The beloved “Shoot The Freak” game on the Coney Island Boardwalk was one of the businesses handed eviction notices last week by new landlord Zamperla. For a little reminiscing, we asked former “freak” Matt Behan about the time he spent getting shot by tourists.
When were you a “freak”?
I was the the freak of 2003. I was conceived on Halloween of 1979 because of a sponge recall so that will tell my age. I moved here in 2000 and finished three years of acting school on Madison Avenue immediately before I ran into the gig.
How did you get the job?
There was a smokin’ hot chick that called me acting bored. We both lived in south Brooklyn so I said, “let’s go to Coney F’n Island.” Note: this was the first slightly warm day in March. We had some drinks in Brighton, walked down the boardwalk to Coney, and directly after the surf shop I run into the man who made the game, making his game. After finding out that there were not real bullets being used I gave him my number. A month later he called me and, in a deep Brooklyn accent, said, “if you want the job, show up tomorrow on time for eleven in the afternoon.” After a dramatic pause I said, “I’ll see ya’s there.”
Did you know any other freaks?
I worked alone till the middle of the summer. Basically, if there wasn’t a tornado, I worked all day every day. After months of sunny days, I got a bit tired and asked for some help. Then I met two guys named “Loco” and “Manny.” These dudes worked as freaks as well. They were super gangsta and awesome except for the fact that they didn’t like to work for more than an hour. It’s not an easy job. I saw tough dudes act scared.
What was the owner like?
Back then there were two owners, Anthony and Carl. Both in their early forties, Carl was a producer and Anthony was my barker. Anthony was brilliant on the mic. If you saw Shoot the Freak after ’05 you saw it in decline, in my opinion. The show tried a second location on Surf Ave years later but that wasn’t successful. The boardwalk was the king and it was some pirate shit. They didn’t ask for the empty lot, they took it with the approval of no authority and it lasted seven years. That’s a successful business!
How’d it pay?
Man, I quit a telemarketing job on Fifth Avenue the day Anthony called me to come in. Basically, I thought anything would be better than what I was doing. I was a terrible phone guy and wasn’t making any of the commission I had planned. When I worked the freak I made at least two hundred for doing my job. It was theatrical and controversial during my tenure, so money didn’t matter.
What was a typical shift like?
I showed up for eleven o’ clock in the afternoon. If I showed up five minutes late, I got a lecture. The lecture would be, “If you can’t show up to work on time at eleven in the afternoon, tie a rope around your neck and hang yourself.” I’m serious. Then I would unclothe on the boardwalk if front of a crowd of spectators and slowly put on my armor. People would heckle me from the start. I would go into character as the suit went on and insult either someone’s stupid tie or a person’s whole family. The crowd would chant “shoot the freak” and the show started.
Generally, was it demeaning? Or kinda fun?
Both! There were people having fun and people who were just fucking violent! Even with all the armor worn, I took so many shots to the inner thighs, armpits, and even holes in my face-mask that I would lose my temper. Sometimes I was acting, sometimes I wasn’t. If a grown man asked me to take my helmet off so he could shoot me in the face, I acted appropriately by cursing him. If a child told me that I was a loser, I knew he was having a great day-out with daddy…
How did you feel when you heard it was closing for good?
My greatest memories of being shot-at were on Friday nights under the fireworks at Coney Island. There was something so raw and real for a Brooklyn night. We all have seen crazy gentrification in NYC these past ten years, like in Astoria, Long Island City, East Williamsburg and Red Hook. I’ll be ready for this big change [in Coney Island] when I see it. Until then, I’m very skeptical. I came here from the Midwest and did not move here because it was like the Midwest. I want my poor-middle class amusement park! These are the people I relate to. This is the American way. This place is reality! Long live the danger of Coney Island!