Coney baloney: Peninsula’s unofficial ‘mayor’ Dick Zigun gets the boot

Coney Island’s “unofficial mayor” Dick Zigun claims he’s been cast out to sea by the Coney Island organization he helped found.
Gerard Zarra

The longtime unofficial “mayor” of Coney Island has been fired from the venerable sideshow organization he co-founded, which runs the Coney Island Museum and puts on the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and the annual Mermaid Parade, after apparently reaching an intractable impasse with the group over the terms of his succession.

Dick Zigun, who for 40 years has been the face most associated with the People’s Playground save for the iconic Funny Face, tweeted on Christmas Day that he had been fired from Coney Island USA, effective Friday, Dec. 31, and that the locks on the organization’s Surf Avenue headquarters had been changed and his work email disabled. Zigun’s profile page on Coney Island USA’s website has also been deleted.

The peninsula’s longtime unofficial mayor declined to comment further when reached by Brooklyn Paper, noting that he is under a non-disclosure agreement until his termination takes effect at 5 pm on New Year’s Eve.

“I am not able to comment further at this time so cannot answer some questions,” Zigun tweeted on Sunday, Dec. 26. “I will have more to say soon perhaps in a week.”

Nonetheless, Coney Island USA on Monday posted a lengthy statement on its website rebutting Zigun’s contention that he was fired on Christmas, instead arguing that his termination was the culmination of a years-long rift over who would succeed the 68-year-old carny, and the fate of the cultural programming he was inextricably linked to after his retirement.

“Dick was not fired on Christmas day, although he wants you to think he was,” the statement from the group’s board of directors reads. “He has not corrected those who have made that assumption. This is a shameless bid for sympathy, regardless of the facts. Given these false and disparaging statements, Coney Island USA must set the record straight.”

The fracas allegedly began in 2018, when Zigun and Coney Island USA set in motion a transition for a successor, Adam Rinn (aka Adam Realman), to take Zigun’s place as artistic director. Things were going as smooth as a ride on the Thunderbolt until January of this year, at which point the saga became as bumpy as the Cyclone.

That month, Zigun allegedly claimed that he, rather than Coney Island USA, had exclusive domain to put on the Mermaid Parade and the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, a claim vociferously contested by the board of directors that created an impasse between leadership and its most notable figure.

“This shocked the Board since it was completely contrary to the working relationship and legal relationship between Dick and Coney Island USA,” the board said in its statement. “This unacceptable claim and the economic demands that came with it created a very significant and ongoing conflict of interest between Dick and Coney Island USA and an existential threat to Coney Island USA.”

Differences between Zigun and the board proved irreconcilable. “Though attempts were made to resolve the matter, Dick stuck to his claims,” the statement reads. “The conflict of interest festered and hampered Coney Island USA’s operations.”

Asserting that the “situation was untenable,” Zigun was “relieved…of his duties” in early November, and on Dec. 2, he was fired effective Dec. 31, the board says.

Top man: Parade founder Dick Zigun leads the Coney Island Mermaid Parade each year.File photo by Paul Martinka

The group further claims Zigun was offered a severance package allowing for a “more positive departure and recognition of his many contributions,” which remains on the table until Wednesday despite Zigun having formally declined it last week.

“Instead, Dick has chosen to go public with inaccurate and inflammatory statements,” the board said. “The facts simply do not support his positions. The Board of Coney Island USA deeply regrets Dick’s actions, which led to this unfortunate result. However, Coney Island USA, The Mermaid Parade, and the Coney Island Circus Sideshow must go on.”

Zigun again declined to comment after the statement’s publication, citing the NDA he remains under until Friday afternoon.

The Connecticut native co-founded Coney Island USA in 1980 with Costa Mantis and Jane Savitt-Tennen, at a time when the People’s Playground was in crisis, as the area suffered from high crime rates and the rides and amusements suffered from neglect and deterioration; one of the district’s main roller coasters, the Tornado, was mostly destroyed in a 1977 fire, while another coaster, the Thunderbolt, shut down in 1982 and lay dormant before being eventually razed in 2000. The Cyclone nearly met a similar fate.

Originally from Bridgeport, Zigun arrived in New York in the 70s, settling in southern Brooklyn and taking an eye to restoring Coney Island to its turn-of-the-century splendor when virtually everyone else had deemed the seaside carnival a lost cause.

“Back in the late 1970s, everyone was looking at Tribeca and South Street Seaport, but I wanted to come to Coney Island,” Zigun told Brooklyn Paper’s sister publication Brownstoner in 2017. “I was impressed when I arrived how many businesses were run by healthy elderly people from the golden age of Coney Island. There’s something about the salt air that preserves the body but rots the mind: They were healthy but out-of-their-minds crazy. I wanted to take on the role of preserving old Coney Island for those who came after me.”

In the early 80s, Coney Island USA began devising cultural programming aimed at elevating Coney Island’s wacky side, rather than its scary one. He and the group established the Mermaid Parade in 1983 and the Circus Sideshow in 1985, and the positive PR accrued for the peninsula by Zigun’s bacchanal led to his becoming its chief public booster. It was in that vein that he fashioned himself Coney Island’s mayor.

“I’m the ‘permanently unelected mayor of Coney Island.’ That nickname was deliberate,” Zigun told Brownstoner, noting his eccentric getup was all for Coney’s benefit. “I knew that visual communication was important. If my image was going to be in public, I could communicate a lot by the way I looked, in addition to what I said. As the PR director, I made the name up and people bought in because I had the look.”

The sideshows, and Zigun’s eccentric, media-ready public persona, were a key piece of the puzzle in Coney Island’s revitalization in the 90s and 2000s.

He has remained one of Coney’s most prominent denizens over the years: when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed rezoning the area to preserve its amusement district, Zigun was one of the plan’s strongest and most prominent boosters, though he favored preserving a larger area for amusements than did Bloomberg. The rezoning ultimately passed in 2009.

While he’s earned his share of detractors, Zigun’s work has also earned him plenty of fans: distraught Coney aficionados plan to rally in solidarity with him outside the Sideshow Circus’s Surf Avenue building, which houses Coney Island USA’s HQ, at 1:30 pm on New Year’s Day, many dressed in the mermaid garb Zigun made inextricably associated with the People’s Playground.

Update (2:30 pm): following publication, Dick Zigun tweeted out a link to this article with the following message: “Can’t wait to reply to the Board of Directors nonsense once my NDA expires. Stay turned and fasten your seatbelts it’s going to be a bumpy ride…”