which is one of Coney’s mysterious missing streets. What place in Coney Island, past and/or present, captures your imagination?

A: A missing street is such a great opportunity for a fiction writer. Because it doesn’t exist, I had total freedom to construct my own location. But at the same time, because it’s located between two real places, it was firmly grounded and contextualized in the experiential world.

In Coney Island, like a lot of New York City, the tenements were destroyed in “slum clearance” and replaced with public housing projects. It is debatable if this was the best thing for people or not (or if it could have been a better thing for people if the history of the projects unfolded differently, with more support). In any case, you can’t really talk about life in Coney Island today without talking about life in housing projects. But I am entranced by these disappeared neighborhoods. Throughout the city, there are old neighborhoods buried under NYCHA projects, under expressways, under skyscrapers, under Lincoln Center.

For pure mystery and imagination, though, you can’t beat Dreamland. This was the quintessential Coney Island amusement park, a reified world of fantasy and imagination. It lasted for just seven years before disappearing in flames. When I look at old post card photos of the front gate, with the giant angel statue in the middle, my imagination goes wild.

The Sea Beach Line by Ben Nadler. Fig Tree Books, 2015. Softcover, $15.96.

Related posts on ATZ…

October 25, 2015: Autumn Reading: Novels Starring Circus Mermaids, Coney Island Sideshows, Traveling Shows

December 1, 2014: Autumn Reading: Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow!

November 22, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Brooklyn Theatre Index of Coney Island, Brighton Beach & Manhattan Beach

November 10, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

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Lefty Lucy

Lefty Lucy celebrating her win at the Miss Coney Island Burlesque Pageant. September 17, 2010. Photo © NY_Man via flickr

What’s it like to be Miss Coney Island 2011? ATZ asked Lefty Lucy, who won the title in September at the 8th annual burlesque beauty pageant and is halfway into her reign.  Her predecessors are such luminaries of the New York sideshow and burlesque scene as Bambi the Mermaid, Insectavora Angelica, Julie Atlas Muz, Ekaterina, Serpentina, Gal Friday and Gigi LaFemme. The Great Fredini, who runs Coney Island USA’s Burlesque at the Beach, explains: “Bambi carefully curates the Miss Coney Island Pageant herself. We usually have 8 to 12 competitors and I emcee the show with a band. It’s run in a classic beauty pageant format with segments for runway, talent, lineup, etc. The thing is you just never know who will take it because the audience in the theater votes to decide who the new Miss Coney Island will be. So it’s really about who the audience loves the most. It’s very Coney Island!”

Q: When you were crowned Miss Coney Island, you looked very surprised. What is the secret of your success?

A: I was surprised! While I’ve been a performer all my life, I’ve only been performing burlesque for just over 2 years. The Miss Coney Island Burlesque Beauty Pageant has been an inspiration to me for years now; it was THE destination for my birthday for almost all of the past 6 years! I think that helped, really, as far as the “secret to my success” is concerned. Since I have seen the pageant, I had a pretty good sense of what a Coney Island audience wants. Coney Island lovers tend to be funny, original, sincere, and full of joy. The competitors who stuck with me over the years (Minnie Tonka, Nasty Canasta, Trixie Little) each had strong gimmicks that reflected who they are, and by being themselves they reflected the Coney Island spirit. I just tried to be true to me and also entertain.

Lefty Lucy

Emcee Fred Kahl intros Lefty Lucy. Miss Coney Island Burlesque Pageant, September 17, 2010. Photo © NY_Man via flickr

Q: How has being Miss Coney Island changed your everyday life?  Are there any official duties or perks that come with the title?

A: I get to be involved in shows I haven’t been in before, like the big Spring Gala on Thursday, April 28. I also got a banner painted by Coney Island USA’s artist in residence, Marie Roberts, which is absolutely stunning. As for official duties, they primarily include producing a few shows at Sideshows by the Seashore and heading the Mermaid Parade as the Queen of Coney Island. I co-produced “Mr. and Ms. Coney Island Play Favorites” with the reigning King of Coney Island, Glenn Marla and we’re hoping we get to do a few more before my time is up! Beyond that, I’m working with Bambi the Mermaid to create a Wikipedia entry and Facebook page for Miss Coney Island, trying to coordinate some big press pushes for the season this summer, and making sure that New Yorkers know that Coney Island is still alive and kicking.

Lefty Lucy

Lefty Lucy as a Robot in Sweet & Nasty Burlesque at Coney Island USA. Banner by Marie Roberts. October 7, 2010. Photo © NY_Man via flickr

Q: Your costumes in the pageant were a knockout!  One photographer wrote on flickr: “I am really impressed by this girl. Three interesting costume changes and silver make-up put on and removed!” Tell us a little about the inspiration for and creation of the costumes. Did you make them yourself?

A: Thank you! I am an incredibly lucky girl. One of my best friends of all time, David Withrow (DW professionally), is a brilliant costume designer. He and I both like to have a narrative in costumes, and once I settled on doing a brand new robot act for the show, I decided I wanted all of my looks to be robot inspired. The robot act costume I made out of duct tape and tin foil. It is sort of an homage to the costumes I grew up seeing on the Twilight Zone. For the gown, DW suggested doing a take on the Metropolis robot, and we decided to use all of the iconic architecture of Coney Island to emphasize that concept. We built that headdress the day of the show using foam core, toothpicks, and silver sharpies! Glamorous, no? Then for the swimsuit portion of the competition, I decided to go 60s Fembot, which is why I’m all pink and gogo-tastic. What you don’t see are my bullet pasties under the bra!

Miss Coney Island

Bambi the Mermaid with the newly crowned Miss Coney Island Lefty Lucy. Miss Coney Island Burlesque Pageant. September 17, 2010. Photo © NY_Man via flickr

Q: Are zany costumes your trademark?  You portrayed the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters in Epic Win Burlesque, Lot’s Wife as the Morton Salt Girl in Storybook Burlesque’s version of the Bible. Tell us about the costumes.  Do you ever get any ideas that are too over the top?

A: hahaha yes, Mr. Stay Puft was a fun one, for sure. It’s made of this awful gummy insulated fabric that we found on discount. I don’t know what it is supposed to be used for, but it’s perfect for a marshmallow man. The first two times I did the act, I filled the costume with marshmallows so every time I tore a piece off, marshmallows flew in to the audience. It was a lot of fun. Morton Salt Girl was easy as she has such an iconic look; the hard part was figuring out what she would wear under the dress!

Lefty Lucy

Lefty Lucy as the Morton Salt Girl/Lot's Wife in Storybook Burlesque's Bible Show II. December 3, 2010. Photo © Eric Harvey Brown/dogseat via flickr

I wouldn’t say that zany costumes are my trademark, but zany concepts definitely are. As I’m getting deeper into burlesque, I’m becoming less afraid of dreaming big. I love burlesque, and I love when I see someone take something off in an unexpected way. There’s an inherent sense of playfulness to much of my burlesque, and I think having costumes that can be removed in unique ways helps engage the audience and lets them partake in the fun I am having on stage. It makes burlesque more like a magic trick, and why go to live performance if not to experience magic?

As for ideas that are too over the top, I have them all the time! Some we make come true, like Mr. Stay Puft and my wall costume. For Storybook Burlesque’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play within a Play within a Burlesque show, I played the Wall, and did an Elizabethan take on the look. I had “walls” sticking out of my hips as panniers, and a cage bodice with bricks framing it that are removed throughout the act. Other acts I dream up are not possible now, but I’m still trying to find ways to make them happen. I’d love to do an act using the sort of wheel that knife throwers use, but I would be a record. You wouldn’t see a person at all until pieces began being removed and I would be revealed, attached to this spinning upright record. These wheels aren’t the sort of thing you can find on Craigslist, though, so that will definitely have to wait.

Lefty Lucy

Lefty Lucy in Storybook Burlesque's Midsummer Night's Dream. July 29, 2010. Photo © Matt Bresler via flickr

Q: Your bio says that you made your burlesque debut in the New York School of Burlesque Showcase in January 2009 at the Slipper Room.  What was your favorite part of the curriculum?  What inspired you to enroll in NYSB?

A: The first class I ever took with the NYSB was a 4 week intensive covering all of the basics of burlesque: pasty making and tassel twirling, the glove peel, stocking peel, etc. with Jo “Boobs” Weldon as teacher. It was incredibly freeing and I learned SO much. I don’t have a dance background, and this class helped me become comfortable with movement and feeling sexy instead of silly or self conscious. But my favorite part was tassel twirling, hands down. I took to it like a fish to water, and Jo called me a freak for getting it as quickly as I did.

What brought me to the NYSB was really what got me in to burlesque. It’s a long story, but it’s partially inspired by Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog and an application I was filling out to become a member of the Evil League of Evil. I needed an outlet, and burlesque was a perfect fit. My friend Dave had a huge crush on Jo and told me about the school, so I looked online and signed up immediately.

Lefty Lucy

Lefty Lucy in Storybook Burlesque's Midsummer Night's Dream. July 29, 2010. Photo © Eric Harvey Brown/dogseat via flickr

Q: How did you come up with your stage name “Lefty Lucy”?   What is your background and how does it inform your personality as a burlesque performer?

A: Before I took my first class, I knew I was going to need a name. I was going in a totally different direction, basing my ideas off of my muggle name, but Dave (the one who had a crush on Jo) pointed out that all of the options I was coming up with sounded more drag than burlesque. I made a list of who I wanted to model my performance style after, and I immediately thought of all the time I spent watching I Love Lucy as a kid. I also have a background in theater, from on stage to being a techie, and I would be nowhere without “Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty”! I Googled the name and (at the time) only found a band with the name, so it seemed ok for me to use it. I got lucky considering how much I didn’t know at the time about burlesque names. A lot of people pick a clever name they love, only to discover there are 10 other women around the world with names that sound similar, and it can be very frustrating. But Lefty Lucy is unique to me, and I love that.

Lefty Lucy

Lefty Lucy as Mr Stay Puft in Sweet & Nasty Burlesque at Coney Island USA. October 7, 2010. Photo © NY_Man via flickr

Q: Your comedic flair and range of facial expressions reminded me of Lucille Ball.  Is Lucy one of the inspirations for your stage persona Lefty Lucy?

A: That is an incredible compliment! Thank you! And yes, she is absolutely an inspiration.

Q: What’s your favorite episode or scene from I Love Lucy?

A: I think my absolute favorite is the one Harpo Marx is on. The Duck Soup mirror bit is classic and hilarious! I also love when Lucy tries to make the apartment feel like Cuba for Ricky, and does a great Carmen Miranda bit. I pay homage to that scene in one of my acts.

Q Who are some of your other heroines?

A: The two icons who got me through high school were Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe. They are still huge inspirations for me today, along with Goldie Hawn, Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper, and Ann Margaret. As for real-life heroines, Little Brooklyn is my all-time favorite performer. Her comedic timing and command of an audience is unbelievable, and her ideas are brilliant and spot-on. I also really admire BB Heart, who is one of my friends and co-founder of Storybook Burlesque. Her work is incredibly inspiring and uniquely her, which is fantastic.

Q: You’re a founding member of Storybook Burlesque, which is described as “literary burlesque” inspired by storybooks, including tabloids, the Bible, Shakespeare and Doctor Seuss. Which stories do you find inspiring and why?

A: I love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and Peter Pan the most. I love the imagery and fanciful elements of Alice, not to mention all of the satire and social commentary involved. Peter Pan has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid; I always dreamt of being able to fly (and playing the part Mary Martin made famous!). Both books really get you out of the everyday and into your own imagination which is one of the most important things you can be in touch with as a performer. They make me want to be extraordinary, and to help others do it too. My favorite novel is Chuck Palahniuk’s Rant. He is one of very few authors who takes advantage of the uniqueness of books as a medium, and introduces you to characters that you only later discover look differently than you had imagined. I love this because it pushes me to reconsider the assumptions I make and why I make them, and also because it’s something any visual medium simply can’t do. I love artists who take advantage of what makes their medium special.

Lefty Lucy

Lefty Lucy in Storybook Burlesque's Dr Seuss Show. Banner by Marie Roberts. February 10, 2011. Photo © Eric Harvey Brown/dogseat via flickr

Lefty Lucy is Miss Coney Island 2011 and a founding member of Storybook Burlesque, which will be presenting Grimm’s Fairy Tales in Summer 2011. She is a member of Epic Win Burlesque, which is debuting their newest show, Rated R for Violence, on April 22nd & 23rd at the Tank, and will be performing as part of Nerdapalooza in Orlando on July 16. She also co-produces Drive Thru Burlesque with Sizzle Dizzle. Drive Thru Burlesque is a monthly 5 hour burlesque extravaganza one Friday a month at the Parkside Lounge.


Related posts on ATZ…

November 25, 2010: Happy Belated Birthday to Harpo Marx

October 21, 2010: Halloween In Coney Island: Behind the Scenes at Creep Show at the Freak Show

December 1, 2009: TLC’s Cake Boss Sweet on Marie Roberts’ Coney Island Sideshow Banners

July 6, 2009: Q & A with Zoltar: Coney Island Mermaid Parade’s Best Fortunetelling Float!

Read Full Post »

Parksmania, the premier Italian news portal for amusement and theme parks, interviewed Alberto Zamperla about Luna Park Coney Island at the Euro Attractions Show in Rome on October 6-8, 2010. Since the conversation is in Italian, ATZ asked a friend to translate Zamperla’s remarks.

Parksmania’s YouTube video also has footage of Luna Park’s rides in action and a “virtual tour” of the park. At the beginning of the vid, you’ll catch a glimpse of Zamperla’s rendering of the future Luna Restaurant’s hot pink facade and blue awnings.

As ATZ reported earlier this month, the $1.4 million dollar restaurant is currently under construction at Surf Avenue and 10th Street and will be operated by corporate giant Sodexo, which will also run some of the food concessions on the Boardwalk. Luna Park Coney Island, which has 18 Zamperla rides plus a Reverchon water flume, opened on Memorial Day Weekend 2010.

Here’s a translation of what Alberto Zamperla, president and CEO of Antonio Zamperla S.p.A, had to say in the interview with Parksmania…

It’s always been my dream to create a whole amusement park with only Zamperla-attractions. To do this in New York, where the great amusement park of Coney Island opened over 100 years ago, and to become part of this magnificent history, is among the best experiences I had in my life.

We have opened 19 new attractions, we employed 210 persons, we received 200 inspections from the Building Department. This shows the logistic excellence of Zamperla, which even Bloomberg recognized. He himself couldn’t believe that we were able to realize all this in only 100 days. We showed an incredible organizing ability.

We have had 400.000 visitors, 25% more than expected. We opened the park the very day we completed the construction works.

We conquered the trust of the NYC Municipality, so much that in the coming years we’ll expand the park. Next year we’ll create a “thrill zone” with “adrenalinic” rides for the youngsters, including a roller coaster.

The trust was so great that they entrusted us with the refurbishment of the whole boardwalk, so that we will also take over the management of the gastronomic activities.

ATZ thanks Alessandro Busà, the editor of Urban Reinventors, for translating the audio. His paper Rezoning Coney Island (pdf) can be downloaded via the website of Hunter College Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning.

Related posts on ATZ...

December 5, 2010: Zamperla Air Race Ride Wins Sales at IAAPA Attractions Expo

December 2, 2009: Under Construction: Luna Park Coney Island’s $1.4M Sodexo-Run Restaurant & More

August 28, 2010: Video: Grand Prize Winner of Luna Park Coney Island’s Film Contest!

January 26, 2010: Scoop: Zamperla’s $24M Coney Island Park to be Named Luna Park!

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Here’s a trip you won’t want to miss! On Friday, October 16, Coney Island USA’s Burlesque at the Beach presents “A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy” by East Village performance artist and virtuoso “vocal acrobat” Zero Boy. As a longtime fan, we’re confident Zero Boy is the man to make the glorious hurly burly of Coney’s history come alive onstage.

“The audience is the nephew,” says the ad for the show. “Visit Dreamland, Luna and Steeplechase Parks! Ride the Colossus! Soar on the Parachute Jump! Explore the wonders of Coney Island’s previous centuries. Hot dog eating contests, amusement rides and games of chance. Ride the roller coasters and swim in the clean and pristine aural waters of Zero Boy’s latest vocally animated cartoon.” Here’s a snippet of the play performed this spring at the Ask Dr Hal Show in San Francisco…

In a recent phone conversation with ATZ, Zero Boy talks about developing the play from a three-minute bit to a 45-minute work-in-progress, the inspiration for the set design, fave things to do in Coney, and oh yeah, how he got the name Zero Boy. For the record, his answers were punctuated with lots of laughter and little onomatopoeic flourishes. Photos of Zero Boy used with permission of the photographer Scott A Ettin.

Q: When I first saw the notice for your show on the CIUSA website I was excited because of course I know your work and I love Coney Island. I thought, I have to see this! What will the show be like in relation to the history of Coney Island?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: Well, I do a comic romp through the past, present, and future of Coney Island. It’s sort of like a cartoon of certain big historical elements starting with the beginning of Coney Island all the way up to the 80s, 90s, to now. I did a thing called Stump Zero Boy where people would write in a two word scenario on the radio. I do a similar thing toward the end of the show. People say the Future of Coney Island is dot dot dot. Then I present the future of Coney Island via the audience’s suggestions.

Q: How did you get the idea to do a show about Coney Island?

A: It started as a routine last year I did in a show called “Astroland” at the Kitchen. They asked me to do a bit for it, three minutes of Coney Island Zero Boy style. That routine went from three minutes and developed into a 25, 30 minute routine. I knew I wanted to do a full blown play because the response to it in traveling around the country. When I was doing the routine in Seattle, Eugene, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and in New York, it was sort of like a sail boat. I didn’t have to put up the sail very hard before the thing was flying across the lake.

Every show, there’s a guarantee someone will come up and tell me, I went to Coney Island when I was bla bla years old. I saw Steeplechase. Or, oh I was too young to see it but… Or I went with da da da da. People come up and tell their stories. As I found out the history of Coney Island, I was really blown away. I developed the show and brought in a director from Seattle who really helped format the show for September 11 at Ars Nova.

Q: How did you research it?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: I read Charlie Denson’s book Coney Island Lost & Found, which I loved. It was a major inspiration for me and for the set design, along with the other materials we had. I did a lot of Internet surfing. This summer was the summer that I’ve gone to Coney Island the most. And I jumped on my bike and I rode around the whole island, which was a real interesting eye opener because most people just get off at Brighton Beach or the amusement district and that’s it. Seriously, people get off the train they just head for the beach. They never really go in the opposite direction.

On Labor Day Weekend we were wandering around Coney Island. When you get there at 11 o’clock on a Sunday no one is there, you get there at 12 the place is hopping. Then we came around the corner— and I’d read that article about the Bell in the newspaper how the divers pulled the Bell out of the water— and here we are and they’re pulling the Bell out of the Coney Island History Project and I was the second person to ring the Bell that day!

For me it was a special moment, I felt like it was Coney Island saying go, Zero Boy go, tell our story. I tell everyone this story. One, I tell people you should check out the Bell, and two, it really meant something to me, like history is coming back around. Because people really don’t know anything about Coney Island unless they really research it. I didn’t know anything. You realize the whole island was a giant resort that slowly melted away.

I hope folks from Coney show up and say, oh you’re wrong about this, you need to add that, because the show really needs about 20 minutes more worth of material in my estimation.

Q: How long is it now?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: it runs about 40 to 45. It is a Zero Boy style show in that it’s like Bugs Bunny going through history

Q: I saw that YouTube clip from San Francisco and I realized that it was probably a shorter, earlier version because it didn’t say anything about Luna Park or Dreamland. I love the intro Dr Hal gives you, he’s hilarious!

A: At that Dr Hal show this guy David Capurro the Yo-Yo King was on the fly. No matter what performer is going on he throws up images off the Internet. He was on the fly doing that and I started interacting with it. It inspired me.

The rest of the show, whole sections of it, I had gone out and done solo bits. So there were elements that had been tried and true with the audience. Now it’s a play rather than just a routine.

I’m going to start adding interactive stuff where I’ll be using old film footage and literally as people turn and look maybe speaking to them sort of Zelig style.

Q: Do you use props too?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: No, I do not. A la Zero Boy, the props you see are whatever I create via sound and simple pantomime and I have a beautiful set. As a Coney Island person you will love it. What was so funny was when we did the show at Ars Nova, there’s a reveal where I say “Welcome to Coney Island” and the curtains open, and there was the set. And the set got applause

Q: Wow

A: I thought so, too. I was like, wow. The visual artist who spent two weeks making it was crying he was so happy. But the other thing is the Elephant. It’s the centerpiece on the set actually. In the sideshow I don’t think there will be a reveal cause there’s no place to hide the set. But people who know the history will appreciate it. Aficionados are gonna go, yeah

Q: Personally what are some of your favorite things to do in Coney Island?

A: I’d say first thing you do is take the Q train to Brighton Beach and pick up your food. You’ve got that great neighborhood filed with all Russian food, Georgian food, great deals on fruit, then walk down the Boardwalk to the amusement zone. That’s what I tell people

Q: What’s your favorite ride or game?

A: My favorite would be the Cyclone, It scares me every time but I love it every time. The Cyclone is such a great old thing.

Q: The Cyclone is in the show, right?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: Oh, of course, it’s the height of the show. It’s funny, if I had my druthers, my favorite ride would be the Steeplechase. If I could go back in time and ride that thing, that would be one of my wishes of life. Part of the show is based on my friend, a Lower East Sider who grew up on 13th Street between 2nd and 3rd. He told me about going to Coney Island as a kid in the 1940s and riding the Steeplechase horse and thinking he was gonna fall off. Part of my show is Uncle Zero Boy talks about when your grandfather grew up on the Lower East Side and he loved to go to Coney Island and I tell his story of Steeplechase and Luna Park.

I talk about Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park in one element of the show. You’ll get the reference to the Bell.

Q: Oh, the Bell is in the show?

A: Very briefly. I talk about the fire. I talk about everything went up in flames, and you hear bong bong splosh. I talk about the historical recreations they did. I talk about the Wonder Wheel… the Wonder Wheel, the largest ferris wheel in the world. It’s 600 meters in diameter.

I bring out Frankie Yale. I bring out Al Capone. I talk about the Fearless Frogman himself. I basically cover a lot of bases in a small show. It’s such a huge, huge thing, but there are a few more bases I need to cover. That’s why I’m taking a long process and developing the show.

I have this really great feeling about this Coney Island show. I’ve hit some universal vein. It’s the right time and the place is really wonderful. Coney Island was the template for so many things.

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

Id like to ultimately do the Fringe Festivals this coming spring and summer and fall. What would be cool is doing it in Times Square in a small theatre so people who are coming to visit New York get a little taste of this and go running out to Coney Island.

Q: How did you become Zero Boy? I thought, gee I wonder if he did this as a boy at school?

A: No this is what happened… when people interview me on the radio, how did you get the name Zero Boy, I say when I was a young kid I was hit by a radioactive mathematician and it gave me the superhero powers to make sound into reality, cartoon sounds. And then we moved to France and while we were in France, I was walking along the Champs d’Elysee and I heard non non non, which in English means no. And I look up and the Eiffel Tower is shaking and bolts are popping out. So I fly over and I turn on my welding finger. I hear “the hero boy the hero boy he saved us he saved the Eiffel Tower, the hero boy!” and I get the medal from the President. But the newspapers in America messed up and got it as Zero Boy. So I kept it.

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

“A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy”

Written by Zero Boy
Director… Armitage Shanks
Dramaturge… Jodi Glucksman
Set Design…Adrianno
Audio and Media Design… Richard Reta
Set Construction…Terry McHugh
Booking… Gorgeous Management
Michael Wolk, Maureen Sebastian
Photography… Scott Ettin

Burlesque at the Beach at Sideshows by the Seashore, Coney Island USA
Friday, October 16, 2009, 9 pm, $15
1208 Surf Avenue at West 12th St, Coney Island


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The 9th Annual Coney Island Film Festival takes place this weekend with screenings of 96 films including new features, documentaries, short subjects and more about what else?—Coney Island past, present and future. ATZ’s must-see list includes the world premiere of historian Charles Denson’s documentary “The Prince of Mermaid Avenue” (Oct 2) about Major Market’s Jimmy Prince and a screening of Craig Butta’s “Sea Legs” (Oct 3), which won the Audience Award for Best Feature Narrative at the Brooklyn International Film Festival. Here’s the trailer for Butta’s film:

When I saw “Sea Legs” in June, I was just starting to work on Jones Walk where the film’s main character “Ritchie” (played by Butta) runs a water race game inherited from his Dad. At the time I was feeling excited about working a favorite game from my traveling carnival days on “the Walk” in historic Coney Island. Between the drop in attendance blamed on the rainy weather and the loss of Astroland and Thor Equities’ deliberate shuttering of the Walk’s west side, anticipation was sweeter than reality. On slow nights depression began to set in. Scenes from “Sea Legs” would flash through my mind: Craig Butta’s “Ritchie” opening his water race game in what looks like the dead of winter, calling people in to play (or not, depending on his mood), and fruitlessly waiting for customers to pass by his stand after the fireworks.

As the film’s synopsis says: “With the power of gesture and a minimum of words, a riveting character embarks on a doomed enterprise — his responsibility for his father’s inheritance is transformed into a search for elusive, otherworldly beauty. Sea Legs is a vivid, harrowing journey through the funk, vitality and downward spiraling world of Coney Island.”

In a recent Q & A with ATZ, the filmmaker talks about a love-hate relationship with Coney that dates back to his days as a young game agent on the Bowery and the challenges of writing, directing, producing and acting in an indie film in Coney Island’s much photographed and filmed amusement area.

Q: Before we get started tell us a little about yourself and your work in theater and film.

A: I grew up doing theatre. I’ve been involved in several plays a year since I was about 10. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t in a show, closing a show or preparing for one. In college I started acting in films. At first student projects and then low budget indies.

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Q: How and when did the idea to do a feature in Coney Island take hold?

A: I was traveling with a short film I shot in Coney, “Coney Island USA.” And audiences were always asking questions, demanding more information about the character. At the time, the leads were me and Angelica from the sideshow and we both wanted to expand on the parts so I started writing.

Q: Congrats on winning the Audience Award for Best Feature Narrative at the Brooklyn International Film Festival in June. In the Q & A after the screening you mentioned that you’d worked a game in Coney Island. How old were you when you did that and for how many summers? Can you tell us about that experience and how it colors the film?

A: It was right after college, I was working summers with a cousin doing traveling feasts, like San Gennaro, while he would hit the road and do the bigger county fairs. He got tired of traveling, setting up and breaking down. It’s a tough life doing traveling shows, its very much a circus lifestyle. So he started to rent some property on the Bowery in Coney and opened up the Big Chair and a small dart game. I worked there on off nights in the summer while I was writing and filming “Coney Island USA” in 2005. As far as how it affected my films….it was a huge influence on “Coney island USA.” I felt the desperation being down there on a Tuesday night when its dead and you are just sitting and waiting. Waiting and waiting, for a rush, for good weather, for something to happen. Sea Legs is a much bigger and more personal film. I don’t think of “Sea Legs” as being about Coney Island as much as being set there. There are many other places in this country that the same story could have played out. Its much more about the father and son, about loyalty and finding your own way in life.

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Q: How long have you been working on the film? I seem to remember you talking about it back when we first met in 2008 on the way to the meeting at Lincoln High School about the City’s plan to rezone Coney Island?

A: Yeah, it’s been a while. I started writing in 2007, and wanted to shoot that summer. This was the summer the press was declaring the ‘Last Summer of Coney Island.’ I was ill prepared with my script and felt very unwelcome in Coney. Cameras were everywhere. News people, artists, filmmakers; it seemed everyone wanted to get a piece. It was not the environment I wanted to work under. Plus, the locals were getting fed up with being photographed and interviewed, so I waited. That winter, February of 2008, Sean and I started shooting and we continued photography till August. I edited and re-edited the film throughout the year and premiered it at the Brooklyn International Film Festival.

Q: How has the redevelopment hoopla of the past several years and the threat of gentrification made itself felt in your film?

A: Well, first of all, it’s a plot point. Ritchie has the option to sell the game to a developer who has been buying up land. Secondly, I think you can feel the end coming, in the photography, there is something foreboding about the closed games and empty Bowery. There are still scenes filled with people, but so often we pass a closed game or storefront. Plus the prizes are so out of date. In one shot a guy is trying to entice crowds with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stuffed animals!!

Q: How much of the film is scripted and how much was improvised day by day? Tell us a little about the process. Did anything happen to make you change the script during the shoot?

A: Most of the film was scripted, with the exception of the fortune teller scene and the customers at the game. I was often writing on the fly, getting up early and writing out the scenes for the day. We never knew where we were going to shoot or what the weather would be like so we were winging it in that sense. When you produce a film with no budget you must constantly adapt to your environment. I had a story, a script, scenes written, but we were constantly changing things as we went.

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The fortune teller scene was pretty spectacular. Jimmy Smith (who plays Simon) and I were doing a scene on the Boardwalk, which now that I think about it was improvised, and she pops into the frame and asks us to watch her stand, so we did. When she returns, Jimmy gives her a couple of dollars and asks her to give me a reading. Now at no point does she mention or even look at Sean who is filming all of this. I’m not sure what she thought, but I think she was totally unaware that we were actors. She proceeded to give the reading that made it into the film, a perfectly accurate reading for the protagonist at that point in the film.

Q: Tell us about how you worked with your crew.

A: What crew? Most days it was just me and Sean Williams, who photographed the film. We had a sound man in the beginning but he was like 18 and got a girlfriend and stopped coming once he discovered sex. Sean and I work really well together. We have a long history as friends and don’t need to speak much on set. He knows what I want and I know where he is. It was like working with a dance partner you have had for years, you know what the other is going to before they do it, it was all very fluid. We rarely did two takes.

Q: What kind of equipment did you use? I remember you said during the Q & A that a very small camera was used and some people did not realize they were being filmed.

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A: Yes. I started shooting the film on Super 8, but when I had a few rolls come out overexposed, I realized this wasn’t a project for film. Too many of the shots needed to be captured perfectly in one take. We shot on a Prosumer SD video camera that was lent to us by a filmmaker friend, Jessica Oreck, whose new movie “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” was also shot on the same camera and is amazing!!! Sean has a history of working in documentary film, so this style of shooting was fine with him, and being from the theatre, I had no problem doing everything in one take. I just basically stayed in character all day and he kept rolling.

Q: Was this filmed in the water race game at the corner of Jones Walk?

A: Yes, the Roberts family was very kind to let us work there on and off for 6 months.

Q: How has your relationship with Coney Island changed over the years? In the film, I felt the character had an ambivalence almost akin to a love/hate relationship with Coney. It seemed he’d left that world behind to be a teacher, yet coming back to claim his inheritance he got sucked into it again. I think that I mentioned this at the Q & A, how I was struck by the way he didn’t call the people in at first.

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A: I always quote Jimmy Breslin when asked about how I feel about Coney Island. At the beginning of Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam,” Breslin introduces the film saying it’s really a story about New York, a city he loves as much as hates. I would concur. Coney Island has always drawn me in with its colors, lights and characters. But I never leave feeling satiated or happy, I always leave feeling nauseous. Ritchie actually says this about Coney in the film. His reason for coming back is not out of nostalgia or because he thinks there will be a re-birth in the amusement district; Ritchie is seeking something deeper, he is looking into his family’s past, walking in the footsteps of his estranged father and trying to find answers.

You’re right about him not calling people at first. I don’t think he tries very hard at first to make it work. He is simply going through the motions. But he has it in him, he has carny blood. I think that comes out after the graveyard scene where he makes peace with his father in his own unusual way. When we finally see him on the microphone, he is pretty damn good. So good in fact, the folks I was renting the game from wanted to hire me after we filmed that scene. We were drawing huge crowds on a pretty dead night.

Q: You are the producer, screenwriter, actor and editor. Tell us about the film from each job’s perspective and how you pulled it all together.

A: Well to be honest, the most important job on an indie film set is the producer. It’s easy to write a story, or say you are a director, the hard part is to get it done. And that’s what I did most often. Get the location, find the actors, convince everyone to take the train sometimes two hours to Coney to shoot a five minute scene. As far as being an actor/director, I don’t recommend it and am really unhappy about this decision. I did it because I had to, but wouldn’t do it again. The film is not directed as well as I am capable of and my performance is not as good as it would have been if I didn’t have so much responsibility.

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Q: As the character takes to drinking to get through the days, the film took on more of a hallucinatory quality. For example, I wondered if his interaction with Veronica was real or just a figment of his imagination?

A: We get questions like this a lot at the Q & A’s at screenings. Was she real? Is she a mermaid?, etc.
I always thought of her as a real character but it’s his perception of her that is important to the film. I am not so literal a person in real life. I prefer poetry to prose. I think that’s what Veronica is– a Coney Island of the Mind. She walks into the sea when she says she must go home and later he follows. I never see these moments as literally suicide but as metaphorically returning home. A French filmmaker and friend pointed out that the French word for Sea and Mother (mer) are nearly the same.

Q: Is it “over” as some of our friends on Jones Walk say? Is Coney Island done?

A: Coney Island is a state of mind these days more than a piece of real estate. The days of water gun games, and sun burnt stuffed animals being hawked on the Bowery are probably over. Coney didn’t keep up with the times. Kids have changed, technology has changed, but the games and amusements there have not kept up. So yes that part is definitely over, in my opinion. But as long as the freak show and museum and the film festival and the Mermaid Parade and the burlesque events are around I think Coney will keep its character. It may take some time before it really rises again.

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Q: “Sea Legs” is your first feature. What’s next for you?

A: My first priority is getting “Sea Legs” seen by as many people as possible. We are screening this week in Coney Island at the Coney Island Film Festival and the following week in Brazil. I spent the summer away from filmmaking and worked on writing a few short plays and am working on a new screenplay that we may shoot this winter or next. I also have a lot of favors to pay back, so I will be producing, editing and acting in friend’s stuff for a bit as well.


Coney Island Film Festival
October 2, 3 and 4, 2009

Craig Butta’s “Sea Legs,” Oct 3, Saturday, 7 pm, $6

For advanced tickets for all programs and a complete list of films at the festival, visit www.coneyislandfilmfestival.com
Films screen at Sideshows by the Seashore (1208 Surf Ave., Ground Floor) and the Coney Island Museum (1208 Surf Ave., 2nd Floor) in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Take the D, F, N or Q lines to the Coney Island/Stillwell Avenue stop. All screening venues are within easy walking distance of the subway.

Opening Night Gala screening & party: $25
Full Festival Pass (excludes “The Warriors”): $45
Saturday Pass (excludes “The Warriors”): $15
Sunday Pass: $10
Special Saturday Night Showing of The Warriors: $10
Any Individual Program Screening: $6


Related posts on ATZ…

September 20, 2010: Movie Monday: Teaser Trailers from the Coney Island Film Festival

August 28, 2010: Video: Grand Prize Winner of Luna Park Coney Island’s Film Contest!

March 30, 2010: Super 8 Movie: I Had A Dream I Went To Coney Island

February 24, 2010: Step Right Up! Coney Island Documentary Film Seeks 20 More Backers

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Eccentric Bicyclist Justin Case. Opening Night Performance of Ringlings Coney Island Boom A Ring Circus. Photo © Pablo57 via flickr

Eccentric Bicyclist Justin Case. Opening Night Performance of Ringling's Coney Island Boom A Ring Circus. Photo © Pablo57 via flickr

photo via pablo57, flickr

Those of us who work or live in Coney Island are especially thrilled to have the Ringling Bros. Coney Island Boom A Ring Circus in residence this season. The fave circus performer of quite a few Coney Island regulars, including ATZ, is the comedic trick cyclist Justin Case. Billed as an “Eccentric Personality Extraordinaire,” the Australian plays a flustered Frenchman who brilliantly pedals his way through the show and into our hearts.

Justin Case Riding Tiny Bike. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros.

Justin Case Riding Tiny Bike. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros.

Amazing fact #1: Since the circus opened on June 18, Justin has clocked nearly 4 miles riding a tiny bicycle round the ring and through a flaming hoop of fire! The virtuoso cyclist shared this amazing stat (by way of comparison, the entire length of the Boardwalk is 2.7 miles) in a recent Q & A with ATZ. The full interview including amazing facts #2 and 3 after the jump.

If you haven’t seen the Coney Island Boom A Ring aka Ringling’s Gold Unit yet, what are you waiting for? There’s lots of entertainment at this one ring circus for the price of a $10 ticket: aerialists, acrobats, Globe of Death motorcyclists, trained tigers, elephants, dachshunds and more. Circus bloggers are calling it “pure gold” and “a fine-tuned circus machine, endowed with a host of top-drawer talents full of inventive sparkle.” The Boom A Ring’s blue- and-yellow striped tent is pitched at 21st Street and the Boardwalk in Coney Island through September 7.

Tricks of an Eccentric Cyclist’s Trade

Q: What was the inspiration for the tiny bicycle that you ride in your act?

A: At the time I started doing the little bike there was a trend towards 14′ – 15′ unicycles – they were just getting taller and taller – if one guy had a 6′, the next guy had an 8′ and so on. I went against the trend! Also the little bike through the hoop of fire is an homage to all the circus animals who have jumped through hoops of fire in the last century!

In his Ringling Circus Debut, Justin Case Rides a Tiny Bike through a Ring of Fire. Opening Night Performance of Coney Island Boom A Ring Circus. Photo © Pablo57 via flickr

In his Ringling Circus Debut, Justin Case Rides a Tiny Bike through a Ring of Fire. Opening Night Performance of Coney Island Boom A Ring Circus. Photo © Pablo57 via flickr

photo via pablo57, flickr

Q: My friend Deb Stern who went to the circus with me along with her son kind of summed it up when she wrote: “Shane just can’t get over the “tiny” bike and wanted to know what the trick was because he just couldn’t/can’t believe that it was what he was seeing. It really is amazing. I don’t think my body was ever small enough to be able to ride something that small. The man must get leg cramps. I wonder what ever got him started with bikes? I have not come up with any good questions…..they all seem soooo simple……I’m just in awe of the guy..”

Is the small bicycle you ride through the ring of fire the smallest bicycle in existence? What are its dimensions? Does the bicycle hold a Guinness World Record for smallest bicycle?

A: I must say I am very humbled by the fantastic reception I receive from my audiences. I really haven’t investigated the Guinness book of records – but I’m told the one in the Guinness book of records is smaller than mine but uses a long pole with a seat that means the rider is able to sit down – it’s really just the pads of my big toes that sit on the pedals – most of the weight is supported on my arms like a crouching handstand. There’s no trick – just sore knees! I always tell kids go and do gymnastics you learn so much about your body and how to orientate your self in space. I’ve measured the bike against Barbies’ bike in a toy store and I know it’s smaller than Barbie’s!

Justin Case Bicycles through a Ring of Fire in Ringling Bros. Coney Island Boom A Ring Circus. Photo by rbbbconeyisland via flickr

Justin Performs the Most Difficult Stunt. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros.

Q: How long did you have to train to ride the tiny bicycle? Did you start with tiny bicycles that were larger in size and work your way down?

A: The fabrication proved harder than the riding it – I made it with the help of a friend. As far as riding it goes, it was just the ‘try, try again’ principal, but it is funny when it goes wrong because you have no time to get your hands down so you just head butt the floor, which proved to be a great motivating factor. I calculated recently that I’ve ridden it just under 4 miles since we opened the show here on Coney Island!

Q: What is the most difficult stunt in your act and why? People are split as to whether it’s the tiny bicycle or the unicycle hop over the volunteer from the audience. I’d go with the tiny…

A: Actually it’s neither! Although both are difficult – obviously with a volunteer lying on the ground there’s a huge responsibility to keep him safe, especially if he’s a nervous type and keeps moving as they sometimes are – the tiny bike is rough on the knees – but as far as technical difficulty goes, it’s when the front wheel comes off the bike, I ride around and pick it up, then put it back on the front forks and secure it again – it took me a year -practicing three hours a day – before I did it the first time. Then I broke one of my ankle bones in three places doing another tick and had to relearn the wheel trick again three months later when my ankle had healed. On occasion I will get to the very last step only to have to go back and do the whole thing gain. Bumps in the floor, sloping surfaces etc all make it a very tough trick to complete – and like I say – I’m the first person to do that trick – It is surprising how hard it is to be original. Still it is more how you do it than what you do.

Q: What about that unicycle hop over the volunteer from the audience? At the dress rehearsal the volunteer was Nathan Bliss of the Coney Island Development Corp. Nate gave me an entertaining description of the stunt from his perspective: “I’ve always wanted to run away and join the circus, so I was thrilled to be pulled out of the crowd and asked to perform some modest-but-challenging acrobatic moves. The highlight of the experience, of course, was surviving Justin’s unicycle hop–during which he came excruciatingly close to depriving the Bliss family of future lineage! All told, it was a thrill to be a part of the very first ever Ringling show in Coney Island, and even more of a thrill to share the experience with so many folks from the community who received free tickets to attend the Circus that night. On our way out of the tent, I was stopped by many children in the audience who recognized me and wanted my autograph!”

What’s the hop like from your perspective?

Justin Case Performing Unicycle Hop with Volunteer Nathan Bliss. Photo © Maya Haddad via flickr

Justin Case Performing Unicycle Hop with Volunteer Nathan Bliss. Photo © Maya Haddad via flickr

A: The trick can be stressful – as I said before – you don’t want to hurt someone – but it can also be a lot of fun with the right volunteer. The audience love it when I ride up between the guy’s legs, and once I start to jump over his arms and legs the guy usually relaxes a bit. I try to make the guy look good – doing the hand balance etc. so that he gets some applause from the crowd early on which helps him relax. I like to give them the Polaroid at the end as a thank you – after all – they’ve been a big part of my act.

Q: Oh, and Nate’s question is “How’d I do?”

A: You were good – relaxed, so the audience were relaxed too- smiling and a good sport. Most importantly you didn’t flinch – makes my job so much harder when people do!

Success! Ringling Performer Justin Case and Volunteer Nate Bliss. Photo © Maya Haddad via flickr

Success! Ringling Performer Justin Case and Volunteer Nate Bliss. Photo © Maya Haddad via flickr

From Boyhood in Australia to Circus School in France…

Q: I read in your bio that you were only 4 when you taught yourself to ride a bicycle. What are your memories of riding a bike as a young child?

A: The sense of freedom the bicycle gave me was something I loved – the freedom and independence to explore and leave my neighborhood.

Q: What is your earliest memory of why you wanted to join the circus?

A: I didn’t go to the circus as a child and wasn’t exposed to it until I was about 20 while traveling in Europe – but throughout my early life I’d always had an affinity for sport, the visual arts and the theatrical arts – when I saw circus it seemed to encompass all of those creative and physical elements – it was a place with no limits and no boundaries.

Q: I see a number of illustrious European circus schools on your bio–Annie Fratellini‘s school in Paris, Ecole Sans Filet in Brussels, and the French National School of Circus in Chalons-en-Champagne. How difficult was it to get into these schools?

A: It was hard – it involved auditioning – lengthy processes – and having a very clear vision of what one hoped to achieve in the world of circus – at the time I tried to attend the European schools there was no internet and no way of finding out about them other than getting on a plane and going from Australia to Europe and knocking on their doors – which is quite literally what I did!

Ringling Circus star Justin Case was born in Australia, studied at circus schools in France and has performed all over the world.  Photo © Pablo57 via flickr

Ringling Circus star Justin Case was born in Australia, studied at circus schools in France and has performed all over the world. Photo © Pablo57 via flickr

photo via pablo57, flickr

Q: Can you tell us a funny or illuminating anecdote about your days at circus school?

A: When I arrived at the French National School of Circus in Chalons I spoke no French – I would just turn up for classes and follow everyone else – at one point I turned up for dance class and for three straight weeks I was the only student – no one else showed, including the teacher – turned out he’d explained to the class that he would be absent for a while as he was going away to perform elsewhere. Of course I hadn’t understood that – also, Chalons is in the middle of the champagne producing region in France. The students would often perform for the various vineyards and as well as being paid we would we would also often receive complimentary bottles of champagne. By the end of the year we had a whole wall full of cases of champagne that no one could face drinking – we were so sick of the taste of it!

Q: And how old were you when you first started busking?

A:I first started busking when I was 23 in 1988 – also working with a community based circus with kids in youth detention centers.

Q: Your bio says: “Justin looked into the comic stylings of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati for inspiration.”
What are your favorite stunts or slapstick bits in Keaton or Chaplin films?

A: My favourite thing about these artists is they always double cross you – you expect one thing and something else will happen. All three are dealing with the human condition in such an innocent and positive manner. I think that as we all face the the joke of life, it is comforting to see characters do it with good humor, in the knowledge that there but for the grace of God go I.

Justin Case riding handlebars. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros.

Justin Case riding handlebars. Photo courtesy of Ringling Bros.

Coney Island and Beyond

Q: Do you practice everyday?
I practice a lot when I’m not working – several times a week – but when we’re in a long run such as this it’s more about maintaining fitness and rest

Q: What is your workout routine?

A: Fairly simple – chin ups, sit ups, general stretching

Q: What do you do on your days off?

A: Play as much golf as possible!!!! ( Handicap of 10)

Q: Do you go bike riding in NYC or on the Boardwalk? (or do you just ride in the circus)

A: I do ride in NYC but I like to use my motorbike – I’ve loved exploring Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan on my motorcycle a Suzuki V strom 1000.

Q: What are your impressions of Coney Island? What are some of the amusements, attractions, or restaurants etc that you and your wife have enjoyed?

A: We’ve very much enjoyed Footprints, Gargiulo’s, Tatiana’s and Umi Sushi who deliver all the time to the circus lot! My favourite dish is the New Zealand lamb at Gargiulo’s. My wife and I have enjoyed walking along the boardwalk a lot – especially after shows in the evening when it’s cooler – so many different nationalities, families, couples etc all just enjoying the ocean – it’s very relaxing – we’ve also enjoyed exploring and shopping at Brighton Beach.

Q: Have you had a chance to ride the Wonder Wheel? Swinging or Stationary Seat? The Cyclone? How was it? Time Magazine quoted Charles Lindbergh as saying that a ride on the Cyclone was more thrilling than his historic first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

A: Not ridden them yet but they are on our list of must-dos before we leave!

Q: How often do you get back “home” to Melbourne, Australia?

A: Haven’t really been home in the last three years and won’t get back until February of next year – unfortunately our house was destroyed in the Melbourne bush fires this February so there isn’t really any longer a home to go back to. My parents’ home was also destroyed and we’ve been dealing with all of that since.

Q: Did you ever visit and can you tell us something about Luna Park in Sydney or Melbourne? Many parks around the world were inspired by Coney Island’s legendary Luna Park (1903-1946), but the Australian parks are among the few still in existence, so we’re very curious to know more about them.

A: This is a huge coincidence but my very first paid gig ever was at Luna Park in Melbourne! I also used to busk outside there all the time – there was a move a few years ago to bulldoze the area but people are rightly very attached to Luna Park and it was saved, and I think recently reopened.

Justin doing handstand with volunteer from audience. Photo courtesy of Ringing Bros.

Justin doing handstand with volunteer from audience. Photo courtesy of Ringing Bros.

Q: I read on Buckles circus blog that the Boom-A-Ring circus is scheduled to go to Italy after its Coney Island run. Will you be traveling there too? This brings me to the next question–how many languages do you speak? In Italy, will you emcee the show in Italian? French?

A: Yes we go to Italy, Spain and Germany. I’ll probably keep the French but include some Spanish or Italian phrases where I can – I speak French and some Spanish, and if we’ve been doing shows in Japan I’ll do it in Japanese , but not the whole act translated – just pertinent points. When we were working in Beirut I got to do some Arabic cursing which was fun. And incidentally, it’s been surprising how many people here in the Coney Island audiences do speak French.

Q: Thank you! I look forward to seeing the show again before the summer is over. Please come back to Coney Island next year!

A: Thank you so much Tricia – I enjoyed answering your questions and I hope that the circus being here has made some small difference in bringing people back to Coney Island.

Thanks to Maya Haddad of the Coney Island Beach Shop and Pablo57, Coney Island resident and photographer, for permission to use their wonderful photos and for contributing questions.

Through Sept. 7: Ringling Bros.Coney Island Boom A Ring Circus. Photo by rbbbconeyisland via flickr

Through Sept. 7: Ringling Bros.Coney Island Boom A Ring Circus. Photo by rbbbconeyisland via flickr

Related posts on ATZ...

August 31, 2010: Snapshots of the Coney Island Illuscination

December 23, 2009: Coney Island School Bus Lot Has Gotta Go! The Circus Is Coming

September 3, 2009: Coney Island Baby: Cyclone, the Mini Donkey at the Ringling Circus

June 15, 2009: Coney Island-O-Rama: Weekly Events June 15-21


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Zoltar Speaks, First Prize for Motorized Float in the 2009 Mermaid Parade. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Zoltar Speaks, First Prize for Motorized Float in the 2009 Mermaid Parade. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

From the reviewing stand at the Mermaid Parade, I snapped this photo of an amazing one-man float inspired by the fortune telling machine in the movie Big. After reading the post-parade discussion on the Coney Island message board, I realized that “Zoltar Speaks” was the same guy who created the popular “Pirate on the Segway” for the 2008 parade.

Last June, Jonathan Gleich won third place for motorized float (with no bribe because “I was new and didn’t know the rules LOL,” he says). He got hooked. A few weeks after last year’s parade, Jonathan started working on a Segway powered float for the 2009 event. Advance planning, hard work and an exquisite bribe–two bottles of Crystal Head vodka packed in shredded cash– paid off. Zoltar won first place in the Mermaid Parade’s motorized float category. Congrats to Jonathan and his alter egos for winning two years in a row!

After discovering Jonathan’s fabulous Zoltar Speaks website and flickr set documenting the project, which included an elaborate “dress rehearsal” in Coney Island a few weeks before the parade, we asked Jonathan/Zoltar to do a Q & A. How could we resist? The website drew us in: “Welcome Traveler, Zoltar Knows Why You Are Here. You Seek More Information…”

Zoltar says:  This is my publicity picture. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Zoltar says: "This is my 'publicity' picture. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Q: How did you get the idea to do a Zoltar float for the Mermaid Parade?

A: I am a Segway enthusiast and use my Segway to commute to my office in midtown Manhattan most nice days and have made friends with other Segway people across the country. One of those people is Chris Johnson in Ashland, Oregon. He is the one who came up with the idea of putting a Zoltar on a Segway (I have a picture of him on my website in the thank you section). He knew about my pirate Segway and was teasing me how I would top it, and I said “Hey I’m gonna steal YOUR idea. A fortune teller is PERFECT for Coney island” and as they say, That’s how it Started!

Zoltar in front of Stillwell Station on Mermaid Parade Day in Coney Island. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Zoltar in front of Stillwell Station on Mermaid Parade Day in Coney Island. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Q: How long have you been working on it? I seem to remember you saying (on the CIUSA board) that you started as soon as the 2008 parade was over!

A: They say idle hands are the devil’s work, so I must be an angel! I started on Zoltar just about a month after the Mermaid Parade. I had such a great time at the parade, and had such good response to my Pirate costume, that I was really enthused.

Here is a ‘log’ of progress. Chris recommended I track both the cost and the time…

7/20/08 – Ordered base Plates
7/23/08 – Plates done – First Rev added Posts
7/23/08 – Started tracking expenses
1/17/09 – Wiring done – disassembled waiting on material
1/25/09 – Front of Zoltar completed
2/8/09 – Zoltar work continues
3/15/09 – 98% complete last 12 things left to do
4/12/09 – First outside test with Phil, windy, minor problems
5/2/09 – Fixed most of the problems found on the outside test
5/15/09 – Completed all exterior work on Zoltar (moldings / etc)
6/1/09 – down to the last 6 items, test 2 today.
6/7/09 – Boardwalk test – dress rehearsal

And before you ask… I spent $4000 total on Zoltar (from soup to nuts)

Zoltar: This is a Before and After shot, of the pieces that make up Zoltar.  Photo ©  Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

"Zoltar: This is a Before and After Shot of the Pieces that Make Up Zoltar." Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Q: What is the history of the Zoltar machine? Where was it located in Coney Island?

Zoltar is a Fortune telling machine from the movie “BIG” – it actually is based on a ‘Zoltan’ machine, a 1940’s mechanical fortune telling machine. A company in Nevada produces a Zoltar machine now and they’re all over the country. I grew up in Brighton Beach and spent many many, many days in Coney Island at Faber’s and at the Skee Ball place on Mermaid Ave (long gone) right next to the carousal (long gone). Coney Island has always been arcade and carnivals and scary rides (and sometimes scary people).

An original Zoltar machine. Photo by jonathan_gleich @ flickr

An original Zoltar machine. Photo by jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Q: What is your background? Are you an artist or woodworker? It looks like an incredible piece of craftsmanship.

A: THANK YOU! – I am a computer geek by trade (I am the IT director for a children’s clothing manufacturer). But the fact is i have little experience or knowledge in making and designing and woodworking. Electronics and tech is my real talent. BUT I love a challenge and that’s what Zoltar was to me. Give me 1000 problems, and let me solve them! – That is why it took so long and so much money. Chris built his in 2 days with the help of a Hollywood prop guy. He sent me pictures and dimensions of his Zoltar and that gave me the foundation to work from.

Zoltars Trial Run on the Boardwalk a few weeks before the Mermaid Parade. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Zoltar's Trial Run on the Boardwalk a few weeks before the Mermaid Parade. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Q: I notice in the photos that you did a trial run in Coney on June 7th. How did it go?

A: The dress rehearsal went great, but nothing like taking your show before a live audience. I discovered problems–say design flaws— that I never even thought about. It also was a great opportunity to see what I look like. You always have a image in your mind. But the camera sees a whole different image!

Q: Did you tell fortunes? Any anecdotes from that day?

A: I consider myself to be a funny person with a quick wit, and looked forward to the challenge of being asked to tell a fortune, or to flirt using Zoltar as my ploy – my best retort was a kid ran up to me and yelled “I WANNA BE BIG” – I replied (in my Zoltar booming voice) YOUR WISH IS GRANTED. His mother looked at me, and I said in a slightly lower voice “BUT IT WILL TAKE 15 YEARS FOR YOUR WISH TO BE GRANTED.” Everyone laughed.

Zoltar at Nathans on Mermaid Parade Day. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Zoltar at Nathan's on Mermaid Parade Day. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

The weirdest reaction was that people wanted their fortunes told, seriously wanted them. I said “I’m not friggin miss cleo” that really shocked me, that some people took my get up seriously!

The other thing was the nastiness of some people, a woman tried to knock me over. She thought I was standing and pushing it on a dolly and it would be a laugh. The Segway compensated for the sudden lurch, but I and others could have been been hurt badly and that never came into her consideration. I added a “spotter” with me for the parade.

Q; What are your plans for Zoltar now that the parade is over?

A: I try and use the costumes for two parades— The Mermaid Parade and the Village Halloween Parade. Zoltar has lights and electronics that weren’t even seen during the day, so the Zoltar at night is a whole different experience.

Zoltar at Night on Coney Islands Boardwalk. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Zoltar at Night on Coney Island's Boardwalk. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Q: Where do you store it?

A: I live in a house and have a basement full of old projects. But I think that Zoltar will end up in my living room with a mannequin wearing my costume and being my own personal fortune teller

Q: Are you available for appearances?

A; I have been already approached by a professional photographer to do a studio session with Zoltar. A zoo in Staten Island has a haunted week during Halloween and asked me to be there. So what’s next for Zoltar? Who knows? Maybe Jimmy Kimmel? Maybe America’s Most Wanted!

Zoltar on Mermaid Parade Day in Coney Island. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Zoltar on Mermaid Parade Day in Coney Island. Photo © Phil Yee via jonathan_gleich @ flickr

Visit the “Zoltar Speaks” website to view videos of Zoltar at the Mermaid Parade and info on hiring him for special events


Related posts on ATZ…

June 16, 2011: Last Chance to See Mermaid Parade Before It Turns 30!

January 2, 2010: Photo Album: Coney Island Boardwalk, New Year’s Day 2010

June 22, 2009: A Judge’s Photo Album of the 2009 Coney Island Mermaid Parade

June 19, 2009: Q & A with Coney Island Mermaid Parade Three-Time “Best Mermaid” Kate Dale

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