It’s safe to say that Coney Island’s nostalgic glory wouldn’t be possible without its biggest advocate: Dick Zigun, Founder of the Mermaid Parade. As the founder of CONEY ISLAND USA, the arts organization, back in 1980, and having invented the Mermaid parade back in 1983, Zigun is the South Brooklyn arts aficionado of the century. He describes his work perfectly by saying he’s a playwright within a community of circus freaks and tattooed geeks, in which his audience are “half naked New Yorkers in wet bathing suits.”
How and why did you become involved with organizing the Mermaid Parade? I invented the MERMAID PARADE in 1983. I had already founded CONEY ISLAND USA, the arts organization, in 1980 & produced several events. But we had no major presence in the neighborhood, so to make the point of what an arts group could do in CI, I decided to take over the entire neighborhood one day a year for an art parade. Two years later, we had some funding to rent a building and have been non-stop full time since 1985.
Tell us a little bit about your your day to day, and what is at stake while running this beloved tradition. On the one hand I have the same “professionalism” as any MFA from Yale School of Drama running a mid-sized art institution…On the other hand, I do so within a community of circus freaks and tattooed geeks and my audience are half naked New Yorkers in wet bathing suits. I’m a Funhouse Philosopher. I do arts administration & programming but I’m also a surrogate father figure for a dysfunctional community of people who do things for a living most of your readers wouldn’t try for all the money in the world. I spend lots of my time as a life coach for weirdos, and I love hanging out with my Brooklyn-attitude homies. Since my work on an intellectual level is about the Sociology of Theater, I also spend hours with NYPD & elected officials getting permits, getting historic buildings landmarked etc. I’m honored that FDNY Explosives Unit trusts my performers to play with fire and gasoline under the landmark Parachute Jump on New Year’s Eve in front of 20,000 people.
What’s your proudest achievement with this work and what is your greatest challenge? Proudest achievement is staying the course for 38 years. CIUSA owns a landmark building, the Mermaid Parade is a major people’s holiday and both the Burlesque & Sideshow revivals we started in Coney Island/Brooklyn are now on their way to culturally conquering the world. Some people might think I’ve been a bad influence on American culture.
Greatest challenge is getting attention for the weird American plays I write. My education & training is as a playwright and it’s the creative work I want to do for the rest of my life. I do new plays at Coney and recently at LaMama & a theater upstate. But the NY Times or the Obie nominators won’t come to Coney & we can’t establish funding without them. If anyone enjoying this interview works for BAM or St. Ann’s Warehouse or is a Brooklynite who works at the Public… please call me…PLEEZ.
For fun, who would you nominate for this list? Marie Roberts, Banner Painter and Fred Kahl, ScanARama 3D portrait printer.