New York steps up to help the Coney Island Mermaid Parade
After nearly being capsized by Superstorm Sandy, the 30-year-old carnival of creativity known as the Mermaid Day Parade will march victoriously on Saturday.
For many, the event is triumphant proof that Coney Island -- and Brooklyn at large -- is finally getting back to "ab"normal. And the story of its recovery is the stuff of a Hollywood movie.
A flood of love and drops of financial support that collectively became a torrent greeted an earlier revelation that Coney Island USA, the parade's organizer, might have to axe the wacky procession of tuba-playing Poseidons, tattooed mermaids and mermen, human seaweed and other costumed creative types celebrating the start of summer, the pleasures of Coney Island and all things aquatic.
"We are definitely feeling the love," said parade founder and Dick Zigun, who is also artistic director for Coney Island USA.
Coney Island USA hosts the parade and also operates the Coney Island Museum (which is still closed for repairs) and the Coney Island Sideshow and Bar, all of which suffered profound Sandy-related damage.
Last year's parade was the most popular ever, drawing 750,000 people. But more people meant more costs: about $190,000 in protection, staff, promotional materials and other expenses. The parade shortfall this year was $100,000 and with Coney Island USA in financial freefall, "I wasn't going to have the organization commit suicide," to mount the extravaganza, explained Zigun.
But a "Don't Be Shellfish" Kickstarter campaign unexpectedly elicited contributions from almost 2,500 parade supporters, most in modest amounts "from ordinary New Yorkers," Zigun marveled.
Coney Island USA surpassed its $100,000 goal and raised $117,000 (of which the organization receives about 75%, after Paypal, Kickstarter and consultant fees are subtracted).
"We set the all time Kickstarter record for the most money raised for a public art event," marveled Zigun. The "miraculous" public response "is gratifying and humbling and it's done a lot for our spirits as well as the neighborhood's spirit," he said.
"It has much more significance this year because the waterfront really has taken a beating," confirmed Deborah Schwartz, president of the Brooklyn Historical Society.
"This year the parade is special because we struggled so hard to rebuild," added Lola Star, owner of the eponymous souvenir boutique on the boardwalk.
A lot of people have financial stakes in seeing that the parade occurred, as it's "the number one money-making day for businesses on Coney Island," Zigun says.
Carlo Scissura, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, said the parade generates "millions of dollars" for Coney Island. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz promised to let the top two Kickstarter contributors ride along with him on his float, but his office did not respond to a request inquiring as to who won the honor.
Participants, too, are psyched. "I stand for everything the Mermaid Day Parade stands for: Individuality, creativity, uniqueness and a little bit of edge," said Joanna Trumino, 25, a dog day care manager from Fresh Meadows. "I'm in the midst of making my costume now: I'm a pin-up mermaid and will have a shell bra and pin-up glasses."
Mermaid Day has become a critical part of Brooklyn identity, said Schwartz. The giddy procession of individualists "is a celebration of everything people love about the beach, about summer, about being near water, and it's a uniquely Brooklyn version of that -- edgy, playful, outrageous and yet, friendly," said Schwartz. "It gives people a license to let loose and be joyous."
The only comparably organic, grass roots parade in the city is the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village, noted Schwartz, but that event, said Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger, occurs in colder weather, and cannot quite compete with the flesh that will likely be on display Saturday, especially given the auspicious weather forecast.
Toplessness is an established Mermaid tradition, Zigun acknowledged. "You just cannot be lewd and you cannot be commercial," nor can you attend bottomless, he said. There have been at least three women arrested for public indecency at the parade over the years, but they all eventually received nice, plump settlements after suing the city, Zigun said.
What to know in advance
Freshly revived from the brink of death, the annual Mermaid Parade will march down the streets of Coney Island on Saturday. Here’s what you need to know if you go:
WHEN Saturday, starting at 1 p.m.
WHERE Starts at West 21st Street and Surf Avenue, then turns down onto West 10th Street, and finally south onto the boardwalk to wrap up at Steeplechase Plaza
WEATHER Mid-80s and mostly sunny for most of the day
BEST SPOTS TO WATCH The boardwalk is a traditionally popular spot, though you’ll miss out on some of the floats. If you choose to watch from Surf Avenue
BE WARNED Crowds can get extreme.
King Judah Friedlander protests he’s really a man of the people
It’s good to be the king — of the Mermaid Day Parade.
But comedian and actor Judah Friedlander, who was crowned King Neptune of this year’s event, wants you to know he is “a man of the people!” Actually, “I’m just a peasant who worked hard and got lucky,” assured the former “30 Rock” actor.
Friedlander, 44, is a Rego Park resident and has never attended the Mermaid Day Parade. But as a long time lover of “the people’s beach” and all the nostalgic charms of Coney Island, he pitched in to keep the quirky pageant alive after hearing that organizers were drowning in expenses. At the suggestion of Lee Wong, founder of Alt Variety, Friedlander made a public service announcement (“I spent my own money on it”), begging people to save the mermaids.
As reward for his support, organizers crowned him King Neptune. Friedlander will preside with Mermaid Parade Queen Carole Radziwill from “The Real Housewives of New York City,” but wants the ladies to know, “I’m not taken! I’m available!”