The Real Freaks of Coney Island
People move to New York for a lot of reasons. Work, curiosity, boredom, a burning desire to be the best damn subway mime in the fucking country… all sorts of things call out to people. For me, one of the things that drew me here was that I generally feel like one of the stranger people in any community I’m a part of. In smaller towns, people in workplace environments tend to look at me and go “what is this guy’s deal?” I’m fairly certain I’ve been fired a few times basically for being weird. There are more people in New York, so the ceiling for weird is higher. You live here for long enough, and it becomes commonplace to be around drag kings, accordion players, acid freaks, idiots, geniuses, whatever. You’re basically in the cantina from Star Wars and you’re one of the aliens.
Before I moved here I lived in Austin, a town with the same identity flaw as so many of us: it talks a big game about how bananas and interesting it is, but once you get to know it, Austin just wants to stay in and watch Law & Order on Netflix. I moved there without knowing a single person in the city. One night I was walking around the east side of town looking furiously for not a damn thing, kicking rocks around, wondering if I’d made a huge mistake when I came upon this lit up trailer in the dark. The sign read 999 Eyes. I think the sideshow had just ended and they were packing up to leave. I felt like I was walking around at the bottom of the ocean, standing outside a little bubble of glowing light, peering in from the dark wilderness. I remember thinking that I should maybe talk to these people, that maybe we could be friends. I shook myself out of it and kept walking. Then I probably shotgunned a Four Loko and went hiking or something. It was Austin, and those were pretty much the two main things to do there.
Ten years later, I live in Brooklyn and get to go to Coney Island every once in awhile. It’s a corny tourist trap for the most part. You go and eat hot dogs and dress up like an idiot and get drunk, maybe play that messed up carnival game where you shoot the water gun in the clown’s mouth. If you can pull yourself away from margaritas and carnival crap for a hot minute, though, the actual sideshow scene is rich with history. There is a museum and everything. I always felt like there was something to be learned from people that exploit their own misfitted-ness.
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I’m talking out of school, though. I don’t really know how to write about the American sideshow phenomenon or Coney Island. I don’t know whether I’m supposed to use the word freak or not or if I’m right about any of this exploitation stuff, so I interviewed a couple of freaks I met while doing stand up.
Erik Sprague aka The Lizardman is a performer I’ve done stand up alongside. You may recognize him in that he is green and you probably haven’t met a lot of green people. There’s a statue of him at a Ripley’s Believe it or Not and he opens for Slayer sometimes swallowing swords and things like that.
Jake Flores: What came first, the tattooing or the performing? And how did both of those things start and evolve?
Erik Sprague: Performing came before the tattooing. I started out fairly traditional but by the time I got to college my interests were much more focused on conceptual & performance art. I started researching and teaching myself sideshow stunts just out of personal interest but soon found I could use them in my performances. My tattoos and other modifications were first conceived of as part of a conceptual body based performance piece. I got lucky in that when I got to a point where I had a fair amount of visible modifications and a decent repertoire of stunts it was the nineties and sideshow was on the rise again in pop culture, basically right time, right place. I shifted from highly conceptual performance pieces to good ole fashioned sideshow and started to actually make money.
JF: When did you first perform at Coney Island? What are some experiences you’ve had there that are particularly memorable? How do you feel about the history of the place?
ES: I first performed in Coney Island at Sideshows by the Seashore in 2002. By then I had pretty much established myself and had appeared on Ripley’s Believe It or Not and a number of other TV programs. Back in 1997 I had considered going to Coney to try to audition and get into the sideshow but I was in no position to make a move to NYC and figured it was better to keep going with my own shows and see where I got. This was probably the right move but I still felt that Coney pull – it is the mecca of sideshow. So, in 2002 I contacted Dick Zigun and we worked out having me come in for a weekend of shows with their cast as a guest performer and me doing nightly one man shows as special events. I felt like it was something I had to do – Coney is sideshow history and if you want to be part of sideshow history you have to go there. I became fast friends with everyone there (and still am) and then it became even more important for me because it isn’t just history, it’s still alive and a wonderful thing to be part of. Over the years I’ve returned many times and will again I’m sure.
JF: What are you up to these days?
ES: For the past few years I’ve been mainly working sideshows overseas at festivals like the Adelaide Fringe and much of the way we operate there is based upon the formats and formulas that were perfected over decades in Coney Island. For me its a wonderful blend of the traditional and modern that I really enjoy.
I think I met Black Scorpion doing open mics? Or maybe at one of the 365 music festivals that exist in Austin. Maybe just partying. I can’t really remember but he’s weird as hell and I love him. Black has a condition known as ectrodactyly and can often be seen dressed like a maniac and eating glass.
JF: Tell me about Ectrodactyly. I know it has a history in freak shows. What was it like growing up with it and when did you decide to capitalize on it?
Black Scorpion: Ectrodactyly was passed along genetically from my mother’s side of my family tree. It’s basically the same twist in the DNA that causes cleft palates, but instead splitting my palate it split my hands and feet.
It’s also known as lobster claw syndrome. Some folks find that term to be offensive so to make them feel better about my existence I tell them they’re known as SUPER HAPPY FUN HANDS! That sort of sarcasm probably doesn’t translate over gmail.
As I’ve aged I have realized the difficulty growing up different. I’ve always felt the struggle but age has given perspective. As a child I had folks telling me how special I was, but they had difficulty discussing why I was special. No one around me knew the word Ectrodactyly much less that that’s was the cause of my claws and feet. The doctors I’ve had don’t even know how to spell it. E-C-T-R-O-D-A-C-T-Y-L-Y. I’ve had to become a cheerleader for my genetics. Then there were bullies more than happy to give their medical opinions on what they called my crippled or retarded hands, but not calling them that in a positive reaffirming way. Part of that perspective with age is now knowing what made it so difficult of growing up different was having no one like me to discuss it with and I didn’t realize any of this until I joined a traveling freak show (the 1st in the US in over 50 years, at the time) with a cast made up of folks like me, who were born different. Those days on the road were life changing, we were taking back the word freak from what we saw as having a modern negative connotation and making it a positive. For the 1st time in my life, I could look a fellow individual in the eyes and see that they understood the same pain of living differently.
JF: Do you think freak shows are exploitative or are they a way of taking the power back?
BS: I think every artist explores & exploits their talent. In freak shows, my hands and feet are just an excuse for me to be on stage and exploit what I had worked on for years with my writing. The modern freak show I was a part of was not a gawk and stare style affair. From what I’ve read they never really were, it’s just the way winners write the history and folks found freaks shows to be a disgusting form of entertainment once television infiltrated the home.
Yes, freak shows can totally be about taking the power back. Taking back the meaning of the word freak, disabilities, crippled, retarded all the things someone not of the perceived “norm” may be called. A freak is someone who comes out as one to share in that sense. Just because one is born different doesn’t necessarily mean they identify as a freak. Some folks just want to live a quiet life and work a normal job. For a freak show to be about taking the power back, it must be presented that way. I’m sure there is an Alt-Right sideshow wanting to put freaks down just waiting to hit the White House.
JF: Tell me about your persona.
BS: We’ll in the sideshow/freak show world I am known as the Black Scorpion. Because I didn’t want to be known as Lobster Boy. The lobster boy title carries a lot of negativity to it. It takes me back to my first time on the internet looking up Ectrodactyly. To web boards saying people like me shouldn’t be alive, much less reproduce. It conjures up a man being shot in the head while watching Wheel A Fortune.
My stage name for playing music is Banjo Slacks.
JF: When did you first perform at Coney Island? Do any you have any particularly meaningful stories about it? Are you a fan of it? Do you enjoy the history?
BS: I believe my first year at Coney was 2008 and my first full season was 2009. I am a fan of Coney. My time at Coney Island’s Sideshow by the Seashore has made me the artist I am. It is the only place in the world where I was hired to learn to do what I dreamt of doing. There I get to be a song and dance man. I started off honing my act. I had always worked on my comedy, but just writing my routine. I found the stand up scene in Austin hard to penetrate. I was an outsider amongst outsiders working on jokes about disabilities. A lot of good folks in the scene but I just would lose my nerve waiting in the Velveeta Room hoping to make the open mic. Eventually, I started playing my songs onstage connecting with folks from all over the world with my act.
Coney stories I have many. It is a place where you can see bums and Hollywood stars walk into a bar to see a half lady karate chop a board on the back of an Elephant Man while a dwarf drinks with the wolfman. I saw Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) get called up as a volunteer for the Electric Chair by an MC named Donny Vomit. Prostitutes getting finger banged by sailors in the top of the bleachers as Harvey Keitel took in the sideshow from the 1st row. Paying audience watching a man pick up a champagne bottle with his rectum as a nun pickpocketed a taser off of the NYPD, (she might not have been an official nun but she wore the habit.)
I do enjoy the history of Coney. It was where hotdogs and incubators were invented. Harpo Marx made his stage debut there, pissed his pants, and was terrified, but wanted to go right back up. Andy Kaufman would practice his craft there. Woody Guthrie lived there, and Bob Dylan searched for him there. And we are all free to keep searching for the high strangeness of Coney Island.