Freak Show 101

By Anika Anand & Ken Christensen | September 24, 2012

Coney Island has seen many changes since it opened its first sideshow in 1880. Theme parks have been developed, bulldozed and redeveloped; newer vendors have replaced old businesses; real estate has been bought and sold—the list goes on. But there are some places, and people, in Coney Island that are determined to keep the old traditions alive. The Coney Island Sideshow School, and Adam Rinn, are among them.

Rinn, who grew up in Coney Island, teaches eager—and brave—students how to eat fire, walk on broken glass and carry a charge in an electric chair. The school usually teaches two four-day sessions per year. Students pay an $800 tuition—a cost that, Rinn explains, will deter curiosity seekers, but not discourage those who are truly hungry to perform sideshow acts—after “graduating,” they’ll make up the tuition costs in a gig or two, he says.

There were five students in the spring 2012 graduating class. Two work at an amusement park on the Jersey Shore and planned to take a bit of Coney Island back with them; another was writing her doctorate dissertation about freak shows; and one student is a stand-up comedian who hopes fire-breathing and other acts of daring will help take her stage routine to another level.

We documented their journey, as this handful of courageous performers do their part to keep the spirit of Coney Island alive.

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Anika Anand and Ken Christensen are multimedia journalists based in New York City.

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