Meet the Freaks
MISSOURI SHOWMAN SAMUEL W. GUMPERTZ arrived at the Coney Island seashore in 1904 with 300 midgets and a dream. The midgets moved into a year-round village built to resemble 15th-century Nuremberg, Germany. During the day, visitors forked over a small fee to watch little people conduct parliamentary meetings, hold hourly fire drills, and sunbathe.
The village—known as Lilliputia or Midget City—was such a success that Gumpertz traveled from Borneo to Algeria looking for other natural-born “freaks.” Eventually, he brought 3,800 sideshow acts to Coney Island—hairy warriors, women with stretched lips, and Siamese twins.
Today, the seaside amusement mecca that once boasted dozens of sideshows is home to just one. Inside a former furniture warehouse just blocks from the subways rumbling above Surf Avenue, you will find Coney Island Sideshows by the Sea Shore, started in the mid-1980s by Dick Zigun, an impresario with a drama degree from Yale and tattoos up his arm.
Outside, the carnival barker woos passersby with a quick tongue and a screwdriver jammed up his nose. Inside, freaks wow audience members by walking on glass, lying on beds of nails, and eating live crickets.
Zigun’s family of freaks includes a tattooed man learning to cope with college midterms, a teenage sword swallower with a stage mom who gets on her nerves, a fire-eating Okie following his dream, and a German wine maker who swings rubber chickens from his ears. Sometimes a midget named Little Jimmy picks up shifts.
Eduardo “Eak” Arrocha, 43
Tattooed Head to Toe
I was 23 when I got my first tattoo. I was really drunk that night. I remember I had just had sex with this girl I wasn’t in love with, and I was really depressed. I told this kid to tattoo “I hate sex” on my arm. After “I hate” he said, “You’re gonna want me to stop here, man.” At 23 I was really negative, and now I’m pretty happy. I was like one of the rats going from place to place. And once I finally ended up in New York, a lot of my friends had fallen by the wayside. Some of them were dead. I told myself the only thing permanent in my life would be tattoos. Once I got them, I got really stable. I bought an apartment in the East Village. Outside of the sideshow I have a normal life. I go to the gym three days a week. I cook at home most days. I come from an extremely intellectual family. My mom’s a professor. Every family has their so-called freak. I prefer the term “beautiful outsider.” I’m back in school, and I just got done with midterms. I’m thinking about going to law school.
Heather Holliday, 19
I started out gagging myself with my toothbrush, like, every morning. I wouldn’t get it right away. It took a few weeks of seven times every morning before my gag reflex was gone and I could just stick it down there. And then I moved to longer objects, y’know, like a coat hanger. When you get to a sword, it’s the hugest transition. From when I was really young I was a child actress. I did commercials all the time, like for Captain Crunch and Baby Buddies. When I got older I did anti-drug and Winterfresh commercials. But I started listening to punk music and changing the way I looked, and it was harder for me to get jobs and I didn’t really give a shit. So I started dying my hair and getting piercings. My mother was such a stage mom, really annoying. “Do you know how many girls would love to do what you’re doing?” When I saw the show, I thought it was the most amazing thing. Starting this October, when the show ends, I’m going to beauty school. That’s, like, the thing for the off-season.
Roc Roc It, 28
Swings Objects from Ears, Etc.
I was a wine maker, you know? I was in a master school, and I went off on vacation to Spain. I hitchhiked to Barcelona and I got stuck there. I had no money, so I started doing shows. My favorite trick is the glove. I put it over my head and blow it up with my nose and then pop it. You’re putting lots of pressure on your nose. I smoke and drink, and I can still do it. I also swallow a five-foot balloon. The clothespins—I was doing a show in Ibiza at a club called Privilege, and we were sick of doing the shows and so we wanted to do something different. We went out on the terrace and saw laundry with clothespins. So I took the pins and put them on my face. I came to Coney Island to see the show, and then he just asked me if I wanted to perform. So I stayed. My parents manage the Hotel Hubel. It’s in the wine country. I went to perform there. It’s the first time they’re proud of me.
Donny V., 26
Fire Eater, Emcee
I came from Oklahoma a year ago. I moved on April Fools’ Day. I wanted to make it as a sideshow performer, but there’s not a big market out there. In a sheer stroke of luck, I met the former emcee a week before he was leaving. I ran into him at the Shrunken Head in the East Village. My parents love it. What could make them more proud than a sideshow freak of a son? They work for the government. They work office jobs. Hopefully they think I’m making a wise career move. My name at first was Donny Vomit, but vomit’s not very family friendly. Now I’m just Donny V. I’m a normal guy from Oklahoma who likes to do really, really dumb things. When I came to New York my dream was to get on the Coney Island stage in four years—I made it here in less than a year. So I’m figuring out what comes next. The one thing I really want to do is work with a touring sideshow and go across the U.S. I want to travel the world.
Deborah Kolben is a staff writer for The New York Sun.Dan Sagarin is a photographer whose work can be viewed at www.dansagarin.com.