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May 2005
Talking Carny: Celebrating the Art of the Sideshow
The Satya Interview with Marie Roberts

 

Marie Roberts
Marie Roberts. Photo by Kevin Lysaght
Sideshow banner

Coney Island is a magical place. Located at the southern tip of Brooklyn, Coney Island has a rich history that lives on to this day. During its heyday in the early part of the 20th century, it was a place like no other on Earth. A working person’s paradise, Coney offered inexpensive thrills and entertainment to throngs of New Yorkers and tourists who jammed the beaches and streets in search of a good time. It was the place to be, with America’s grandest amusement parks—Dreamland, Luna, and Steeplechase; plus countless restaurants, bathhouses, dance halls and, of course, sideshows.

Coney’s sideshows promised unbelievable sights, strange people and freaks from around the globe in a time before television gave us talk shows and reality shows—the nightly freak shows we now watch in the comfort of our home. Framing the early sideshows were huge, larger-than-life, hand-painted banners enticing the masses to plop down their hard-earned nickel or dime to see the wonders and curiosities inside.

As the years passed, Coney Island fell into a decline and sideshows became a relic of the past, falling victim to the higher profit margins of mechanical rides (you don’t have to feed the Tilt-a-Whirl, and it never shows up for work drunk) and an era of political correctness, which deemed the displaying of people with physical abnormalities to be exploitative (despite the fact that most of the performers did not themselves hold this belief).

Now in 2005, Coney Island is in the midst of a resurgence. One of the organizations spearheading this comeback is the not-for-profit Coney Island USA, led by Dick Zigun, the unofficial “mayor” of Coney Island. Working to preserve the history and honky-tonk culture of Coney, the group is responsible for the annual Mermaid Parade, Burlesque at the Beach, the Coney Island Tattoo and Motorcycle Festival, the Coney Island Museum, and of course, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. As one of the last remaining ‘10-in-1’ sideshows in the country (10 live acts for one admission), the Coney Island Circus Sideshow is an integral part of the renewed interest in the sideshow arts (sword swallowing, fire eating, escape artistry, etc.).

As Artist-in-Residence at Coney Island USA, Fairleigh Dickinson University professor Marie Roberts is continuing a legacy that stretches back to her Uncle Lester, who was a “talker” at the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in the 1920s. Growing up in Coney Island, Marie grew up listening to family stories of Coney, replete with tales of traveling sideshow freaks who stayed as guests at the family house (which she still lives in) while in town to perform.

With her large, colorful banners hanging prominently outside of today’s Sideshow, Marie has helped keep the art of the sideshow alive for a new generation of Coney visitors to marvel at and enjoy. And, as a professor, Marie teaches her students the art of banner painting with the hope of keeping the art form alive well into the 21st century. Despite her busy schedule, Marie, a committed vegetarian, also finds the time to care for and rescue local cats in need.

Over some greasy french fries, Satya’s resident freak, Eric Weiss talked with Marie Roberts about her banner art, the sideshow, and how it all relates to her animal activism.

As a an artist whose family is Coney Island royalty, can you tell us a little about your earliest memories of Coney Island and the sideshow?
My earliest memory of Coney Island is sitting between my parents in the front seat of the old Desoto on Stillwell Avenue drinking out of my father’s coffee cup—by nine that was the only thing I ever drank. My father would buy coffee, fries and corn at Nathan’s.

[With the sideshow], well of course everybody was dead by the time I came along. But as long as I can remember, my family was talking carny—I guess so I wouldn’t know what they were talking about, but it just seemed like they were speaking English to me.

You say your family “talked carny.” What does that mean?
Maybe I shouldn’t talk about it to the non-initiated. [Laughter.] It’s like an inside language all the show people knew. The funny thing is, my university Dean’s wife comes from a vaudeville family—she’s a dancer. And whenever she or their daughter are on campus they come over and talk carny with me.

So you’ve got a few people you can keep the language alive with?
I thought when my mother died it would die, but then that’s when I taught my husband. It took him a long time to really get it. You have to forget you went to college to sound authentic: don’t use two syllables when a one syllable word will do.

What led you to being vegetarian and helping animals?
My father, mother and Uncle Lester were all animal lovers. We always had dogs, not cats; and never a fancy dog, always a rescue. It was a very respectful environment for the animals. I was taught to check their water bowl all the time and make sure they eat before you eat because they can’t ask for it. I don’t understand how people can’t know that.

Did your parents raise you vegetarian?
No. The first vegetarian I heard of was Pegeen Fitzgerald—she and her husband Edward had a talk show all through the 60s and 70s. My father was really into listening to the radio and he always admired her for being a vegetarian, because that was kind of weird back then.

I didn’t think about it too much. I just stopped. I’ve always been of limited means. We weren’t people that had steaks, we weren’t big consumers. In 1984, I went off beef—it might have been chicken too, I’m not sure. [With] animals, my father used to say we’d get the bums nobody would want and they’d have quirky personalities. I inherited this goldfish, his name was Robert, and he lived for a year. Robert would look at me in the morning for his breakfast and it just clicked: I can’t eat Robert. And it seemed like I would be a hypocrite if I was wearing things that got killed, so I just went off of everything at that point. That was in 1989.

So Robert was what made you make the change?
Probably. That and my Uncle Lester died that year and maybe I was just ready. The problem with me is I don’t cook, I don’t like it—food is just purely fuel. Once I made [the switch], it was okay. I don’t even yearn for anything that’s dead. I don’t find it a hardship at all in terms of food. And it’s getting better now that there’s places like Moo Shoes where you can get [vegan] shoes.

I love that if there’s a cat around your neighborhood who needs help, you take care of him or her. Was that sort of a natural thing coming from your parents—you rescue the cat bums?
Yeah. My parents always had a big heart for whatever needed a home. And we were always respectful to the outside animals too. When I moved back to [Coney Island], it seemed heartless not to feed the stray cats and give them a sanctuary. It started with Floyd. His mother was Homer because she was homeless and she had one kitten, and he was red. I just thought it was a sign from the universe because I always wanted a red cat and when he was eight weeks old we took him in and got him neutered. I guess somehow it dawned on me that if I could tame the stray cats, they’d have a shot at a home.

As the Artist-in-Residence at Coney Island USA I think it’s fair to say you’ve been responsible for creating some amazing sideshow art.
I’m following on the coattails of Valerie Haller. She worked with the show for a long time and did an amazing group of banners for them. I really didn’t know if I could paint a banner.

Really?
I met Dick Zigun [the founder of Coney Island USA] after Lester died. I read an article in the paper about him doing a sideshow. In talking and writing back and forth, he [said he] needed to get somebody to paint banners. And I just fell in love with it. I’d always wanted to do public art.

For years there was a decline in interest in sideshows and sideshow art and it seems like over the last few years there’s been a real resurgence of interest. What do you think is attracting people back to the world of the sideshow and its art?
It seems like in the modern world we’re searching for amazement, but there is so little true amazement in a way. The thing about the sideshow and the banners is that people are doing real things that you don’t think are possible. And the banners are big and hand-painted—now where can you go in this country to see hand-painted work?

When I was in Italy once, what amazed me about Rome and Florence was walking down a cruddy old street there would be a 15th century fresco out in the air—you know, battered and all—but that kind of did something to my head. My first reaction was, “Oh my God, this should be in a museum!” But in a way it was kind of cool that people were looking at real art.

When Dick started hanging my work, one of my friends said that “Marie’s finally got her Arena chapel.” Giotto was a 14th century artist who painted a series of murals in the Arena chapel [in Padua]. And with the sideshow banners, it’s like I have my own place to decorate. [Once] I became a professional [artist], I always showed in one gallery or another but always felt, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I could find something my mother would [appreciate]?’ I didn’t go to a museum until I was 19—I wasn’t from that kind of a background. So the idea that my paintings are out [on display] all the time…it’s great.

You always have a show up.
It’s so cool that everybody can look at them. Somebody that’s never going to go to a museum—I’m not making any judgment on them because I didn’t, my parents didn’t—is going to see a painting. It’s like feeding them something that’s good for them on a lot of levels.

When I see the line of sideshow banners hanging I feel like a little kid, I get so excited. I love that a lot of people go to Coney Island who don’t know much about art who just like these amazing, bold, beautiful big paintings of people swallowing swords and sitting on beds of nails!
When you say you’re like a kid getting excited, that’s really cool in this day and age. I think it’s the best compliment anybody could give me. And if you don’t have any money in your pocket—you’ve got the beach and the boardwalk—you can go look at the banners. It’s like seeing an art show for free. I don’t go to Broadway shows, I rarely go to off-Broadway shows. I don’t go to the Guggenheim or to places that charge admission because I don’t have extra money. The sideshow is affordable—where else [can you see] live people doing live things for not very much money? That’s pretty cool and pretty immediate, and that’s why I feel positive about it. It’s one of the most exciting things that’s ever happened to me. I hate to say [it but I] couldn’t afford to put tombstones on some people’s graves, but I think that putting the banners up, it’s a little bit of a memorial to people in my family that loved Coney Island.

Could you tell us about the Sideshow Banner Painting School and how people can get involved with that?
About three to four years ago, [world renowned sideshow performer] Todd Robbins wanted to pass along the sideshow skills, so he started teaching them in Sideshow School. And I immediately glommed onto the idea and said, “Let’s teach banner painting too for those people who want to be adventurous with their hands!” So we run a workshop in the fall, spring, and now in the summer.

I don’t care if you have training or no training, we set you up and I show you how I do it. There’s no pre-requisites. I have a student now who claims she never picked up a brush before, but she did it. I’m there to help you, to tell you not to be afraid, and it seems to work.

So as someone who is a vegetarian and an animal lover, an animal activist of sorts, does that part of your life influence your art? Do you consider yourself an activist artist or is it separate?
No, nothing in my life is separate. There are animals around in my paintings. The animals are never degraded. When you look at a painting you can tell if that person respects the animal or not. I’m hoping that the respect that I have for people, animals and my activism shows up in my work, too. I try.

I also teach at a university and I can’t believe how many of my students have turned vegetarian. Dick and I co-teach a class in the winter session called alternative art. One of the things I do is take them to eat alternative food—there’s a veggie Chinese restaurant in Teaneck and we go eat a veggie meal. And most of them have never done that. People have weird ideas about vegetarians. And they don’t expect a vegetarian to be sort of cool. Just like people don’t expect a 51 year-old woman with grey hair to be painting sideshow banners! I think that we’re all teachers in life.

To view Marie Roberts’ artwork and learn about the banner painting school, visit www.bitterwonder.com and www.coneyisland.com.

 


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