by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque
This article originally appeared in Burlesque Daily, titled Dick Zigun, Burlesque Impresario on Thursday, July 31, 2008
[Following on the heels of the annual Coney Island USA benefit, which hopefully raised lots of money to aid the clean-up of the devastation on Coney Island caused by superstorm Hurricane Sandy, we share with you this excellent piece on its origins and artistic director. –ED]
I’ve been conducting a series of interviews with Dick Zigun, and I’m going to give you just a taste of what we’ve been discussing. If you’re a fan of New York burlesque, you might find the timeline interesting; if you’re not a fan, you may at least finally understand why New York Burlesque is so far from being simply recreationist.
Dick attended Bennington and earned his MFA from Yale. I won’t go into his entire biography here, but a sense of his academic background is useful when considering what he does now as the Artistic Director of Coney Island USA, which he formed as a not-for-profit in 1980. The organization has since then been successfully executing the Coney Island USA stated mission: “The purpose of Coney Island USA is to defend the honor of American popular art forms through innovative exhibitions and performances. The distinct mission of Coney Island USA is to operate a multi-arts center offering museum and theater programming, thereby leading the cultural revival of a downtrodden but historic landmark neighborhood. Through an imaginative and innovative approach combining the performing and visual arts, Coney Island USA seeks to revitalize the community from which it takes its name, attracting international recognition and visitors while providing low-cost services to a mass, working class New York City audience, including the young and the old, the art and the family oriented. Coney Island USA interprets the past and experiments with the future of American popular culture and offers a growing panoply of arts events and exhibitions rooted in the traditions of P.T. Barnum, vaudeville and Coney Island itself.”
Dick is a passionate supporter of burlesque, sideshow, and the art of the tattoo. His influence on the development of burlesque as we now experience it in New York is unmistakable.
In 1981, the New York Times ran an article about the legacy of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. La Guardia was a compelling person in many ways, but among burlesque aficianadoes he is best known for closing down burlesque houses in the late 1930s. [If you are interested in this story, the New York Times website has a spectacular archive. Do a search for burlesque and you’ll find articles dating back a century and a half. I’ve bought many of them, so if you’re considering whether one is worth paying to read, email me about it and I’ll let you know. One of my favorites, from 1955, is titled “Burlesque Plan Grinds to a Halt.” Buy that one.]
Shortly after running the article, the Times published a letter (available in full from the archives I directed you to above) from none other than the sole surviving Minsky, brother Morton, who suggested, “While you are lauding La Guardia’s virtues, I think you should remember his lack of foresight in closing the Minsky Theaters. He used autocratic powers…The burlesque industry lacked funds to fight for its constitutional rights.”
Shortly after that, the Franklin Furnace Archive published a letter from Dick D. Zigun, who said he longed for a modern version of burlesque: “Can’t anyone else imagine a new burlesque theatre, one with its consciousness raised? … Why not insist on a performance wild and wonderful enough to include a novelty hermaphrodite act? Why don’t we challenge and entertain our fantasies as much your theatre did in your time? We need you back, Mr. Minsky. … Nudity is a powerful theatrical device — it need not exploit its performers.”
I am not going to reproduce the letter in full here, but you get the idea–the burlesque Zigun describes is indeed the burlesque he helped to create.
Dick told me that in winter of 1974, in his junior year at Bennington, he did a two-month internship at the American Place Theater in Times Square. He became a big fan of the Melody, which he describes as the last of the traditional strip joints without lap dances or champagne rooms. This later moved to Tribeca, where the recently closed Collective UnConscious was housed. Later the Babydoll and the Blue Angel opened in the same area.
He created the Mermaid Parade in 1983 in 1985 moved into the building on the corner of 12th Street and Surf Avenue. In 1986 he joined forces with Wild Girl (Erica Peterson), a WFMU DJ who was into hotrods and riot grrrls. She was doing events in NJ called Go-Go-Ramas, which were not topless. They began to do Wild Girl’s Go-Go-Rama in the building in Coney Island. We started experiementing, just several “powerful women dacing all at once.” They tried it with a live rock band, and had some solo acts including belly dancers and other variety performers. When Wild Girl departed they began dong Coney-A-Go-Go about 1989, around the time Otter was doing Trip and Go Naked at the Pyramid Club and, Dick says, then as now, “Everybody was influencing everybody else.” And the Blue Angel came along, which at first was primarily a lap dance party and developed over time as a burlesque show composed of solo stripteasers and variety artists. In the early 1990s, Ami Goodheart was involved in producing Dutch Wiesman’s, which nurtured performers such as Angie Pontani, who has been producing shows at Coney Island for several years.
When I interviewed Fredini, who has been producing Burlesque at the Beach with Bambi the Mermaid since the 1990s, he described performers circulating from the Blue Angel, Trip and Go Naked, fetish clubs, drag bars, the sideshow, the circus, and other not-obviously-burlesque venues. In the late 1990s/early 2000a I was performing at Click N Drag, “an amalgamation of art, fashion and performance consistently blending computer-age references with a theatrical sensibility, sexual ambiguity and a strict dress code, rigidly enforced on the famous and the up-and-coming equally”), as well as occasionally go-going at Squeezebox, where I met World Famous *BOB*, and at Coney Island High, the Blue Angel and at Burlesque at the Beach, while many other regular Coney Island performers were also appearing in the VaVaVoom Room and The Red Vixen.
So it’s no exaggeration to say that Dick Zigun was at the root of the burlesque revival that is currently in such high gear, and it should be no surprise that New York Burlesque bears such a distinct Coney Island imprint.
There’s more to come, since Dick has an entire manifesto! The more you listen to him talk about burlesque and his vision for it, the more you love that burlesque–and the more you love Dick Zigun.
Jo Weldon is the Headmistress and Founder of the New York School of Burlesque, and is one of the most recognized burlesque instructors in the world. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Burlesque Handbook, with a foreword by Margaret Cho, (HarperCollins/ItBooks), the first book ever published on how to create burlesque routines.
All photographs in this piece are by Jo Weldon and used here with express permission for Burlesque Beat. Please respect copyrights and do not use photographs without obtaining explicit permission.