Across from the West 8th stop in Brooklyn, nestled between the New York Aquarium and Coney Island’s amusement ride mecca, is a show that’s been going strong for more than a century: The Coney Island Circus Sideshow. Each year during the warmer months, tens of thousands flock to Coney Island’s boardwalk for Nathan’s Hot Dogs, a ride on the Cyclone roller coaster, or for the annual Mermaid Day Parade. But blink and you may miss one of the true staples of Coney Island: Sideshow by the Seashore, off 12th St and Surf Avenue. Vagabonds and New York natives alike call the Coney Island Sideshow home, performing circus classics such as sword swallowing, fire breathing and being chopped into pieces via a “blade box.” The acts and tone draw heavy influence from the circus and magic greats—P.T. Barnum, Houdini, Ringling Brothers and more. With handpainted murals adorning the façade and the obviously close-knit community of performers, this loving freakshow is a heartwarming time capsule to circus days of yore.Here, Alexander Eric Vargas sits backstage before the first performance of the day. Vargas, who performs with the name Alejandro Dubois, has been entertaining since he was 13 years old. In the seasons he’s not performing full time, Vargas teaches mixed martial arts to children. At the Coney Island show, he performs fire acts, escape arts, sword swallowing, and often hosts the shows.
Nola Star performs her fire dancing routine as the finale for the sideshow. When not eating fire or lying on a bed of nails, she works as a beautician at a salon in Manhattan.
Patrick “Mr. Strange” Salazar announces the acts of the sideshow to passerbys on West 12th Street in Coney Island. “I love my job,” Salazar gushed. “I get to yell for a living.”
Zoe Ziegfeld gets dressed backstage. The snake charmer got her first pet snake when she was 8 years old, and has been working with albino pythons professionally for about a year. Aside from dancing with snakes in Coney Island, she also performs as a burlesque dancer in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
The colorful Sideshow building in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
Ray Valenz hits a nail into his nostril, an act known as “human blockhead.”
Alexandra Furillo—who performs under the name Nola Star—rests her head on Patrick “Mr. Strange” Salazar backstage.
Leo “The Human Gumby” performs his contortion act that he’s taken across the world, from Mexico City to Australia. The East New York native has been performing only five years, he’s been stretching for 10. Prior to becoming a full-time performer, he was a traffic cop in Brooklyn.
Performer Betty Bloomerz pulls up her stockings backstage at the Coney Island Sideshow. All performers are required to wear costumes of some sort.
Marie Roberts poses with her sketches and paintings inside her Coney Island studio. Roberts has been the Artist in Residence at Coney Island since 1997, and painted the murals that adorn the outside of the sideshow with her art students. Roberts comes from a family of circus performers, and laughs that she “grew up speaking carnie.”
Alejandro Dubois breathes fire during his act.
Betty Bloomerz applies makeup backstage before performing. Prior to sword swallowing, she worked as a yoga teacher.
Princess Pat Muko performs a dance with the 35-pound albino python, Dionysus.
Cigarettes, eyelashes and various makeup decorate the counter backstage.
A painted mural by Marie Roberts outside of the Coney Island Sideshow.
Alejandro Dubois prepares a blade box illusion with Zoe Ziegfeld during the Coney Island Sideshow.
Betty Bloomerz swallows a sword during her act. Bloomerz was crowned “Miss Coney Island” last year, and offers an impressive act of swallowing swords that are jagged and uneven.
Mr. Strange walks upstairs to the Coney Island Museum, located directly above the sideshow.
Coney Island, the last stop on the Q Train in Brooklyn.
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