Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

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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