Astroland's Last Summer

Burlesque on the Beach

As Coney Island gears up for its annual fancy-dress bacchanalia, the mermaids on parade contemplate the legendary funpark’s mortality. Part three of “Astroland’s Last Summer” by ELIZABETH KIEM.

To play the part of Jim Jones, Miss Astrid of the Va Va Voom Room burlesque troupe added two props to her signature costume: An electric megaphone would be her mic for the night, and a pair of reflective aviator glasses covered, almost, her signature eye patch.

A swaggering mistress of ceremonies in fishnets, stilettos, and a Louise Brooks wig, Miss Astrid promised a “Coney Island Massacre” as the evening’s entertainment. Her adorable Third Reich accent muddied by the megaphone, she introduced that night’s cast of fanatics, psychotics, cult leaders, and, apparently, Richard Simmons.

By intermission, the 50 people crowded into the Sideshows by the Seashore theater on West 12th Street in Brooklyn had survived a flash dance performed by a hijab-wearing (and hijab-removing) suicide bomber; a strip-search of Charles Manson; a David Koresh miracle, and an inexplicable aerobic routine by a Richard Simmons impersonator. The only casualty so far was an Amazon blonde in Nikes and little else who closed out the first act by pulling a small vial from, well, let’s call it her Heaven’s Gate, and swigging its contents. Her earthly remains—naked and bodacious—remained there for the duration of the show.

Burlesque at the Beach has been one of Coney Island’s most esoteric attractions for over a decade. The annual summer series appeals to tourists, hipsters, performers, and a coterie of aficionados for whom thongs, glitter, and mayhem are subjects of scholarship. One of a half-dozen cultural programs run by Dick Zigun’s Coney Island U.S.A. non-profit group, the Friday night burlesque show is fashioned as a “revival of the most glorious and notorious of the ‘girlie revues’ in Coney Island history.”

Zigun’s Theater, at the last subway stop in Brooklyn, should be a burlesque mecca. A hundred years ago, the Bowery boardwalk outside its doors was lined with Oriental theaters showcasing “cooch dancers” like Little Egypt, Fatima, and Princess Rajah. Vaudeville, dance halls, and concert saloons thrived on nearby Surf Avenue during Coney Island’s heyday, when crowds flocked to the shore in search of good, clean, slightly naughty fun. Thousands still descend upon Coney every year for the flamboyant Mermaid Parade, when everyone goes burlesque. But on most summer nights, West 12th Street feels more like burlesque backwater than mecca.

The crowd’s shouts that they do believe in Astroland failed to work miracles—and Astroland’s flickering lights went out. That’s because while Burlesque on the Beach is enjoying a boom in bohemian appreciation, other Coney Island traditions look set for extinction. Devotees began their long goodbye as far back as 1965, with the destruction of Steeplechase Park on the boardwalk’s western end. Demolition, neglect, and recession have all contributed to Coney’s decline over the years, reducing the fabled playground to a small strip of honky-tonks flanked by vacant lots and housing projects. For decades, Coney Island has dished out $4 carnival rides and fried clams to summer crowds, even as preservationists bewail its imminent demise, but the sense of finality this summer is particularly well-founded. With nearly all of the property zoned for amusement attractions in the hands of an aggressive developer, the owners of one of the two remaining family-owned amusement parks have thrown in the towel. Sold last year to Thor Equities for an undisclosed amount, the 45-year old Astroland Park is running its last season.

Hence, act two of Coney Island Massacre.

“Ladies and gentleman, I give you Astroland,” crackled Miss Astrid, “who will dance like the sick monkey she is.”

A vision in gossamer wings and spangled corset, Astroland staggered onto the stage. Her headdress was a crooked star full of light bulbs. A pained show-smile teetered equally precariously on her painted face. Within moments she had collapsed, despite Miss Astrid’s languid exhortations. The crowd’s shouts that they do believe in Astroland failed to work miracles—and Astroland’s flickering lights went out.

In humid semi-darkness, the cast followed Astroland’s cue. Koresh and Manson, joined by a disheveled specter in sackcloth and newspaper, and a wacked-out mermaid, drank the Kool-Aid proffered by the mistress of ceremonies. To thunderous applause, Zigun himself mounted the stage to partake. For as long as the mournful lyrics of Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby” continued to play, the cast lay sprawled in a macabre mise en suicide.

Kate Valentine, aka Miss Astrid, has had a gig at “Burlesque at the Beach” every season for seven years. “I’m really, really, sad about the impending changes,” she said after the show, her voice clear of all traces of Teutonic irony. Like many, Valentine sees no need for development at Coney Island, dismissing arguments that the place’s history is one of boom, bust, and makeover. Prodded about her sacrificial storyline, she said, “Astroland is an old—” but then couldn’t find the appropriate honorific. “It’s, you know, old,” she conceded. “Those rides aren’t the newest, fastest thing. But that’s OK.”

Old as they may be, the 30 rides were put up for sale in late May, with the Top Spin going for half a million dollars. A week later, the sale was off amid reports that the city may broker an 11th-hour deal to relocate the park further down the boardwalk. Hope springs eternal on the Coney Island message boards.

Valentine says she is optimistic. Indeed, at the end of Coney Island Massacre, she has the cast resuscitated. The revived mermaid gives Astroland a life-affirming kiss, and she too, rises to live another day: a phoenix in pasties.

Elizabeth Kiem is collecting Astroland stories. Send some her way.


TMN Contributing Writer Elizabeth Kiem is the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy. More by Elizabeth Kiem