It was the first figure to take shape, hulking in the mist. Between 1885 and 1896, before the tired and poor even glimpsed Lady Liberty, a 122-foot elephant was gatekeeper to the promised land. Huge and fat with opulence, the Coney Island Elephant Hotel and brothel greeted those weary sea-locked immigrants.
Over a century later, few places remain as wild in reality as in the imagination as Coney Island. Its salty sea air is filled with the fantasies of Fitzgerald, Ferlinghetti and Miller. Mermaids, sirens, freaks, hustlers, poets, fortune holders and fortune tellers, kings and queens crowd the rough planks of the boardwalk and the long stretches of rubble-filled beach. Here where Brooklyn pushes hardest against the great Atlantic, you can feel the tidal urge to fulfill your most secret destiny. And if you don’t, Jack Kelly, Jonathan Bitchman, K. James, Manny Mango, Maximum Satisfaction, Syditious and Vera Wylde — aka Switch N’ Play — will show you the way.
This Thursday, June 25, if you happen to be on what Bruce Springsteen might call the mad-dog’s promenade, look out for the knotty likes of Ashni, Della Dare, Kit Cat, Luscious Lola, Glenn Marla, MargOH! Channing, Rose Wood and Lady Ms. Whores D’Oeuvres. They are friends of Coney Island’s fierce new gang, Switch N’ Play, a Brooklyn-born Drag and Burlesque collective formed just over three years ago. They will be performing and producing Anchors Aweigh at the Coney Island Museum as part of Burlesque at the Beach, a program run by The Great Fredrini and Bambi. Throughout the summer they will bring you, “glorious and notorious girlie reviews” every Thursday and Friday night.
The term “normal burlesque” may seem a misnomer by nature and in the neighborhood of the unusual it’s even more difficult to give difference its due, but it must be noted that Switch N’ Play is not a cookie-cutter drag show. With an act that spans musical selections from Franz Ferdinand to Justin Timberlake, SNP commits only to the boisterous exploration of gender, queerness and the destruction of sexual stereotypes. Not to mention dance routines that give New Kids on the Block a run for their money (what’s left of it, anyway). And what better a stage for drag kings than a beach town famous for its foot long hot dogs?
Aside from the wieners in buns, Coney Island is to drag as the Globe Theatre was to Hamlet. At the turn of the century when Jimmy Durante and his fancy finger work was being run out of the queer bars on the Bowery by police raids, he and his counterparts flocked to south Brooklyn dives like Diamond Tony’s to spin their webs with ladies with show names like Big Tess and Edna May. They celebrated Mardi Gras, queerness and each other in important, transgressive and sultry ways.
What’s different about SNP may be the same thing that essentially sets Coney Island apart from the rest of the civilized world. To burn down and to deconstruct forces us to rebuild, to re-imagine. The Lenape, the island’s native inhabitants, called Coney “Narrioch,” land without shadows, because its compass orientation keeps the beach sun-stroked all day. Why did the restless, the outcast, the bearded ladies come here to settle? Perhaps they were sick of hiding in the shadows. SNP’s act comes at the price of just 10 clams, nothing for a little illumination. So to misquote the leader of the cinematic gang, The Rogues, all you “Warriors, come out, Switch N Play-ay.”
Switch N’ Play, “Switch by the Sea,” Burlesque at the Beach, Thursday, June 25, 9pm
Text by Anna Dunn, sent by Annaliese. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Haley.