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Photos by Norman Blake.
Photos by Norman Blake.

There’s nothing more Coney Island than Coney Island USA.

Since 1980, the non-profit arts organization has played a massive part in revitalizing America’s Playground, as well as providing programming that has become integral to summers in Coney.

Dick Zigun, Coney Island USA’s founder and artistic director, recalls that the idea behind Coney Island USA came about not too long after he moved to New York City in the 1970s.

“The purpose of Coney Island USA is to defend the honor of American popular culture with innovative exhibits and performances,” explains Zigun, who holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama.

“Our mission also goes beyond Coney island to vaudeville and burlesque and popular culture in general,” he added. “We certainly relate to Coney Island but go beyond just that narrow focus.”

The organization forever left its mark in Coney Island history by creating the now-legendary Mermaid Parade in 1983. For more than 30 years, the summer staple has invited celebrants to express themselves with themed costumes, motorized floats and makeup.

According to Zigun, the Mermaid Parade caused Coney Island USA to become a full-time presence in the nabe in 1985 and continues to attract some 3,000 artists and hundreds of thousands of spectators each year.

“For me it’s an honor to have made up a New York City holiday. Not many people get to do that in their lifetime,” says Zigun.

Also popular is the organization’s Coney Island Circus Sideshow, which draws approximately 50,000 visitors a year (daily through September 4 then September 15-17 and 22-24; $10, adults; $5, children). The 45-minute sideshow harkens back to the early days of American theater and burlesque and features 10 live acts from professional performers.

Other entertainment options presented by the organization include Burlesque at the Beach, taking place at 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings through September 16 ($15, except Friday, September 15 when cost is $25; 18 and up to enter); and Magic at Coney, which takes place Sundays at noon, year-round ($10, adults; $5, children).

There’s also a museum featuring artifacts from Coney’s history, with a permanent collection as well as changing exhibitions. The current special exhibition is “Five Cents to Dreamland: A Visit to Coney Island.” Adult admission is $5; children get in for $3. Hours through Labor Day are Wednesday through Saturday, noon-6 p.m., Sunday, 2-6 p.m. Between Labor Day and mid-June, the museum is open from noon-6 p.m. on Saturdays and 2-6 p.m. on Sundays.

For more information about Coney Island USA programs, visit www.coneyisland.com.

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