Coney Island’s unofficial mayor Dick Zigun is back at the negotiating table with the venerable sideshow group he co-founded, seeking a more graceful exit after being unceremoniously fired last month following an intractable dispute over the terms of his departure.
Zigun had previously promised to spill the beans on his exit as artistic director of Coney Island USA on the afternoon of Dec. 31, which was supposed to be the final day of his tenure, after which a non-disclosure agreement he was under would expire. That morning, though, the “permanently unelected mayor” said in an email that he would “prefer to remain silent as efforts are made to resolve recent issues.”
“I have troubles today that I had not yesterday,” he said. “I had troubles yesterday which I have not today.”
Asked for clarification, the 68-year-old carny said that “there is an ongoing attempt to mediate all the issues.”
Zigun, who as the founder of the Mermaid Parade and Coney Island Circus Sideshow has been the most recognizable face of the People’s Playground (save for the iconic Funny Face) for four decades, tweeted on Christmas Day that he had been canned from his position effective Dec. 31. Zigun would not say more, citing the NDA he was under until the New Year.
On Dec. 27, Coney Island USA posted a lengthy statement on its website rebutting Zigun’s claims he was fired on Christmas, arguing instead that he had been booted from the group after claiming sole intellectual property rights to stage the Mermaid Parade and Circus Sideshow, which the group vociferously denied and described as an “existential threat” to its future.
Since 2018, Zigun had been engaged in talks over transitioning out of his role as artistic director, in which he would be replaced by sword-swallower and strongman Adam Rinn, but the group said that at the beginning of 2021, Zigun claimed ownership over Coney Island USA’s signature events, including the rights to stage them after he retired. That created a rift between the group and its figurehead, and relations spiraled downward until culminating in Zigun’s firing in early December.
The group has since deleted the statement from its website, signaling that the impasse is thawing. Coney Island USA executive director James Fitzsimmons did not respond to requests for comment.
Zigun co-founded Coney Island USA in 1980, when the area was beset by high crime and the amusement parks were in decay, with the intent of showcasing for the world Coney Island’s weird, freaky side at a time when it was mostly known for violence. The stovepipe hat-toting Zigun leading the Mermaid Parade while pounding on a bass drum has become an iconic image of the People’s Playground, and his flair for the theatrical was a key puzzle piece in Coney Island’s revitalization in the 90s and 2000s.
As such, many of his colleagues were distraught by the events of the past month. Jelly Boy the Clown, a sword-swallower and talent scout for the Circus Sideshow, resigned from Coney Island USA in direct response to Zigun’s firing, which he characterized as being the work of wealthy, non-artist board members who were never fans of the mayor’s to begin with.
“We wouldn’t slander Coney Island in any way. The only thing is that the founder of the establishment is getting a really rough deal from the board of directors, who I think are really out of touch,” Jelly Boy told Brooklyn Paper last week. “He added so much to the culture and the community of Coney Island. He brought so much money to Coney Island, and so much fun and so much energy and life.”
Jelly Boy believes the board has never fully appreciated the role of Zigun, the sideshow performers, and general weirdness in the peninsula’s firmament, and that that attitude has been reflected throughout the dramatic saga surrounding his departure.
“I think partly they do [appreciate weirdness],” Jelly Boy said. “But I think they would like to change things a little bit. I think they’d like to make the sideshow a little bit less edgy. They’re trying to walk that line, you know, burlesque and sideshow, and the radical queer aspects of the shows and parades and stuff like that, they’re what keeps people coming to Coney Island and what people love about Coney Island. But they also want to keep it family-friendly, and everybody’s idea of what family-friendly is is a little bit different.”
On Facebook, Zigun said last week that he would be setting up a crowdfunding operation for a defense attorney, and Jelly Boy said that the mayor had retained an intellectual property lawyer. As of now, the two sides do not appear to be headed to court.
Zigun’s supporters had planned to rally in solidarity with him on New Year’s Day outside Coney Island USA’s headquarters, the Circus Sideshow building on Surf Avenue, but the action was canceled after Zigun and several people planning to attend came down with COVID-19.
Zigun, in his message to Brooklyn Paper and others, said that while he’s still in negotiations, he’s hoping to continue playing a role in Coney Island’s future.
“In my near future I hope to assist building a bigger, better, Luna Park,” he wrote. “And who knows, there might be an announcement about a reality TV show soon.”