Coney Island, Brooklyn has been in transition for decades. Most recently, Bloomberg announced plans to revitalize Coney as a year-round tourist destination, with upscale hotels, shops and restaurants. There remain people and institutions, like Adam "the First Real Man" Rinn and the Sideshow School, that are keeping alive the tradition and mentality of old.
The class of 2012 just graduated from the Coney Island Sideshow School. They spent only four days in the classroom, but their degrees--broken pieces of cinderblock painted white and signed by professor Adam Rinn--were well deserved.
Students had to breathe fire, put their hands in rat traps, and push nails into their nostrils. They walked on glass, felt the pulse of a homemade electric chair, and even tried to swallow a sword.
Rinn, of course, is familiar with these disturbing and physically painful acts. As a kid, he dragged people with him repeatedly to see classic acts like Melvin Burkhard, the Human Blockhead, and Mike Wilson, the Illustrated Man. He became a member of the school's first graduating class and made enough money to live doing sideshow performances. Eventually the school's founders recruited him to teach.
Rinn doesn't see his job or this place as a mere means to pass on safe, effective sideshow practices. He passes on a bit of Coney Island's history and way of thinking. In the past decade, much of the neighborhood of old has given way to the city’s development plans and efforts to boost tourism. The amusement park and boardwalk are being developed and in the meantime old architecture is being torn down.
Somebody has got to keep this sideshow tradition alive, so that we have a future, so that the sideshow doesn't die out.
I grew up a couple of blocks away, and as a kid, stumbled upon the sideshow. It was just like a magnet, just drew me in.
…thank you very much because ladies and gentlemen it's….. showtime.
New York is not a city that cares about its roots. New York will bulldoze and put up new. Coney Island is the great equalizer. You don't know who you're standing next to. I've had doctors and lawyers, business people, bartenders and slackers: people who just got nothing to do. You know, it's like the scene in Freaks, one of us, one of us.
It is sad what's going on. But traditionally speaking, Coney Island has always been a shady area, so. No matter what happens around us, whether it's development or destruction, we will be here and saying, yes, you know, it is good to be a freak.
Behind the Scenes
Anika and I shot most of our footage in one, four-hour class. It was the last of four classes for school's spring session, and fortunately plenty of acts remained for the students to learn. Because we shot before we pitched, we worried that we wouldn't have enough of the right footage come time to edit.
That turned out to be the least of my concerns in the end.
I had to eliminate a lot of great, visual shots. And the biggest challenge was weaving the narrative throughout the visual shots that remained. The story is about the sideshow and the neighborhood staying alive together; they are one and the same, as Adam describes it. Adam's most crucial lines often wouldn't cooperate with the sequences that depict gruesome and disturbing acts.
It's disappointing that I couldn't incorporate the voices of students into the story as structured. Without asking, almost every one of them mentioned how they were saddened by the changes in Coney Island. Unfortunately, their thoughts would have dragged things out too long. Anika found a way to do a good job, I thought.
More info on the Sideshow School: coneyisland.com/sideshow_school.shtml
Sideshow bally from the 90s: youtube.com/watch?v=jTX9m4G9wuk
Hear the voices of longtime residents in this short documentary: youtube.com/watch?v=TkGpWY-Iyu0