Carnies get classy: Sideshow school teaches fire breathing and more

Carnies get classy: Sideshow school teaches fire breathing and more
Flame on!: A student of the Coney Island Sideshow School breathes fire during a previous session of the dangerous skills workshop.
Eliza Rinn

Want to run away and join the circus? Then step right up!

Coney Island sideshow performers will offer a peek behind the curtain this summer, revealing teaching classic carny tricks like fire breathing and sword swallowing during a three-day session starting on Aug. 22. The Coney Island Sideshow School will give 10 students the opportunity to learn a whole host of death-defying — or at least very dangerous — feats.

“We teach sword swallowing, fire eating and breathing, the human blockhead — hammering a nail into your face — walking on glass, laying on a bed of nails, putting your tongue into a mousetrap, the electric chair act, and the blade box,” said Adam Rinn, dean of the school.

Those glamorous talents do not come cheap (the class costs $1,000), but Rinn says that it can have grand rewards, whether students go on to a life in the sideshow or not.

“Some have gone on to work at Sideshows by the Seashore, our show,” he said. “Others have traveled the world performing what they’ve learned here — and others are the weird uncle who, instead of vanishing a coin at a family get-together, hammer a nail into their nose.”

Rinn himself is a graduate of the institution. The Coney Island native stumbled upon his first sideshow on the famous Brooklyn boardwalk as a teen, and immediately knew he wanted to make a career of it.

“It just appeared one day — colorful banners, a little teaser show in front,” he recalled. “I paid my admission and was transported into another world. And I really liked that world.”

After taking the classes and spending a few years mastering the tricks of the trade, Rinn took over as the school’s dean. Of all the excitement the show to offer, Rinn said he finds it most thrilling when he sees his students succeed.

“It’s very rewarding when the students conquer their fears and hit the ground running,” he said. “After each session, I get a slew of emails thanking me and telling me what a life-changing experience sideshow school was.”

Students do have to sign a waiver, but Rinn said that no one has ever been injured in the school’s 16-year history. He works with each student to make sure they are up for the challenge, which may not be easy to master.

“It’s important to be patient and work with the students at their level,” he said.

So how do you teach someone to swallow fire?

“Very carefully,” said Rinn.

“Coney Island Sideshow School” at Sideshows by the Seashore [1208 Surf Ave. at W. 12th Street in Coney Island, (516) 225–3287, www.coneyisland.com]. Aug. 22–24, 10 am–3 pm. $1,000.

Making a point: Sideshow School dean Adam Rinn shows a student how to relax between two beds of nails.
Eliza Rinn

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