Revenge of the freaks! Mermaid Parade organizers expand their carny empire

Revenge of the freaks! Mermaid Parade organizers expand their carny empire
Photo by Bess Adler

Call it the revenge of the freaks — served cold.

Coney Island USA, the group behind the Mermaid Parade and Sideshows by the Seashore, has expanded its carny influence in the People’s Playground by scooping up Denny’s Ice Cream on Surf Avenue, a neighborhood staple, for a cool $1.3 million.

“We bought it for future expansion while property in the neighborhood is relatively affordable,” said Dick Zigun, founder of Coney Island USA, who hopes to turn the property between W. 12th Street and Stillwell Avenue into a multi-story arts center. “If we didn’t buy [the building] now I don’t think we’d ever be able to do it.”

The freak show expansion is in stark contrast to what’s currently happening at Coney Island: thrill ride operators Central Amusement International, with the city’s blessing, is in the process of turning the Boardwalk into a glitzy — and freak free — year-round resort town.

Zigun contends that freaks and carnies are as important to the Boardwalk as the Coney Island sand, but the red carpet has never been rolled out to Coney Island USA — which makes this purchase even sweeter.

Zigun’s fledgling freak show was forced to vacate Coney Island USA’s original Boardwalk storefront back in 1995 when the landlord wouldn’t renew his lease. He ultimately moved Coney Island USA into Child’s Restaurant — which is next door to Denny’s — and bought the landmarked building, which is about a block away from Central Amusement International’s influence, in 2007.

A gyro stand took over the space Zigun vacated, but — in an ironic twist — Central Amusement International unceremoniously booted the eatery and four other businesses from the Boardwalk last month, killing some of the area’s offbeat charm in the process.

Despite these changes, Denny Corine said his decision to sell his sweet shop to Zigun in November had nothing to do with Coney Island’s controversial rebirth.

“I got tired of doing the same thing for so many years,” Corine said. “Nothing lasts forever.”

Zigun said that Denny’s — which has been selling funnel cake and its original ice cream flavors to beachgoers since 1978 — will continue to serve confections for another year before closing next September. The space will start to host some arts performances, film screenings and private parties currently being held at Coney Island USA’s museum in 2013.

Yet his dream of building a multi-story arts center may not be realized for some time, he explained.

“It’s something we’re planning to do maybe 15 years from now,” Zigun said.

Reach reporter Daniel Bush at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow him at twitter.com/dan_bush.