Funhouse to playhouse: Coney ‘mayor’ ponders thespian retirement

Funhouse to playhouse: Coney ‘mayor’ ponders thespian retirement
Photo by Steve Solomonson

Call it his second act.

Coney Island’s unofficial mayor and architect of the summertime Mermaid Parade wants to focus on making the People’s Playground a wintertime theater destination in the autumn of his life.

“I’m not looking to retire, but I’m looking to transition,” said the 61-year-old Zigun. “So in several years, perhaps, I will turn over all of the fun summer activities like the [Mermaid] Parade or the sideshow to another generation. But rather than retire, I’m getting re-energized and excited about creating new programming for October through March.”

To give more folks a reason to visit blustery Coney Island in the dead of winter, Zigun is reviving his interest in theater.

“We’re creating an in-house theater company for Coney Island U.S.A. called Funhouse Philosophers, and we’re building that over the next few years to eventually do three productions off-season every year in October, December, and March most likely,” said Zigun, who holds a master’s degree in play-writing from the Yale School of Drama.

The first show this season is Zigun’s own “Dead End Dummy,” which runs from Oct. 10 to Nov. 2 and follows an aging Vaudevillian ventriloquist who wants to avenge the death of Vaudeville by murdering the man he believes killed it — Thomas Edison, the inventor of the movie projector.

The Funhouse Philosophers formed last year, but their recent exploits aren’t Zigun’s first foray into dramaturgy in Sodom by the Sea. He came to the People’s Playground in the 1970s looking to stage a play, according to a decades-old New York Times article.

And Zigun’s Coney Island U.S.A. staged theater productions in its early years, but a relocation halted the shows.

“We had a flourishing theater company in our early days when we were in a different building — what’s now the Boardwalk Nathan’s [Famous] — but when we moved to our current building, it didn’t have heat, so we weren’t able to do programming in the winter,” he said.

A recent renovation of the current venue will finally make off-season programing possible, according to the Boardwalk booster.

“We just did a $1 million heat and air-conditioning and sprinkler system project,” Zigun said. “Now we have this wonderful landmark building that is usable year-round.”

Zigun is hoping to transition his full-time focus to theater by the time he is 65, he said.

And Zigun’s Funhouse Philospohers won’t be the only draw to the amusement mecca when the mercury plummets. Luna Park is stretching its season, a number of year-round restaurants have opened, and then there’s MCU Park’s new football team, said Johanna Zaki, executive director of the Alliance for Coney Island.

“Another big thing happening this year is the Brooklyn Bolts,” she said. “That coupled with plays and what’s going on at Luna Park and some year-round business that have recently opened creates a very bright future for year-long entertainment in Coney Island.”

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeg‌er@cn‌gloca‌l.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.