LIANE HANSEN, host:
Back in the day when circus caravans wound their way across the country from town to town, crowds flocked to the big top. They were drawn in by sideshow performers, teasers of a sort, who worked the periphery, enticing audiences with promises of death-defying feats.
Unidentified Man: You're going to see the rubber girl, the electric lady, the escape artist.
HANSEN: Much has changed since the heyday of P.T. Barnum and "The Greatest Show on Earth." The circus travels from big city to big city, performing in arenas named after communication empires and office supply stores. Tickets are sold in advance over the Internet, but perhaps the most hallowed sideshow of all has resisted change at New York's fabled Coney Island.
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HANSEN: The amusement park at Coney Island has slowly decayed since World War II as the high-tech roller coasters of Six Flags or Great Adventure have overshadowed the classic wooden Cyclone that terrified youngsters of a distant generation. Coney Island's Steeplechase Park closed its doors in the 1960s and the Parachute Jump took its last leap in 1968 long before finally being designated a New York City historic site.
Just steps from the Atlantic Ocean beach, there remains the Side Show by the Seashore, but the once silver-tongued exhortations of the human barker giving voice to the show's painted advertisement banners have been supplanted by a tinny looped recording.
Unidentified Man: See them now, the fire eater, the sword swallower, the human blockhead, the electric lady and everything else that you see pictured, painted and advertised on the outside you will see here on the inside.
HANSEN: We visited the sideshow by the seashore on a recent sunny afternoon. It bills itself as a 10-in-1, referring to the number of featured acts. Historically, though, a 10-in-1 is insider carney talk rarely appearing in a show's billing. After all, a sideshow would not fail to open for lack of an act or two. This day, Diamond Donny V. welcomes the crowd at the Side Show by the Seashore.
DIAMOND DONNY V.: We've got 10 live acts. Some are beautiful. Some are bizarre. They're all on this stage. They're all being performed just for you.
HANSEN: There's the twisted sister...
DIAMOND DONNY V.: She is the rubber man's sister. She's the Indiana twister. Put your hands together for Madame Twisto.
HANSEN: ...the sword swallower...
DIAMOND DONNY V.: This happens to be the most dangerous of all of the sideshow skills. Please welcome to the stage this gem, this diamond, this jewel of a young lady.
HANSEN: ...the geek...
DIAMOND DONNY V.: Direct from Mexico City, he is the vegetarian's nightmare. He is Eke the Geek.
HANSEN: ...and, of course...
DIAMOND DONNY V.: The princess of pyrotechnics, the goddess of gasoline, the queen of kerosene, she is by far the hottest act in show biz today. Please put these two together for the beautiful Ann Santibar(ph)!
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HANSEN: ...for the finale, a young tattooed woman steps on to the stage.
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HANSEN: The princess of pyrotechnics lights two makeshift torches. They appear to be uncoiled clothes hangers with small balls of gauze at the ends which have been dunked into some sort of flammable liquid. The flames illuminate her blue tattooed face, the inked markings reminiscent of a zebra's strips mask her natural beauty. She twirls her flaming batons, lifts them to her lips and exhales a dragon's breath.
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Unidentified Singer: Your momma ever told you how you were such a dreamer girl.
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HANSEN: Outside, Insectivora, or Angelica Velez(ph), as she's known to her friends, entertains questions from youthful fans. She doesn't shy away from our questions either.
Ms. ANGELICA VELEZ: (As Insectivora) This is my fourth season here...
Ms. VELEZ: ...and I love it.
HANSEN: How did you get into it?
Ms. VELEZ: Actually it was kind of a fluke. I got kidnapped by the Coney Island Circus Sideshow.
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Ms. VELEZ: The real story is I was actually ready to move back to Minneapolis, Minnesota, but I wanted to check out this, whatcha-ma-call, tattoo convention at the Roseland Tattoo Convention, and so they saw me, like, `Wow, you know, those facial tattoos looked amazing. You look like you you could be like a jungle wild woman. Would you like to work at the Coney Island Sideshow?' So, yeah, I didn't go back to Minneapolis, Minnesota.
HANSEN: Angelica revealed some of Insectivora's fire-eating secrets that a Carney performer would normally keep to herself and we'll keep those secrets, too, as this is a `do not try this at home' act. Eduard Alrocha(ph), or Eke the Geek, shares Angelica's passion for performing. Eduard is a poet by night. When he lost his day job as a street vendor, he needed an interesting place to write about. He started selling tickets at Coney Island 14 years ago and has been here ever since.
Mr. EDUARD ALROCHA: (As Eke the Geek) The sideshow is an addictive activity and it's very interesting to see how you bring so many people together and when you look at the audience that's really composed of the whole world. So you're performing for the real United Nations. I don't want the audience to get overintellectual about it and start analyzing anything. It is a world of make-believe, but if you want to believe, it does become a real world in that moment and that's what I try to do.
HANSEN: To pull back the tent flaps on some of the mystery behind the sideshow, we brought author Joe Nickell with us to the performance. In his book, "Secrets of the Sideshow," Nickell attempts to reveal the wonder of the Carney without disturbing the magic. Nickell is a former carnival pitchman and professional magician. He now scours the country looking for myths and mysteries, frauds and forgeries. He explained why he thinks side shows endure despite the sophistication of a 21st century world.
Mr. JOE NICKELL ("Secrets of the Sideshow"): I think, though, that while people may be a little jaded, they may have seen a little of everything now, maybe a tattooed wonder isn't quite as shocking since you can see so many of them on the street, there's still room to see a fire eater or a sword swallower and it is simply more dramatic to see it live. It isn't the same to see it on a film or on TV. So I think that's--there's an attraction. The problem with the sideshows--you know, there are all kinds of theories. People say, `Oh, wasn't it political correctness that put an end to the so-called freak shows and doomed the sideshows?' No, not really. Mostly what it is is the midways, the big rides were so popular that they were just sucking money up off the midway like a giant vacuum cleaner.
HANSEN: So do you think we're sort of at the end of an era now with sideshows? I mean, can this sideshow actually survive?
Mr. NICKELL: I think this one will survive as long as Coney Island survives.
HANSEN: And that may not be for long. A proposed Las Vegas-style entertainment complex with a billion-dollar price tag threatens to radically alter the landscape of Coney Island. According to New York magazine, Thor Equities has quietly spent nearly $100 million buying up large chunks of Coney Island real estate with visions of a resort paradise right alongside Coney Island's historic Boardwalk, but for now, Coney Islanders still have their nostalgia and their Side Show by the Seashore.
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HANSEN: Photos of the performers and attractions at the Side Show by the Seashore can be found on our Web site, npr.org. Our story about the Coney Island Side Show by the Seashore was produced by Jesse Baker and recorded by sound engineer Manoli Wetherell.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
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