A Coney Island Divorce

Not for the first time. I find myself in the middle of a painful artistic and institutional divorce. It happens a lot in the arts; I’ve witnessed dozens of these break-ups from nearly every vantage point, and it’s always just as painful as it can be. I volunteered not to make a peep about this one before it came out in the press, but it has already been announced by various parties on social media. The cat is out of the bag and the chatter wave has begun so I feel empowered to say what I am able to say within the limits of discretion. The photo above naturally tips my hand — Dick Zigun, artistic director of the organization he co-founded, Coney Island USA, has been terminated from his position, and in a pretty drastic fashion.

To those familiar with the organization and its history, this is unthinkable. To many, Zigun IS Coney Island USA. In the press, he is the customary FACE of it and the neighborhood (next to the Steeplechase Funny Face of course). He has long been Coney Island’s “Unelected, Unofficial Mayor”, the guy banging the drum at the head of the Mermaid Parade, an NYC tradition which Dick started. Having begun putting on shows in Coney in the early ’80s, when it was a slum best known as the backdrop for The Warriors, Zigun is widely regarded as the key person responsible for the neighborhood’s gradual rehabilitation. More, as I wrote in No Applause, he has been at the vanguard of the variety arts revival (sideshow, burlesque, vaudeville, etc) for going on 40 years. So without exaggeration he has long been a hero and model and mentor of mine. I’m not sure there is anyone who reveres him more than I do, because that’s how I’m wired.

But I said I was in the middle. Many of the board and staff and many other stakeholders of CIUSA have also been those things to me, or close to it, and, short of that, many have been colleagues I like, respect, and even love and revere. By my count I have worked there in at least six capacities: as a fund-raiser, as a press agent, as a producer/presenter, as a performer, as a stage director, and as a lecturer. I’ve also been a donor (mostly so I could receive “bribes” as a Mermaid Parade judge). I’ve been a fan of the place since I first visited Coney over 30 years ago. “Stakeholder” is the best way to describe what I am in relationship to the organization, but there are thousands — tens of thousands — of those, though I am closer to the real story than many. So I feel it is important to go on the record as saying that this a dispute with no clear good guys and bad guys. It is a literal matter of competing interests. On the face of it, knowing only the unthinkable fact that Dick has been let go from his OWN brainchild, many will roar with outrage about the seeming injustice of what has happened. If I didn’t know more (and I don’t know it all by a long way) my kneejerk response would almost certainly be that sort of indignation. But I said what I said. It’s not precisely like that. As I said, I have witnessed many institutional divorces of just this kind, with founders being let go from their own organizations. From the outside it looks very bad. But…The Fountainhead notwithstanding, once a building goes up, it’s not the sole property of the architect. Many hands built Coney Island USA, and many resources went into it, not just so it would belong to one person, but so that it would fulfill its mission. In the case of CIUSA, that is “to defend the honor of American popular culture”, words almost certainly first articulated by Zigun. But knowing as we do the worthiness of that noble mission, effectively realizing that goal must be the #1 priority over and above any one person, including him. “It’s just not right,” many will say. Maybe so. But you may wish to consider that there are other things that aren’t right as well, and both may be true at the same time.

My heart is heavy and fearful about all this. It is my fervent hope that I can maintain my warm relationships with both of these feuding entities in perpetuity going forward, and that they each will flourish more vigorously than ever. The future of the organization itself is secure, have no worries on that score. As for Mr. Z, I can think of 50 profitable and useful things for him to do outside it. After all, no one can fire him from being the Unelected, Unofficial Mayor of Coney Island. At that, and at much else, long may he reign!

ADDENDUM:

CIUSA has now put out a clarifying statement that should illuminate matters for the curious. It is here.

And Zigun’s supporters are organizing a protest rally in his defense to take place On New Year’s Day at 1:30pm (after the Polar Bear swim) in front of the sideshow. FYI.

The story is now getting press. Read more at:

The New York Times

The New York Post,

The Brooklyn Paper

The Brooklyn Eagle

The Brooklyn Reporter