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Coney Island Sideshow School teaches students how to perform circus acts like laying on a bed of nails, eating fire and walking on broken glass. It’s the school’s own way of preserving sideshow traditions, and Coney Island’s history.
In three, two, one.
Ten years ago it was really becoming a lost art.
Somebody has got to keep this tradition, this sideshow tradition alive, so that we have a future, so that the sideshow doesn’t die out.
Oh no, the show’s about to begin. Right here at Sideshows by the Seashore. Come one, come all, come big, come small. You’ve got 45 seconds left on that special promotion, the friends of Adam, the first real man, promotion. Right here. Thank you very much, because laides and gentleman, it’s showtime.
Mazeltov. Center the pile a bit. [Walking on glass] Yeah, that’s what you want. You want the grinding, that crunching.
Ooh, it’s misty.
I’ve always loved the freak show.
You’re going to take it, hold it about a foot from your face at an angle like that. [Spits]
There’s this constant subversive element sort of acting out against the mainstream you know normality. [Blows fire]
I’m really glad to carry on the freak show torch.
Fry her. [Distinct laughing]
Coney Island is the great equalizer. We don’t see color, we don’t see strangeness, we don’t see gender, we don’t see sex type, you are what you are and everybody here is embraced.
At the beginning of the 20th century, those things, like sideshows were big. And even if Coney Island changes a lot, this stays really kinda like a turn of the century place. It’s kinda like going back in time.
This is gone. Thunderbolt is gone.
New York is not a city that cares about its roots, that cares about its history. New York will bulldoze and put up new.
You know, no matter what happens around us, whether it’s development or destruction, we will be here holding that torch, carrying the flame, and saying yes, you know, it is good to be a freak.
Now, you’re gonna clean it up. Grab one piece for your diploma.
But there are some places at Coney that are determined to keep the tradition alive. The Coney Island Sideshow School is one of them.
Professor Adam Rinn, who grew up in the area, teaches students how to eat fire, walk on broken glass and carry a charge in an electric chair.
The school usually teaches two four-day sessions per year. Students sign up and pay an $800 tuition. Rinn says the cost will deter curiosity seekers, but for those who really want to perform sideshow acts, they’ll make up the tuition costs in a gig or two.
There were five students in the spring 2012 graduating class. Two students were from an amusement park on the Jersey Shore and planned to take back what they learned to perform there. Another student was writing her doctorate dissertation on freaks and freak shows and thought the class would help her research. Another student was a stand up comedian and wanted to incorporate some of these acts into her performances.
In his own small way, Rinn is helping to preserve the sideshow and an important part of Coney’s history.
Video by Anika Anand and Kenneth Christensen
Editing by Anika Anand
Music by Stars, “Your Ex-Lover Lays Dead”
Archive photos courtesy of Bain News Service, George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)
Special thanks to Bob Sacha and Wonbo Woo
For more information on Coney Island and sideshows:
Behind the scenes:
“You’re like cockroaches,” said Adam Rinn, the Sideshow School professor. He was referring to student journalists who pop up year after year, vying for his attention.
Coney Island Sideshow School has been covered by major television networks as a 30-second eye-catching filler piece and by student journalists as a one-of-a-kind project for show-and-tell.
So how did I want to tell this story?
It was a four-day class, but we could only shoot the last day (due to our schedules). That meant understanding the story, what shots to get and figuring out the “universal hook” all in a few short hours. It was challenging for a mere cockroach like me.
Adam, used to media attention, was great about forgetting we were there and letting us shoot wherever and whatever we wanted (with the exception of any shots that would give away trade secrets).
It was fun shooting all the tricks, but I think the most rewarding part was at the very end, when Kenny and I were exhausted, ready to go home but needed to get some interviews with the students before they left.
We kept the questions open-ended: “What did you get out of this experience?” and “What does the Coney Island Sideshow School and Coney Island mean to you?” All five students talked about how the traditions of Coney Island were disappearing and they felt like this school was a way to keep the traditions alive.
Yes, the tricks were cool. Yes, the building is old and decaying. Yes, there is lots of fire. But I didn’t want to sensationalize this story. I really wanted to emphasize the teaching, the passing on of tradition and people’s eagerness to learn sideshow skills. So, that’s the story we told.
Former subway conductor Christian Whitted, 43, didn’t feel he was fully living until he started his own business. He opened New York Chess & Games shop in Brooklyn in 2008 and made it successful by adding a secret ingredient he couldn’t find in other chess shops in the city: a family spirit.
But they didn’t come.
There is no gambling, there is no profanity, there is no alcohol. (Laughs) So, you know, ultimately it lead to no chess players.
We tried to find something else, so we started teaching and the teaching just caught on, like wild fire
NATSOUND Ms. Ariel, chess instructor: Go!GO!Go!Go!
Ariel, chess instructor: Best part of the job is getting to know that kids have learned something.
Knowing that you taught them that they will carry for the rest of their lives
George Harris, customer: I started coming here like, almost a year now.
You know, I have never really exhibit patience, and I have never been as observant as I am now. And that’s thanks to chess.
If I see Christian, I definitely to have a game with him. Because I know, I will learn something.
Christian Whitted, CEO of New York Chess & Games: You have to move there, I mean. I don’t know if you liked it. make a move!
George Harris, customer: I don’t know. Should I have taken the one with the Bishop?…
George: He is like the Yoda of chess to me.
Christian Whitted, CEO of New York Chess & Games: I watch the people who come here either socially or, you know, as a client or as a customer, I watch them making progress, I watch them persevere and dig through, you know, adversity. I watch people who used to lose all the time, all of the sudden, become tough people.
Ms. Ariel, chess instructor: Holy-moly ravioli, did you just beat me?
Christian Whitted, CEO of New York Chess & Games: I see children who were intimidated by the game, adults who were intimidated by the game become confident people…
NATSOUND: “Good game, good game”
Christian Whitted, CEO of New York Chess & Games: What is does for me personally is vindication, a validation that my life has some real value, and I love that. You can’t put a price tag on that feeling. That’s great, you know
NATSOUND: “Peace and love”
The shop website: newyorkchessandgameshop.com/
A story on the Ladies’ Night event at New York Chess and Games at The Brooklyn Paper:
A story on the New York Chess and Games prodigies:
Christian Whitted in the video tutorial on how to set up a chessboard:
For six days out of the week, the Hunter College Sportsplex is exactly what it sounds like: the gym space for the college’s athletic department. But on Saturday night mats get thrown down and it becomes the space of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby who come to skate, block, and jam at high speed.
Something that struck me while filming this was how popular this offbeat sport is. Gotham
Girls Roller Derby has an extremely devoted following (especially for an amateur sport), and have hundreds of people involved with the organization. A sold-out crowd of more than 900 people came to watch the home opener at the Hunter College Sportplex. Tickets were $25 a piece.
Gotham Girls Roller Derby encourage anyone to strap on skates and join them, but skaters must try out in order to win a spot on one of the four teams. For those who do not make it, there is still a rec league.
The Chess Forum is a home to all generations that come here to play chess. In the morning, it’s children who learn chess and play with their instructors and dads. At night, experienced players come to compete against their friends as well as the clock, when they sit down do play speed chess.
Instructor: My plan failed. But I see what I can do… Check!
Max (stops singing)
Instructor: He is so good. But he trained online. He plays on the I-Pad all the time and his dad said it’s probably the first or second time he plays with real chess pieces.
Instructor: Can I move here?
Instructor: So it is a checkmate. Okay, very good Max.
Max’ father: He has a good attention span first of all. For a kid his age. That’s why I mean. If he couldn’t sit still obviously it would not be happening. I never been to a chess shop like this before. It’s kind of a mystery.
Instructor: This place is very welcoming and I like the atmosphere. Classical music, it’s a nice environment. It’s really chessy. You have a lot of chess pieces, chess stuff. It’s really… makes you like the game more.
Michael Bloom: It really expands your horizons in ways that very few other things do.
Nicholas: You have to pay attention before you make a move.
Avron Soyer: It is very hard to worry about life.
Woman : Hi, how are you doing?
Nicholas: Good, good.
Nicholas: My daughter started playing two or three years ago. She’s good, her focus is very good. This is what I want for now. Maybe when she is 18 she might stop.
You’re always learning something.
Nabi Kiani: It’s a fascinating game, it’s a great exercise for the brain. All the moves go into my head. Why did I not move this? Why did I not move that?
Nicholas: When you make a move in chess you cannot take it back. If there is a mistake people make in life they wish they could take it back. Chess is like life. It’s the game of life. It’s a beautiful game.
Today, Ramanenka, 25, works as a chess instructor for children in New York City. At the Chess Forum in Brooklyn, she met six-year-old Max from Chicago for the first time, after she has been practicing with him online. Ramanenka said she often is surprised by the ambition of the kids she teaches.
“Some kids are really interested in the game,” Ramanenka said. “Which surprises me, because I was never interested at their age.”
On weekends, there are a lot of parents coming in with their kids to let them have lessons or to play with them. Many of them hope that their kids not only learn about chess.
“I think it’s more like the strategy planning and basically think several moves ahead rather than just one move ahead,” said Max’ father, who did not want to give his name. “That’s what I hope he gets out of it.”
When the kids are finished with their lessons and the day proceeds, the Chess Forum’s clientele changes. As soon as it is dark outside, experienced players occupy the chess tables in and outside the store, competing with others.
Their games are always accompanied by a clock which measures the time a player needs for a move, often deciding who wins and who loses.
“It’s very hard to worry about life when you play speed chess,” said Avron Sayor, an artist who visits Chess Forum regularly.
A little anecdote on another side of the story:
Some of the chess players mentioned that there has been an ongoing competition between the Chess Forum and the other chess shop that is located on the same street. The shops have been fighting over their customers, who regularly switched between the two places when their chess partners switched as well. Recently, the other chess shop raised the prices for games, so more people came back to the Chess Forum.
The Chess Forum
Link to NYChesskids, an organization for which Alexandra Romanenko, teaches chess. (she now spells her name Ramanenka)
The “other” Chess shop, called Village Chess Shop
Salerno’s Service Station is a three-generation owned and run auto mechanic shop in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. ‘A Family Affair’ looks at the dynamic between three distinct and strong personalities who are forced to get along for the family business.
Every Saturday, I didn’t get to wake up and watch cartoons, I had to come here and help my dad and grandpa work. I wanted to sit home and watch cartoons – they wouldn’t let me. If I would, like sleep past ten o’clock like every other little normal kid would’ve did in elementary, middle school, they would yell at me, call me a bum, tell me I’ve gotta get up and work…
For an oil change? No, it takes about ten minutes. You can hang out inside, have a cup of coffee as we do it and we’ll have you in and out in like, ten, fifteen minutes. Just try to get here before like 4:30.
Thank you, bye.
So… I like it though.
Salvatore “Grandpa” Avallone:
I’m the one, I start over here. I opened at this station, 1951. I start open by myself, and then I had my son, my grandson, and everybody over here.
Oh family’s beautiful. I used to work for my dad. Sal has it easy. My dad did wild things to me – chased me, wanted to shoot me… (laughs) you know.
[Mario talking to crew]
Yo them tire rods are ready? Sir? Them tire rods are ready?
There’s a sign that says ‘Mario’s way or no way.’
It’s not like, my dad’s not gonna to fire me. I’m sure sometimes he’ll just say, ‘go home, I don’t want you here today,’ but I can never be kicked out of here permanently, you know?
But I just like being fair to customers and people.
[Talking to a customer]
So what’s an air filter? 20, 25 bucks?
And you’ll save gas mileage… and better?
Salvatore “Sal” Avallone:
At the end of the day, we always have to deal with each other. But it’s ok.
It’s a fun thing. We all work as a family, and we continue going on.
Grandpa opened the shop in 1959, but today it’s his son, Mario who is primarily in charge. Slightly affected by a recent stroke, Grandpa still hangs out at the shop, greeting customers and reading the paper (in Italian, of course).
Sal grew up at the shop, learning the art of auto mechanics by watching and helping his father and grandfather. While he is only 25 years old, he is being primed to take over the family business. Sal likes using computer programs to diagnose problems, a skill that he says “the old guys” just don’t have.
While Mario still runs the show, he professed, “he doesn’t work so hard anymore,” and spends a good portion of his days in the stock room-turned-gym where he lifts weights and exercises. Still, he engages clients one-on-one and supervises his staff close enough for them to remember that it’s “Mario’s Way or No Way.”
Sure they fight and bicker, but they also joke around and reminisce. Neighbors pop-in just to say “hello” or have lunch, and just about everybody has a story about the Avallone trio.
Some random facts about Salerno’s:
Mario Avallone loves Christmas. Every year, the staff designs and creates an ornate holiday display to literally brighten the streets of Williamsburg. The business also donates toys and gifts to various causes – usually to local schools or hospitals.
Salerno is the town in Italy where Grandpa Avallone lived before immigrating to the United States.
Mario Avallone used to be a competitive body builder. Sal doesn’t compete like his father, but he likes to stay “big.”
The Salerno logo incorporates a Ferrari because Mario Avallone owns not one, but two of the vehicles.
The Avallones rescued the dog in the video. His name is Jet and he was hiding in the back of a police car that was being serviced at the shop.
Want to know more?
Jason Vale’s basement is more than just a place to hold arm wrestling practice. It’s where friendships are made.
Behind the Scenes:
Jason Vale has an amazing personal story. From an early age, he was a dominant arm wrestler who competed around the tri-state area and even won a few national titles. He soon earned a reputation as one of the best arm wrestlers in the country.
When he was a teenager, he contracted cancer and soon became too weak to compete. After doing some research, he began working on a home remedy that he swears cured his cancer. He says it’s the only reason he is alive today.
In an effort to share his cure with the world, Vale began selling his cure online. Needless to say, the government caught on and Vale served five years in prison. Since his release four years ago, he’s been using the weekly practices as a chance to be a teacher and mentor to some of the younger guys in the sport.
No Lights No Lycra Dance Party in Brooklyn’s Church of the Messiah. People come from all over New York City for the unpretentious scene. The church basement where it happens is almost pitch black so people don’t feel the need to dress up.
About the Video:
This is a neighborhood church that serves local residents in a Brooklyn fashion. I’ve been to yoga classes there, a dinner party, food shopping and a concert. And recently I found out they also throw weekly dance parties. Laura O’Neill, who’s day time career has her running Van Leeuwen ice cream, makes the magic happens and sets up the speakers before dancing. It is so so dark that filming was not an option, which I got around with taking 2 second long photos. The song in the video, Genesis by Grimes, was played the first time I came. I love Grimes and knew I found my song when it came blasting through the speakers.
More info on NLNL! facebook.com/groups/110012725696878/
NLNLs around the world!
Even New York Times Came!
Three men meet several times a week at the Chess Forum on Thompson Street, in Greenwich Village. Chess Forum has been around for decades and has appealed to different crowds over the years. It used to be a haven for gamblers, but now has created a family-friendly vibe.
Chess Forum: chessforum.com/
Avron Soyer’s Art: soyerlaiartspace.com/net/artist/AvronSoyer/main.php
Here’s a video about people playing chess in Washington Square Park: youtube.com/watch?v=MH81Qya088c
After learning how to cook in New Orleans, chef Meg Grace flies 300 pounds of crawfish up to her East Village restaurant, The Redhead, each year so New Yorkers can experience one of her favorite southern traditions.
Coney Island, Brooklyn has been in transition for decades. Most recently, Bloomberg announced plans to revitalize Coney as a year-round tourist destination, with upscale hotels, shops and restaurants. There remain people and institutions, like Adam “the First Real Man” Rinn and the Sideshow School, that are keeping alive the tradition and mentality of old.
I grew up a couple of blocks away, and as a kid, stumbled upon the sideshow. It was just like a magnet, just drew me in.
…thank you very much because ladies and gentlemen it’s….. showtime.
New York is not a city that cares about its roots. New York will bulldoze and put up new. Coney Island is the great equalizer. You don’t know who you’re standing next to. I’ve had doctors and lawyers, business people, bartenders and slackers: people who just got nothing to do. You know, it’s like the scene in Freaks, one of us, one of us.
It is sad what’s going on. But traditionally speaking, Coney Island has always been a shady area, so. No matter what happens around us, whether it’s development or destruction, we will be here and saying, yes, you know, it is good to be a freak.
Students had to breathe fire, put their hands in rat traps, and push nails into their nostrils. They walked on glass, felt the pulse of a homemade electric chair, and even tried to swallow a sword.
Rinn, of course, is familiar with these disturbing and physically painful acts. As a kid, he dragged people with him repeatedly to see classic acts like Melvin Burkhard, the Human Blockhead, and Mike Wilson, the Illustrated Man. He became a member of the school’s first graduating class and made enough money to live doing sideshow performances. Eventually the school’s founders recruited him to teach.
Rinn doesn’t see his job or this place as a mere means to pass on safe, effective sideshow practices. He passes on a bit of Coney Island’s history and way of thinking. In the past decade, much of the neighborhood of old has given way to the city’s development plans and efforts to boost tourism. The amusement park and boardwalk are being developed and in the meantime old architecture is being torn down.
Final Cut of 1-3 minutes due in class Wednesday, October, 26, 2011
Each final project will be posted on Vimeo on or before the deadline. Remember it takes time to upload and for Vimeo to process you video, depending on the time of day, the traffic at Vimeo and the speed of your connection. This process might take several hours. If I log on at the deadline and I can’t watch your video, for whatever reason, I’ll consider it a missed deadline and you’ll be automatically dropped a grade to start.
Each piece must be accompanied by the following six written journalistic elements, all of which must be posted to Vimeo with your video:
- a 240 character description of the story. (For use in TubeMogel)
- a longer 250 word description of the story
- a compelling headline and subhead that are SEO optimized plus at least 5 tags
- a word for word accurate transcript of the final piece
- at least three suitable links to the subject, story or theme from other sources
- a short behind-the-scenes story about how you found the character, something interesting that happened that’s not in the final piece, why you created this story, etc (great for blogging)