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A Tweed Suit for the Bearded Lady

The weather-beaten 1917 building housing the Coney Island Museum, a block from the Boardwalk at Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, is wrapped in vibrantly colorful sideshow banners, one of which breathlessly promises visitors a "Freak Show, Here, Alive" and features the giant hand of an old-time carnival barker. Its index finger points in the general direction of Aaron Beebe's office.

Mr. Beebe, an erudite, multiply-pierced 32-year-old, is the first full-time curator of the museum, a disordered agglomeration of Coney Island memorabilia scavenged, bought and borrowed over the last 25 years primarily by Dick D. Zigun, the impresario behind Coney Island USA. Coney Island USA, in turn, is the nonprofit arts group best known as creator of the neighborhood's spectacularly popular Mermaid Parade.

"It's been a struggle for them to keep their organization going, and they really haven't had the time to devote to the museum, although Dick does keep it open year-round," said Charles Denson, author of the historical memoir "Coney Island Lost and Found." "He's up there on weekends by the potbellied stove waiting for customers to come in - the price is 99 cents."

Now, after 25 years of living hand to mouth and relying largely on volunteer labor, Coney Island USA has decided to grow up and act like an adult nonprofit group. Its board, made up largely of artists and sword swallowers, hopes to double its size to 16 by bringing in trustees with a wider variety of professional backgrounds. And the organization, which has traditionally derived 80 percent of its revenue from offbeat programming like Sideshows by the Seashore, has enlisted Mr. Beebe to try to attract private and public financing.

The peculiar challenge confronted by Coney Island USA is to attract financing from well-heeled New Yorkers whose first instinct, upon seeing a sideshow performer drive a nail up his nose, may not be to reach for their checkbooks. For this reason, the group's leaders have come to see the long-neglected museum as the institutional centerpiece for fund-raising.

"It's like meta-funk," Mr. Beebe said one recent frigid afternoon, warming himself by a space heater in his office amid black binders, wax heads and the severed leg of a carousel horse. "The museum allows us to talk about the funkiness and talk about the honky-tonk while still being scholarly, and to speak to people who are more comfortable standing in a museum looking at honky-tonk than out there marching in the parade."

Mr. Beebe, who was trained as a painter and educated as an art historian and anthropologist, would seem well suited to bridging the two worlds. While Mr. Zigun describes Mr. Beebe as "the person to lead us into the promised land" of academic respectability, Mr. Zigun was perhaps at least as impressed by Mr. Beebe's appearance in the Mermaid Parade as "King Neptune on his day off," sporting a bathrobe, boxer shorts and a scuba mask.

To become a full-time carny curator, Mr. Beebe left a secure job as archivist for the theatrical artist Robert Wilson, forgoing a reliable salary for the opportunity to indulge two very different halves of his character.

"I feel I've found a home," Mr. Beebe explained. "I'm in a community of artists who are serious about being artists, and I can hang out with circus freaks and somehow straddle the line between scholarly legitimacy and artistic freedom."

When Mr. Beebe took the reins of the museum in August, it was not much more than a disorganized warehouse full of thousands of period photographs, fun-house mirrors, bumper cars and a Steeplechase horse. In addition to sending out a flurry of proposals seeking grant money, Mr. Beebe has since begun hanging displays, among them an entryway wall framed by a 1923 terra-cotta frieze of fanciful sea creatures and tridents salvaged from the burned-out ruins of Stauch's Baths, which were demolished in 1992.

But the leak-blistered ceiling, sparse exhibits and small number of interpretive labels make it clear that the road to "real museumhood," as Mr. Beebe calls it, will be a long one. To help reach that goal, Coney Island USA's board, which includes Mr. Beebe, has developed a three-year plan whose aim is to double the organization's annual budget from its current $250,000. At a recent board meeting, the trustees also made a list of people they plan to invite to join their ranks, including a lawyer and a financial professional.

The board expansion will be a watershed moment for the organization; some trustees acknowledge wariness about giving control to mainstream individuals who might not support the group's stated mission "to defend the honor of America's popular art forms" and keep its programs affordable for its working-class neighbors.

Some museum professionals suggest, however, that nonprofit institutions can thrive only by developing boards that include wealthy individuals who will actively raise funds.

"I think many people who start with more artistic boards of trustees worry that people with money will not understand the essence of what they're trying to do," said Ruth Abram, co-founder and president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "But I think, in fact, that's an unrealistic and unwarranted concern."

Mr. Zigun, for his part, said he had no fears that reaching out to moneyed Manhattanites would compromise his organization's quirky identity.

THE funky essence is in the programming, and the program is going to stay the same," he said. "We've worked out of what previously was thought to be culturally sleazy. And so now if in middle age we want to be a little more posh and respectable and upgrade the museum, it will still always be a popular culture museum full of fun-house mirrors and flashing lights and nonsense."

To establish a fund-raising beachhead in Manhattan, a benefit will be held on March 8 at the Coral Room on West 29th Street in Manhattan; contributors will meet such members of this year's sideshow cast as Ravi the Bendable Boy from Bombay. The goal is to raise $40,000, money that will be used to pay rent on the museum building and the salary of Mr. Beebe, who has already lined up two new exhibits. One, planned for this summer, will feature drawings that Robert Wilson made in connection with his new installation in the Stillwell Avenue subway station; the installation includes painted photographs of Coney Island in its honky-tonk heyday.

Even well in advance of the exhibition's opening, Mr. Beebe is winning praise for his ability to blend two seemingly unrelated sensibilities.

"What he does is really unexpected for who he is," said Todd Robbins, Coney Island USA's chairman. "He has that kind of academic, esoteric quality about him, yet it's almost like this is a guilty passion of his, a mistress hidden away in an apartment somewhere in a not-so-great part of town. Because he really loves the stuff."

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