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John Strong Worlds Finest Shows Banner © John Strong

The on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again saga of John Strong’s Freak Show returning to Coney Island for a second season is on again! Or so we’re told…

After losing his bid to rent Thor Equities’ Grashorn Building and Stillwell lots, Strong says he’s now made a deal to set up on the north side of Surf Avenue across from the Cyclone. The lot, which is not owned by Thor, is next to the West 8th Street subway exit and was cleared at the beginning of the 2010 season for parking cars. Having met John last summer and covered this story since January, we can’t say we’re surprised by his unstoppable efforts to make a Coney Island comeback. It’s telling that the logo of his show is Atlas carrying the globe on his shoulders. It’s quite a burden since Strong will have to travel all the way from Bossier City, Louisiana, where he is playing the fair at Harrah’s Lousiana Downs.

If the deal is indeed a go, the surprising thing is that Strong’s show would be the first amusement business on the north side of Surf since the B & B Carousell closed in 2004. The north side has long been considered the wrong side of Surf to make money since it gets very little foot traffic. People who’ve come for carnival fun aren’t about to cross the street for furniture stores galore. But John Strong intends to prove them wrong. Here is an excerpt from an email that he sent us yesterday…

It is with pride and pleasure to announce that the John Strong World’s Finest Shows will return to Coney Island and open across the street from the Cyclone on May 28th. Todd Robbins will warm them up and I’m going to take their money home. We have a giant 200 x 100 lot across Surf from the Cyclone. The bannerline will be the largest and the most beautiful in the world stretching from the Cyclone to Little Russia… 200 feet. I don’t give up too easily. I’m one of the very few in all of showbiz that has enough experience, flash and knowhow to get the people to cross in the crosswalk at the corner of Surf and 10th to our ticket box a mere 25 ft away on a lot that nobody else could utilize except me.

We may put a bellydancing snake charmer on the bally. We may put a live two headed cow on the bally or the six legged cow on display for free photos. We may have six live human oddities on display. We may have the Chupacabra breaking out of a crate….

Since I’m at a casino, I will be taking bets on how many people we can get to cross the street this summer. My show will turn heads and turn the tip into the greatest freakshow on earth.

Sincerely,
John Strong World’s Finest Shows
World’s Greatest Sideshow Showman
Savior of Coney Island
Director of the Coney Island Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center
Proud Producer of the Greatest Sideshows on Earth

todd robbins

Todd Robbins Banner by Johnny Meah via http://www.toddrobbins.com

If Strong’s sideshow returns, Coney Island will boast a trio of sideshow operators come summer. Coney Island USA’s world-famous circus sideshow starring Donny Vomit, Heather Holliday, and Serpentina will be operating 7 days a week with the addition of a new girlie freak show. Tickets cost $7.50 for adults, $5.00 for kids, and are well worth the price. New kid on the block Luna Park will feature two free sideshow performances on Friday and Saturday nights starring sideshow luminaries like Erik “The Lizardman” Sprague and Natasha Veruschka, the world’s only sword swallowing belly-dancer. The Lizardman, who performed at CIUSA as a guest artist last August told ATZ, “I’m just happy that reports of Coney Island’s death continue to be greatly exaggerated and I am looking forward to working there again this summer, both at Luna and Sideshows by the Seashore.”

The Luna Park shows are produced by Todd “Coney Island Wonder Worker” Robbins, former president of the board of CIUSA and current “Post-Modern Master of the Sideshow.” When Strong writes, “Todd Robbins will warm them up and I’ll take their money home,” he is referring to Robbins’s show in Luna Park. But we think a free sideshow is more likely to cut into the receipts of ticketed attractions than send them customers. Mom to kids: “But honey, we already saw the sword swallower!”

When Strong came to Coney last year, the media played up the Battle of the Sideshows angle, just as they did years ago when Strong’s stepfather Bobby Reynolds had his show in the bank building on 12th Street and the tabloids wrote about “dueling sideshows.”

The more the merrier school of thought is that a concentration of sideshow talent is good publicity for Coney Island. The new Luna Park is expected to draw bigger crowds to the amusement area, too. It will be fascinating to see how this friendly rivalry plays out on the bally platforms and at the cash registers this summer.

New sideshow banners by Marie Roberts on Coney Island USA’s Building advertise this summer’s special guest freaks. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i

Sideshow banners by Marie Roberts on Coney Island USA’s Building advertise last summer’s special guest freaks. June 9, 2009. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i

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When the Coney Island Girlie Freak Show premiered last month at BB King’s, Dick Zigun announced that in Summer 2010, Coney Island’s Sideshows By the Seashore would run seven days a week instead of five. The schedule will be expanded in anticipation of a busier than ever season in Coney Island after Memorial Day’s grand opening of the new Luna Park.

Heather Holliday spits a bit of Fire on stage at Coney Island USA. © 2009 Norman Blake. All rights reserved. NB Photo Flash via flickr

Heather Holliday spits a bit of Fire on stage at Coney Island USA. © 2009 Norman Blake. All rights reserved. NB Photo Flash via flickr

From June 12 through Labor Day, there will be two completely different sideshows at CIUSA. “The rough schedule is up on our calendar of events,” says Zigun. “During that time period the CONEY ISLAND CIRCUS SIDESHOW will feature Donny Vomit and Heather Holliday and the CONEY ISLAND GIRLIE FREAKSHOW will feature Angelica and Serpentina.”

That means two different female fire-eaters will be in residence at Coney Island USA. It’s a double wow! Heather Holliday, who is known as the world’s cutest sword swallower and the Princess of Peril, added a stunning fire act to her repertoire last season.

We welcome back Anjelica, who took a break from the ten-in-one last summer. Her fire act is hypnotic, sensuous and lovely all at once. Not to be missed! These amazing shots by Coney Island photographer Norman Blake capture the wonder of the “blow out,” the most dangerous and difficult feat of the fire breather’s art.

Anjelica performing during the opening night party at the 2007 Coney Island Film Festival. © 2007 Norman Blake. All rights reserved. NB Photo Flash via flickr

Anjelica performing during the opening night party at the 2007 Coney Island Film Festival. © 2007 Norman Blake. All rights reserved. NB Photo Flash via flickr

The Coney Island Girlie Freak show at BB King’s featured Angelica, Serpentina, Kryssy Kocktail, Pain Proof Rubber Girls and guest artist Bearded Lady Jennifer Miller.

The Coney Island Sideshow opens for the season on Saturday, April 3rd, 1-8 pm. The sideshow cast will also perform at CIUSA’s 30th Anniversary Gala on March 25th in Manhattan. Advance tickets are available online.

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February 12, 2010: Presidents Day Weekend at Coney Island USA’s Hall of the Presidents

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January 25, 2010: March 14-17: Coney Island Sideshow Banner Painting School with Marie Roberts

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Thor Equities Shuttered Grashorn Bldg, Surf Ave & Jones Walk, Coney Island, August 15, 2009. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

Thor Equities Shuttered Grashorn Bldg, Surf Ave & Jones Walk, Coney Island, August 15, 2009. Photo © Tricia Vita/me-myself-i via flickr

ATZ has learned that sideshow operator John Strong has made a deal with Thor Equities to return to Coney Island for the 2010 season. In lieu of last year’s location in the former Astroland arcade, which was sold to the City, Strong’s freak museum will occupy Thor Equities’ owned 1104 Surf Ave at Jones Walk. Known as the Grashorn Building after Henry Grashorn’s Hardware store, which was in business in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the building is Coney Island’s oldest. The Texas-based showman flew into New York last week for a meeting with Thor Equities.

The building fronts Surf Avenue and extends along the west side of Jones Walk. Yet this prime location remained vacant and devoid of activity in 2009 (see photo above) due to Thor CEO Joe Sitt’s soaring rents. Last summer, a business owner who had leased a small stand on the Walk from Thor in 2008 told us the 2009 rent had tripled from $8,000 to $24,000. He declined the space and left Coney Island.

John Strong was mum on the cost of his lease for the Grashorn but is said to be happy with the deal. His museum of live and preserved freaks and oddities will occupy a prime location between Zamperla’s new Luna Park on the former Astroland site and Coney Island USA’s Sideshow and Museum at Surf Ave and 12th Street. The extra added attraction for Strong and company is the apartment on the upper floors.

Grashorn Building, April 19, 2003.  Municipal Art Society via flickr

Grashorn Building, April 19, 2003. Municipal Art Society via flickr

As ATZ reported in “John Strong Sideshow Aims for Coney Island Comeback” (Jan 13, 2010), Strong also proposes putting his ten-in-one sideshow as well as a circus on Thor’s Stillwell property. But several carnivals and amusement operators, including the also rans for the City’s RFP, are vying to lease what remains of Thor’s lots on Stillwell. A decision is expected by mid-February.

In Coney Island: Lost and Found, historian Charles Denson writes that the building at 1104 Surf dates back to the 1880’s and the Grashorn hardware store served Coney Island’s amusement businesses for more than 60 years: “The clapboard façade, dormers, cast iron resting, chimneys and fish-scale shingles were removed when the building was renovated in the 1980s but the mansard roof retains its shape.”

Grashorn Building in 1969. Photo © Charles Denson via Coney Island History Project

Grashorn Building in 1969. Photo © Charles Denson via Coney Island History Project

The Grashorn is one of six historic structures proposed for city landmark designation by Coney Island USA, the Municipal Art Society and Save Coney Island. In 2004, Coney Island USA received a grant from the JM Kaplan Fund to hire an architectural historian and research old buildings in Coney Island. The City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission has delayed calendaring the buildings during the rezoning process.

MAS’s Melissa Baldock makes a plea for the Grashorn Building’s landmark designation: “The building could be restored to be a wonderful showpiece of Coney Island’s historic vernacular architecture. It is remarkable that this building, which predates Coney Island’s first enclosed amusement parks and was built around the same time as Coney Island (and America’s) first roller coaster, survives in 2009. However, without landmark status, there is no guarantee that this piece of Coney Island history will be part of its future.”

UPDATE April 29, 2010:

John Strong’s deal to rent the Grashorn is off! We’re sorry that rumors of Joe Sitt’s plans to demolish historic buildings which we reported in last week’s post “Thor’s Coney Island: Tattered Tents, Deathwatch for Historic Buildings” (ATZ, April 21, 2010) have turned out to be true. This is one time we would have preferred for the rumors to have remained just rumors.

Today, in response to a flurry of queries from reporters about Sitt’s still unleased empty lots and vacant properties, Thor Equities pr flack Knickerbocker SKD issued a press release announcing Sitt’s intention to begin demolishing the buildings and to replace them with other structures by May 2011. According to the release, “These structures will be replaced with more attractive, retail-friendly and up-to-code shops for the type of retailers Coney is famous for.” See “Thor’s Coney Island: Joey “Bulldozer” Sitt Is Baaack Playing Games!” (ATZ. April 29, 2010)

Translation: More Bull-Sitt from Thor Equities. More deliberately created empty lots.

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Related posts on ATZ…

March 9, 2009: Thor’s Coney Island: Wanna Lease Stillwell? That’ll Be $500K Up Front!

April 29, 2010: Thor’s Coney Island: Joey “Bulldozer” Sitt Is Baaack Playing Games!

April 21, 2010: Thor’s Coney Island: Tattered Tents, Deathwatch for Historic Buildings

January 13, 2010: John Strong Sideshow Aims for Coney Island Comeback”>John Strong Sideshow Aims for Coney Island Comeback

January 8, 2010: Coney Island 2010: Good Riddance to Thor Equities Flopped Flea Market, Hello Rides?

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