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Last hurrah for the Great Fredini

David Usborne in New York's Coney Island hears the death-knell for old-fashioned fun
  • @dusborne
With his pointy goblin slippers and Charlie Chaplin trousers, the Great Fredini was taking a brief break backstage. He had just done his sword-swallowing act - "Looks like I'm running a quart short", he told the audience as he wiped the stomach fluids from the blade - and shortly he would trip back on for his "Blockhead" number, which involved driving screwdrivers up his nose.

There was not much time, so we got straight down to it. What were his feelings about that well-known hamburger chain, McDonald's? "Intense hatred, disbelief, putrefaction," he replied instantly. Further down the sofa, the Illustrated Man, with tattoos on every square millimetre of his body, expressed similar uncharitable thoughts.

These are anxious days in this small theatre that occupies a prime spot on the Coney Island boardwalk and which for the last 15 years has been home to America's last surviving "10 and 1" show. Called "Sideshows by the Seashore", it is a non-stop burlesque of death-defying feats and freaky circus fun that plays to full houses every weekend through the summer. But it may be in its final days as it faces being felled by political correctness in Washington and by the hamburger company's bottomless ambition to expand.

Managed as a non-profit theatre company by Dick Zigun, the Sideshow scraped by for years, thanks in part to subsidies from New York City and the National Endowment for the Arts. Two years ago, the funds began to dry up; the company has accumulated debts of about $50,000 (pounds 32,000). Back-taxes are owing and Zigun is five months behind on the rent.

Recently, the owner hawked the site to McDonald's, bringing round executives from the company twice to size it up. McDonald's, which insists it is not interested in the space, already has a small franchise and "fun park" a few yards away.

"If we were legitimate business people with any kind of sense - or dollar and cents - then two years ago we would have declared bankruptcy, but that is not us," said Mr Zigun, a former Yale drama student.

After cutting back on costs, he said, the company was no longer losing money and has come to a payment agreement with the tax authorities. He fears that the owner of the theatre has set his mind on throwing the 12- member troupe out, however. Eviction papers are to be served shortly. Meanwhile, a prominent New York civil-rights lawyer, Ron Kuby, has pledged to defend Mr Zigun's company in court.

Meryl Wenig, a lawyer for Ralph Ricci, who owns the building, offered little comfort. "Even if they do pay up, that doesn't give them the right to stay,'' she said. "We'll be filing eviction papers in court next week."

Mr Zigun believes that the Sideshows are integral to the special Coney Island culture, which has offered thrills, spills and sand to generations of New York's poor and immigrants. In recent years, it has gone through something of a renaissance. The old rides are still there - the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone big dipper - and there is still a special grottiness about the place. But the gangs are gone and the city has spent millions smartening up the area. This winter vast amounts of sand were carted to the beach.

While not quite theatre in the Broadway sense of the word, or even off- off-off-Broadway, the Sideshow is more than a parade of freaks. "We think long and hard about good taste," said Mr Zigun. "It's performance-oriented, not gawker-oriented. Nobody has any physical deformities for people to laugh at". It is true, he acknowledged, that some weekends a "lesbian performance artist" who happens to have a beard takes part in the show. The name "10 and 1" arose, because traditionally punters were offered 10 circus acts for their money - $2 a person at the Sideshows - with one thrown in for free.

Mr Zigun has concluded that more than just belt-tightening is behind his company's loss of federal funding. Suspecting that political correctness has played a part, he reflects: "I think liberals have turned their backs on the avant-garde. Liberals are doing the Republicans' work for them and getting rid of anything that might be controversial. It's rather sad."

Back in the dressing room, Kiva, the sequin-bikinied fire-eater, was equally depressed. McDonald's burgers are about the most common thing in America, she commented, and her troupe is among the rarest. But, she concluded, the public will never give up their quarter-pounders.

"People don't care,'' she said. ''It's not that they are really ignorant, or anything. They don't care, that's all.''