Coney Island show produces amazing audience interaction, taps into family roots
BROOKLYN, NY-How is it possible for a city of 8.5 million people feel like one big family? Sometimes there are those moments when it just sort of happens. Our Jungle Gym Jam performance on the boardwalk at Coney Island over Memorial Day Weekend was one of those moments.
The first thing that jumped out at me is that our very specific genre – Jersey Shore rock for kids and families – was not limited to your typical demographic Bruce Springsteen fan that weekend. Our audience was made up of kids and grown-ups of every color and age. Many grown-ups participating (and I mean participating!) in our show were there without any kids, and joined right in with freeze-dancing, some improvising their own dances. Some were dressed in costumes outlandish, familiar and both, like when a Joker impersonator stalked across the audience, prompting several little kids to cling to their parents’ legs. Where’s Batman when you need him?
During our second set, a mystery man appeared with a trumpet (was he busking on the boardwalk when he heard what we had going on and came over?) right during our “Little Yellow Plane” song, which happens to have a sax solo (we hired a horn section for a select few tunes on our new album Lollipop Motel) so I told him the key of the tune and called out “Trumpet Solo!” and came out to where he was standing to ham up that moment with him a bit. That was one of those moments that will stay with me.
Adding to the feeling of family at the show was the presence of my parents, aunt, brother & sister-in-law and my nieces, along with some good family friends from Montclair. But then there’s our long family history with Coney Island. We used to visit my Bubbe (Yiddish for ‘grandma;’ in our case, my great grandma) in her apartment on Coney Island when I was very little. We’d see the Parachute Jump from her window and she’d promise one day it would re-open and we’d go on it. On the other side of my mom’s family, my great grandfather Charles was a friend of Nathan Handwerker (yes, that Nathan!). Both were in the New York City restaurant business in the 1910’s. Nathan had a business idea that he wanted my great grandfather to get in on – selling sausages on the beach. Great Grandfather Charles doubted the idea and declined the opportunity. What a missed opportunity it was! My first thought is, what if I could have been heir to the Nathan’s business. My next thought is, that would have altered the space-time continuum to the point where I wouldn’t have existed in the first place.
Anyway, I digress. For us, the weekend began a bit early; Amy and I gave an acoustic performance on Thursday as part of the Coney Island beach opening ceremony with the NYC Parks Department. Our daughter ‘Hoppin’ Holly’ made some bold cameos toward the end of the show, which she stole as she always does! A crowd of pre-teens gathered around to do a freeze-dance to our tune “The Pick Song.” There was zero inhibition, no peer pressure keeping these girls “too cool” to throw themselves into the moment. We also did random drawings to give away our Lollipop Motel CD; we noticed the winners whether they were kids or adults there without kids, were very excited to receive their prizes.
Saturday was the day of the big, full-band show. Helping us ensure the success of both shows was none other than the owner of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park – Dennis Vouderis. The famed ferris wheel and the rides around it have been in the Vouderis family since the Wonder Wheel’s first opening in 1920. We arrived plenty early and began schlepping all our equipment out of the minivan, up a ramp onto the boardwalk. It’s the most equipment I’ve ever brought to our performance before, given that we were doing a special setup out on the boardwalk and needed to make sure the passersby could hear us and that we could hear ourselves and each other. Dennis definitely met that effort partway by providing us with a drum riser, which made our band look that much more impressive to passersby. I of course loved climbing up on the riser during my solos and jumping off to retake the microphone. This made me feel like some kind of rockstar for a day!
Drummer ‘Rockin’ Ross’ Kantor and bassist ‘Charming Chip’ Moore created a rhythm section that rocked Coney Island that day. They lock in remarkably well with each other, Chip finding subtle, perfect little places in the beat to add rhythmic accents and squeeze a little feeling from the notes. ‘Awesome Amy’ was at her best, co-MC’ing the beach party, inviting (and getting) lots of audience participation like the call-and-response “Marco Polo” moment in the song “Stay in the Pool.”
And who can forget that a Vietnam veteran requested an encore that we dedicate to the men from the 55th Hill – a version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Certainly not typical song material for a rock band playing for kids & families, but on a quick 2nd thought, a song that urgently reminds us the real cost of war and the real reason we have a Memorial Day in the first place. I quickly moved from shock at the request to deep honor to perform the song to thank the vets for their extreme risks and for enduring their own trauma at watching their friends make the ultimate sacrifice. Instead of a guitar solo in the middle of the song, I addressed the audience saying “This is the true meaning of Memorial Day. And let’s honor our fallen by never sending our kids into harm’s way unless it’s absolutely necessary,” which got some knowing nods from around the audience. I’m very thankful that this moment came up in the show.
It was great to meet members of the media who were there to cover the famed beach’s opening weekend. Mike from The Coney Island Blog was on-hand; he introduced himself to us and we talked about his family’s rich Coney Island history and my own. He has a very interesting family story that I promise to share in an upcoming blog article in this space. My parents tell me that WPIX Channel 11 had a TV news crew capturing our first performance with their cameras. At the opening ceremony, a 1010 WINS/CBS news radio reporter was recording audio from our show. A reporter from Brooklyn’s Home Reporter newspaper was taking lots of photos; I really enjoyed hamming it up for him!
What moments make you fall in love with your hometown or a town that you feel especially connected to? Please share in the comments below.