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At Coney Island, The (Mermaid) Show Must Go On

Not even Superstorm Sandy could keep the mermaids from coming back to Brooklyn.

The Mermaid Parade is a nautically themed and occasionally naughty parade that draws close to a million people to Coney Island, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, each June. Sandy nearly drowned the organization that hosts the parade, but supporters donated more than $100,000 to get the parade back on its fins this year.

Every year, hundreds of artists, musicians and other assorted weirdos put on skimpy, mermaid-themed attire and makeup to parade through the streets of Coney Island. "It's the strangest parade in the world I think, so you can do whatever you want," says Lefty Lucy, a burlesque performer and Miss Coney Island 2011. She's been walking in the Mermaid Parade, flanked by aquatic creatures of all shapes and sizes, since 2007.

"Before we did the first one, people were laughing, because how do mermaids without feet march down the street?" says Dick Zigun, who founded the Mermaid Parade in 1983. When it began, Zigun likes to say there were more people in the parade than watching it.

Last year, an estimated 750,000 people showed up.

'We Invented Our Own Holiday'

Originally, Zigun wanted to have the parade on the Fourth of July. But the powers that be suggested he choose a less busy day, so he picked the summer solstice. "The irony is, three decades later, the Mermaid Parade is arguably busier than the Fourth of July," Zigun says. "So we invented our own holiday that a whole generation of New Yorkers [has] grown up on — that this is how you celebrate the beginning of summer."

But that holiday almost didn't happen this year. Last October, Superstorm Sandy flooded the offices of Coney Island USA, Zigun's nonprofit. The group has since repaired most of the damage, but it didn't have enough money left for the Mermaid Parade, which costs about $190,000 a year to operate.

So Zigun and his team put out a call for help on Kickstarter. Singer Amanda Palmer headlined a benefit concert for the cause — wearing a seashell bikini top, and opening with a hit from The Little Mermaid.

The concert was put together by another volunteer: Lee Wong, the editor of Alt Variety Magazine. Wong remembers going to see the Mermaid Parade for the first time when he was 9 years old. "Seeing women topless was exciting to me, even at that age," Wong says. "But I think now as an adult, I could say there's a lot more than that. It's artistic expression. Everyone does their own thing, and it's performance art."

Wong says the benefit concert raised more $10,000 for the parade. Most of the donations through Kickstarter were a lot smaller. Still, the campaign exceeded its goal of $100,000.

Zigun says Saturday's parade marks an important moment in Coney Island's recovery from Sandy. "It's like Mardi Gras after Katrina," says Zigun. "It's important to the soul of Coney Island to let the world know that we're here, we do what we do. We haven't changed."

So for the 31st year in a row, Dick Zigun will put on his antique bathing suit and bass drum and march at the front of the parade, while hundreds of mermaids follow in his wake.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. One of Brooklyn's strangest traditions returns this weekend for the first time since Hurricane Sandy. The Mermaid Parade is a nautically-themed and occasionally naughty spectacle that draws close to a million people to Coney Island. The organization that puts on the event was nearly drowned by the hurricane last year, but it was saved by supporters who donated more than $100,000, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's not summer in New York until the mermaids come back to Brooklyn. Every year in June, hundreds of artists, musicians and other assorted weirdoes put on skimpy mermaid-themed attire and makeup and parade through the streets of Coney Island.

LEFTY LUCY: I'm doing this kind of like punk mermaid who, like, one of my bra cups is like a fish skull.

ROSE: That's Lefty Lucy, a burlesque performer and Miss Coney Island 2011. She's been walking in the mermaid parade since 2007, flanked by aquatic creatures of all shapes and sizes.

LUCY: It's the strangest parade in the world, I think, so you can do whatever you want and everyone is just having so much fun.

DICK ZIGUN: Before we did the first one, people were laughing because how do mermaids without feet march down the street?

ROSE: Dick Zigun is the founder of the mermaid parade and the unofficial mayor of Coney Island. When it began in 1983, Zigun likes to say there were more people in the parade than watching it. Last year, an estimated 750,000 showed up. Originally, Zigun wanted to have the parade on the Fourth of July, but the powers that be suggested he choose a less busy day. So he picked the summer solstice.

ZIGUN: The irony is now, three decades later, the mermaid parade is arguably busier than the Fourth of July. And so we invented our own holiday that a whole generation of New Yorkers have grown up on, that this is how you celebrate the beginning of summer.

ROSE: But that holiday almost didn't happen this year. Last October, Hurricane Sandy flooded the offices of Coney Island USA, Zigun's nonprofit. The group has since repaired most of the damage, but it didn't have enough money left for the mermaid parade, which costs almost $200,000 a year to operate. So Zigen and company put out a call for help on Kickstarter, and singer Amanda Palmer headlined a benefit concert for the cause wearing a seashell bikini top and opening with a hit from "The Little Mermaid."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

AMANDA PALMER: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

ROSE: The concert was put together by another volunteer, Lee Wong, the editor of Alt Variety magazine. Wong remembers going to see the mermaid parade for the first time when he was nine years old.

LEE WONG: Seeing women topless was exciting to me even at that age, but I think now as an adult, I could say there's a lot more than that. It's artistic expression. Everyone has - does their own thing, and it's performance art.

ROSE: The concert raised over $10,000 for the parade. Most of the donations through Kickstarter were a lot smaller. Still, the parade exceeded its goal of $100,000. Founder Dick Zigun says tomorrow marks an important moment in Coney Island's recovery from Sandy.

ZIGUN: It's like Mardi Gras after Katrina. It's important to the soul of Coney Island to let the world know that we're here, we do what we do, we haven't changed.

ROSE: So, for the 31st year in a row, Dick Zigun will put on his antique bathing suit and bass drum and march at the front of the parade while hundreds of mermaids follow in his wake. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.