Ever wonder what Coney Island was like decades ago in the ‘70s and ‘80s, years before you went there on a picturesque August afternoon to enjoy a few rides, a Nathan’s hot dog or even a splash in the ocean? Well, it was a very different kind of place.
Last Thursday, City Lore Gallery hosted Alive on the Inside, a performance from artist Richard Eagan, who is known to many as the co-host of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. The event was part of their current American Bizarro exhibition, “Boardwalk Renaissance: How the Arts Saved Coney Island.” Artist Philomena Marano started off the night by giving a warm introduction to her long-time friend and collaborator. Together they founded the Coney Island Hysterical Society in 1981.
Their Hysterical Society was a group of daring artists who sought to revitalize the Coney Island community, which had been in rapid decline throughout the 1970s. There was gang warfare and numerous fires in the area that destroyed lots of property and left the local economy in shambles. The famous rides and attractions were shutting down at alarming rates.
How did these artists help turn around their beloved destination even if they could not reinvest in the real estate themselves? They drew crowds of visitors to the Boardwalk with their performance art.
During his poetic, and epic, spoken-word performance, Richard Eagan described his adventures interacting with the diverse characters that worked the boardwalks of Coney Island in the ‘80s. Eagan has since gone on to become a prolific painter, sculptor and karaoke cross-dresser (a.k.a. Kay Sera) — not to mention he has his own honeybee farm in Upstate New York.
With bravado, Eagan entered the room, turned on recorded sound bites from Coney back-in-the-day and began to tell the story of his days as one of the Bosses of the Boardwalk. Each time he impersonated one of the working characters he met on the job, the audience exploded in laughter.
Ronnie, Leo, the Colonel, and Paul-y D, were just some of the people he characterized with such great intuition that he actually made me believe he was someone else. “You know some’n, if you can make it in Coney Island, you can make it anywhere,” and “a quarter to play a quarter to win. One quarter it takes to take that bear away,” were among some memorable exchanges that Eagan shared.
At the time Eagan was a married man with two kids. One day his family visited him at the Boardwalk and his son asked, “Daddy, mommy wants to know if you’re really gonna do this all summer?” As the room erupted again, Eagan went on to describe a few shady situations. In one instance, Ronnie asked him to get in his Cadillac with the engine running and talk about business. “Eagan, we need a guy like you here to run this place. You got talent kid, and if you keep working hard you’re gonna be a made man…and by the way, you owe me four-grand, so uh, you know, do what you gotta do to make a buck, but hey, you’s a smart guy so don’t worry about it.”
As it became clear that Eagan was working with guys who had to fight through life, a chord was struck. Eagan remembered growing up during the good ol’ days at Coney — going to the Steeplechase, which was later demolished by Fred Trump in 1964 (yes, Donald Trump’s father) — and a grim reality set it in. Would Coney Island ever be the same?
Facing the life and death of Coney Island, Eagan continued to entertain and create art, and through the oddity of those years touched something very real. He helped rebuild the soul of a place with historical roots, its own set of rules and most of all a proud community.
Even if from the outside the 80s were bleak times for Coney, they were filled with inspiration for Eagn and Philomena Marano. Along with Dick Zigun, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Coney Island,” they organized the inaugural Coney Island Mermaid Parade in 1983.
Many other artists, including Robert Indiana (of the LOVE sculpture), Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots, Hairspray) Charles Ludlam (Theater of the Ridiculous) Peter Schumann (Bread and Puppet Theater) and photographers Elaine Norman, Charles Denson and Hazel Hankin, joined in revitalizing and documenting the area.
So did these artists succeed? The show at City Lore proves these artists from the Hysterical Society have left us with a time capsule of Coney Island unlike any other.
As Eagan said, “At Coney Island the things that are long gone are more real than the things we still see.”
“Boardwalk Renaissance: How the Arts Saved Coney Island” runs through March 13th. City Lore Gallery (56 E 1st Street) is open from 2 – 6pm Wednesday through Friday and 12 – 6pm on weekends.
Max Rovo is a freelance copywriter and journalist based in New York. You’re way more likely to find him at a concert near you than a yoga session.