BY TRACI KAMPEL | When most of us think of 1980s New York, things like nightclubs, Gordon Gekko types and graffiti-ridden subways come to mind. But a new exhibit at the East Village’s City Lore — co-sponsored by the Coney Island History Project and Coney Island Hysterical Society — captures a different, quirkier side of that era, bringing the inimitable Coney Island boardwalk to E. First St.
“Boardwalk Renaissance: How the Arts Saved Coney Island” is a collection of relics and pieces by artists who came to the declining Brooklyn neighborhood in the ’80s and vowed to restore its glory through their work.
Like Coney Island itself, the exhibit is a place where creativity, mystery, the unconventional and the past all meld. Step back in time via photographs to the aging “World in Wax Musée,” a dime museum showcasing what artist Philomena Marano calls “gruesome tableaus” and reproductions of everyone from violent criminals to Albert Einstein, whose lifelike head floats in a gallery display case.
Also reincarnated in photos is one of the movement’s earliest efforts: the daylong Halloween 1981 performance piece “Tricks and Treats at the World in Wax,” by Dick Zigun, the artist credited with sparking the famed seaside spot’s renaissance and whose many titles include founder/artistic director of Coney Island USA; reviver/producer of the famed Coney Island Circus Sideshow; and unelected “Mayor of Coney Island.”
“Coney Island is a special place within the city,” Zigun said. “In New York, everything’s regulated, everything’s paved over, everything’s on a grid. Coney Island is unstructured. It’s a place to wander.”
Visitors can continue their wandering along “Jones Walk,” Marano’s playful homage in hand-cut paper to the Spook-a-Rama, in which a cross-eyed skull and the artist’s trademark signage lure passersby with the promise of beachy thrills.
“Lionel’s Chair” honors the old Thunderbolt and Lionel Butler, a shotgun-toting “elderly gentleman from the deep South” who kept watch against vandalism while offering painting advice. The print of Marano’s bold paper collage depicts Lionel’s on-the-job view, the massive rollercoaster he guarded in front of him, the Parachute Jump dimmer behind it. His empty chair, tiny in comparison, sits almost sadly in the corner.
The Thunderbolt looms against a stark, royal blue sky in the mixed media “Fred’s House,” by Richard Eagan, who founded the Hysterical Society with Marano. Under its tracks stands the pale pink Kensington Hotel and its ever-rattling living room, fictional home to Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and actual home to the ride’s owners, Mae Timpano and Fred Moran. City Lore executive director Steve Zeitlin, a folklorist, said the pair would often find random possessions that had fallen from the sky mid-ride, most notably a set of false teeth.
“One of the things that drew us was the people,” said Eagan. “The crazy, old-timer-type characters.”
Other highlights include the Eagan/Marano collaboration “25 Shoot,” a diorama-like re-creation in primary colors of an original William F. Mangels shooting gallery; a car from the Spookhouse “ride-through gallery”; publicity posters from events Zigun and Eagan produced to draw in crowds; video clips from the very first Mermaid Parade; and an array of memorabilia that encapsulates Coney Island’s special brand of Americana.
More Coney Island-themed work can be seen out at the source, at Coney Island USA’s “Sodom by the Sea,” the sister exhibit to “Boardwalk Renaissance.”
So what is it about Coney Island that inspires all this art?
“I think it’s an outlaw spirit,” Marano said. “It’s beautiful and curious and ideal for escapism. It’s that unusual place at the end of the line where the city meets the sea.”
“Boardwalk Renaissance: How the Arts Saved Coney Island,” through March 13 at City Lore, 55 E. First St.; Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m. For more information: 212-529-1955 or coneyisland.com .