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Fire Eaters, Sword Swallowers And Ballyhoo On the Beach

May 26, 1991

NEW YORK (AP) _ They eat fire, swallow swords, charm snakes and walk on nails in a sideshow that owes its life to a Yale graduate, a fast-talking knife salesman and the honky-tonk of Coney Island.

They are the cast and crew of Sideshows by the Seashore, which began its sixth season Friday in a revamped penny arcade on the boardwalk in the city’s Brooklyn borough.

John Bradshaw, the pitchman, spends winters selling knives in Virginia dimestores and summers promising boardwalk crowds a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the elastic lady, the bearded woman and a man who nails his tongue to a board.

The sideshow was born in the mid-1980s when Dick Zigun, a Yale drama school graduate who grew up in P.T. Barnum’s hometown of Bridgeport, Conn., started fishing around for ways to help revitalize Coney Island.

″Although historic, Coney Island is gone and shrunken,″ Zigun said. ″But you still get a million people on the beach on the Fourth of July. And rather than saying the spirit of Coney Island is gone, what we’re doing is saying, the spirit is still alive.″

Last summer, Zigun’s sideshow was seen by 70,000 people.

Zigun said the show is not entirely traditional. For one thing, it’s non- profit, with a third of its $200,000 budget coming from government grants and two-thirds from the $2.50 admission.

And the cast and crew includes second-generation carnival workers as well as avant-garde hipsters with graduate degrees.

Valerie Haller designs the show’s funky signs and sets, using old-fashioned motifs and lettering.

Bradshaw has a degree in social work, but has also worked with a half-dozen other sideshows, all of them now gone. In addition to pitching to crowds outside the sideshow theater, he eats fire, does magic tricks and drives a 2- inch spike up his nose as ″the human blockhead.″

″The more gross people think it will be, the more they’ll come in,″ Bradshaw said.

Michael Wilson, 38, is the show’s ″illustrated man,″ with tattoos over 70 percent of his body, including his face and shaved head.

″I’m pretty obsessed by getting tattooed. I want my entire body covered and hopefully by the end of the summer it will be,″ said the California native.

Wilson also lies on a bed of nails and hammers his tongue to a board. Why? Because, he said, most of the obvious acts - sword-swallowing and snake- charming - were already taken. (He has a pierced tongue.)

Katherine Zavartkay, 32, as the elastic lady and snake charmer, modestly says ″it takes a bit of flexibility″ to fold her frame into a box filled with spikes without getting hurt.

In a room next to the theater, Zigun maintains a mini-museum offering tidbits from Coney Island’s past: old postcards, kitschy seashell and pieces of dismantled rides like a mechanical horse from the Steeplechase.

The museum is especially meaningful for Zigun’s cigar-smoking handyman and ticket-taker, Ross Steinhardt. Born and raised in Coney Island, he worked years ago in a sideshow run by his father on the boardwalk.

Standing in front of the sideshow theater, with hawkers selling balloons and hot dogs nearby, he said: ″I’m proud to be back here again.″

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