Brooklyn, N.Y., July 28—It was one of the hottest days of the summer, and what better place to spend a Friday afternoon than the beachside neighborhood of Coney Island? My friend John Strong, who, with his wife Candy, operates one of the best circus sideshows in the country, had been encouraging me to visit their traveling sideshow that has been set up there since Memorial Day. So off we went to what is arguably the most famous amusement destination in the world.
Coney Island was a popular seaside resort that saw its height of popularity in the first half of the 20th century. After World War II, the hotels, amusement parks, and other attractions fell into disrepair and neglect, but in the past few decades, a rebirth of sorts has taken place, with some parcels of land going to developers for building housing while other historic venues have been landmarked, preserved, and rebuilt.
The first Coney Island attraction we visited (because we were starving by the time we got to Brooklyn) was the original Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on Stillwell Avenue, which has stood at this location since 1916. This is the location of their hot dog eating contest which also began in 1916 and is now televised all over the world. And yes, the infamous Al Capone really did visit Nathan’s whenever he came back home to Brooklyn.
Next was a walk through Coney Art Walls, an outdoor museum of street art featuring spectacular murals painted by a number of celebrated artists, followed by a stroll down the three-mile boardwalk that separates the amusements from the wide public beach. Along the boardwalk are the New York Aquarium, food and merchandise vendors, and the attractions of Luna Park, which is the only remaining amusement park at Coney Island.
The historic Luna Park encompasses many carnival-type rides along with the historic, landmarked 90-year-old wooden Cyclone roller coaster, the newer, faster Thunderbolt roller coaster, and the nearly-100-year-old carousel featuring 50 hand-carved horses and two chariots.
On the corner of Stillwell and 12th Avenue is a landmarked structure housing the Coney Island Museum, Sideshows by the Seashore, and the Shooting Gallery/Arts Annex. Along with operating these venues, non-profit arts organization Coney Island USA also organizes the annual Mermaid Parade, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, and the Coney Island Film Festival, among other activities. We caught a series of sideshow performances, which was a real hoot.
The highlight of our day, however, was John Strong’s sideshow just across 12th Avenue, marked by a number of beautifully illustrated circus banners. Sideshow performer extraordinaire Katya Kadavera wowed us with her sword swallowing act and her electrifying feats of Lord-only-knows-how-many volts passing through her body.
And John has one of the best collections of curiosities in the world, from shrunken heads to two-headed, five-footed, and other freakish animals, some preserved in formaldehyde. John also has a menagerie of lovely snakes, including an albino python that he wrapped around me.
The John Strong circus sideshow appears through Labor Day weekend, so you still have a little time to get to Coney Island to see the show and all the other attractions!