Legendary sword-swallowers, knife-throwers and more to assemble at ‘Congress of Curious Peoples’ starting April 7

sword swallower and poster for congress of curious peoples at coney island
Coney Island will be celebrating its history as the “birthplace” of modern entertainment and circus arts with the Congress of Curious Peoples, starting April 7.
File photo by Steve Solomonson/Poster courtesy of Coney Island USA

“The Congress of Curious Peoples” is set to arrive in Coney Island on Friday for the first of two weekends of performances showcasing an array of unique and unusual circus and sideshow arts.

The south Brooklyn not-for-profit organization Coney Island USA is bringing the circus arts to the People’s Playground to recognize the nabe’s standing in American pop culture and explore its artistic opportunities through the performance and discussion.

“Coney Island in general is the birthplace of American entertainment as we know it today,” said Adam Rinn, Coney Island USA’s Artistic Director. “It’s an event that is both entertaining and educational because we cover it all. It’s rare to take a peek behind the curtain and learn what it takes to be able to do these acts.”

congress of curious peoples act
A bevy of performers will show off their talents — and courage — at the Congress. Photo courtesy of Coney Island USA

The celebration kicks off on April 7 with the Sideshow Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Sideshows by the Seashore Theater, which is where all of the performances are scheduled to take place. James Taylor will deliver his keynote presentation “How I Spent my Carny Vacation – or How I Learned my Show Biz Lessons” to begin the night. 

A panel of scholars and sideshow professionals will then welcome the 2023 Sideshow Hall of Fame inductees for the categories of “Born Different,” “Self Inflicted,” “Working Act,” “Attraction,” and “Show Folk.” The opening night will also feature special performances by the magician Cardone and Rinn himself — who performs as a sword swallower under the stage name Adam Realman. 

The Great Throwdini will take the stage for the April 8 main event at 2:00 p.m.. Proclaimed as the world’s fastest and most accurate knife thrower, Throwdini will throw knives, axes, tomahawks and machetes around his assistant at his signature high and dangerous speeds in an act described as  “Impalement Arts with a Touch of Magic and Comedy.” Featured in “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” as the only person to successfully perform the Veiled Double Wheel of Death – a stunt that involves throwing knives at a spinning wheel with two people hidden behind a paper curtain on it – the 71-year-old holds over 40 knife-throwing records. 

Later that day, Rinn will sit down for a live interview with Johnny Meah, the recipient of this year’s “Living Legend” award. Meah, with a long career in the circus – formally working as a circus clown and going on to perfect the arts of sword-swallowing, fire-eating, singing, drumming and banner painting – will share his experience as a lifelong member of the industry.

johnny meah congress of curious peoples
Legendary performer Johnny Meah will be honored at the Congress of Curious Peoples, and will sit down with Rinn to discuss his experience as a multi-talented circus performer. Photo courtesy of Coney Island USA

“Johnny Meah is in his 80s now, when you have someone who has that much experience in the business, there is just a wealth of knowledge that can be shared,” said Rinn. “When sideshow performers sit down and talk, we don’t say we are going to sit down and talk – we say we are cutting up jackpots. Over Johnny’s years of performing, he has no doubt had hundreds of jackpots he can talk about.”

There will also be a live interview with Joe Coleman, as he sits down to discuss the influence sideshow and Coney Island has had on his art. Outside of his reputation as a painter, writer and performer, Coleman’s 1980s performance work was some of the most radical of its time and has been featured in a multitude of films. 

“The finale of his performances back in the day was called the infernal machine. He would strap packs of firecrackers onto his chest and stomach and light them. It would cause people to run from the theaters screaming,” said Rinn. “Joe Coleman as a performance artist was some of the most extreme performance art you can imagine. You talk about interesting, curious people – this is it.”

The following day Angelo Iodice will take to the stage with action-packed western acts. His presentation “A Cowboy from the Bronx” will recount the story of a Bronx native becoming a world-traveling professional rodeo performer. Brianna Belladonna – the sword swallowing, fire-eating, glass-walking daredevil stunt artist – will be his opening act.

great throwdini coney island congress of curious peoples
The Great Throwdini holds a whopping 41 knife-throwing records, and will show off his skills at the Congress on April 8. Photo courtesy of Coney Island USA

Event festivities will pick back up the following week on Sunday, April 15, as the 26-time Canadian Guinness World Record breakers the Great Orbax and Sweet Pepper Klopek perform their slapstick comedy stunt show at 1:30 p.m. Their antics are described as a real life cartoon with a positive mental health message and memorable stunts.

The two week-long sequence concludes on April 16 with Dr. Finnegan’s circus, occurring at 1:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. Described as the “Looney Tunes of Sideshow,” audience members will watch the indestructible man, a monster, the human blockhead and more take to the stage. 

Weekend passes sell for $125 if bought in advance, or $130 at the door. Event-goers can also opt in to pay per event. 

“If you are fans of this kind of weird, funky and bizarre entertainment, these are the shows to come see because these guys don’t come around much to this area,” said Rinn. “We want guests to sit there with wide eyes and an open mouth and just marvel at the incredible human talent that is out there and that we are bringing to our stage.”