CONEY ISLAND, N.Y. -- The night the sea swept over Surf Avenue, Dick Zigun, the modern day P.T. Barnum who helped breathe life back into this strange and iconic corner of New York, was at home on West 15th Street, three blocks from the historical freak show that he resurrected and two blocks from the beach. Like many of his neighbors, Zigun had decided not to obey the city's orders to evacuate.
But he and his cohorts had taken some precautions, boarding up the windows of the old theater and lining the walls of the theater and his home with sandbags. When the water started seeping under his door, Zigun looked outside and saw that the street was already flooded. He waded across the street to where Stephanie, the snake charmer at the freak show, was drinking herself into oblivion, while her 10-foot and 8-foot Burmese Pythons were locked in their cages on the ground floor of the theater a few blocks away. As the pair sat inside the third-floor apartment, the rising water started slowly short-circuiting the doorbells.
"It was the creepiest thing," Zigun said, "first someone's ringing on the first floor apartment, then the second floor and finally the third floor. You have this weird image where if you held your breath and went downstairs, the drowned captain of the Titanic would be there with a mermaid, waiting to pull you into the tide."
Zigun is the head of Coney Island USA, the beloved New York institution behind the Mermaid Parade, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and the Coney Island Museum. When he came to Coney Island in the 1980s with a couple of theater degrees and the "crazy notion" that Coney Island could be the staging ground for his unusual ideas of what constituted valuable art (burlesque shows, fire-eaters, Penguin Boy), the neighborhood was reeling from decades of economic decline. Over the following years, Zigun and his friends and co-conspirators managed to salvage what remained of the amusement district's glittery heyday in the early part of the 20th century, attracting a new generation of visitors to the boardwalk.