Carny: Celebrating the Art of the Sideshow
The Satya Interview with
Marie Roberts. Photo by Kevin
Island is a magical place. Located at the southern tip of Brooklyn, Coney
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.