Anyone who’s ever been to the Coney Island Mermaid Parade is familiar with the hordes of people dressed in elaborate fishy costumes, bearing puppets of the varying sea creature sort, dancing or leaping down the boardwalk to music and mirth.
They may not realize as a single voice pierces the laughter and ruckus, guiding spectators through the three-hour chaos, that the voice belongs to Weehawkenite Chris Tsakis.
This year, in honor of the parade’s 30th anniversary (and Tsakis’ 23rd hosting it), Tsakis donned white pants, a matching white jacket, a blue pinstripe shirt, a 1920s boater hat, and a pair of custom Converse Coney Island sneakers which, he says, will be carefully put away until next year.
Tsakis typically sits on a raised platform with the judges and the elected king and queen of the parade and keeps things moving, which can be hectic during such a large and rambunctious celebration.
“[The Mermaid Parade is] like this surreal train that you can't stop.” – Chris Tsakis
During the remaining 364 days of the year, Tsakis hosts the Sirius XM Trucking Channel and co-hosts a daily phone-in talk show called “Free Wheelin.”
“There's something magical about being in an annual event,” he said. “You see these people once a year and it's a whirlwind, and then you realize you won't see them again until next year.”
Parade with a history
The Mermaid Parade is the eighth largest public event in New York, and this year, the crowds neared 500,000, Tsakis said. People flock to Coney Island from all over the country to witness this several-mile-long spectacle alongside the sea.
It began in 1983 and was conceived of as a summer solstice play on Mardi Gras by Dick Zigun, who founded the nonprofit organization known as Coney Island U.S.A. Every year people come, rain or shine, to watch or be a part of the parade that falls on the Saturday closest to the calendar start of summer in June.
“It's very theatrical,” Tsakis said. “They put a huge thermometer in the water that supposedly raises the temperature of the ocean so that it's safe for swimming.”
Each year, a King Neptune and a Queen Mermaid are chosen. In 1999, Red Beret activist and hardcore Republican radio personality Curtis Sliwa was (oddly) paired with rap artist and actress Queen Latifah.
Tsakis remembers it well.
“Sliwa walked barefoot down the blazing hot road and I couldn't believe it,” he recalled. “Queen Latifah was in the reviewing stand with the sun beating down and when I offered her an umbrella, she said to me, 'Well, aren't you a gentleman.' ”
On June 23 this year, actress Anabella Sciora took the scepter and comedian Jackie Martling was her king.
“It's a little weird for me since most of the crowd, though they come from all over the place, are Brooklynites, and here I am this guy from Weehawken” Tsakis said. “But no one has ever given me a hard time for it, because over the years I've found it's not an easy job. You have to keep a whole lot of plates spinning.”
The parade participants range from “folks who woke up in Williamsburg this morning and decided to come to the parade” to seasoned performers who seem to have worked on their acts all year long. While many are families with their kids dressed as tiny mermaids, some performers have elaborate choreographed routines and homemade props prepared as they vie for the judges' attention.
“The participants try to be very Coney Island about it, and follow the tradition of graft,” Tsakis said. “The idea is to bribe the judges, so they give them beer and food and all sorts of things.”
Seems like a sweet deal, but it's one the judges pay for. The money goes directly to the nonprofit behind the parade.
One parade staple is the Brooklyn Bomb Shells. A group that consists of around 50 performers dressed in vintage bathing suits and nautical themed outfits, they have performed an elaborate swing dance routine that lasts around three minutes for at least 23 years (as long as Tsakis has been MC).
The Coney Island Polar Bear Society – those who make it a ritual to plunge into the ocean when it's freezing – are always in the parade, alongside vintage cars and the typical women in mermaid regalia that borders on the bare minimum, but never fully nude.
It's a family event after all, Tsakis said.
“The day of the parade I don't get to see a bit of Coney Island,” he half-lamented. “I'm so busy preparing for the event at hand. But it's something I love to do. There are plenty of other days to go eat at Nathan's and see the side show.”
For more information on the Mermaid Parade, visit www.coneyisland.com/mermaid. For more information on Tsakis' radio happenings, visit www.christsakis.com.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org