Written By Margaret Jacobi
The notoriety of Coney Island as a safe haven for vaudevillian performers has begun to slip away with the developments of modernity, towing the legacy of such entertainers and their unique histories down with it.
But some people are trying to maintain a stronger grip on these institutions.
Chris Schoeck in his training cage. Photo courtesy of Richard Ballard.
What began as a chance encounter between neighbors sharing a common basement grew into the creation of a passion project for film director, Dave Carroll, and a life-changing journey for personal trainer and self-styled strongman, Chris Schoeck.
One day in late 2010 while Carroll was doing his laundry, his dog ran into another tenant’s section of the basement, and what he stumbled upon while collecting his pet was not at all what he expected to find.
“Most people have like storage spaces down there, bicycles, volleyballs, an air conditioner, whatever,” says Carroll. “His whole cage is just bent steel. It was just tons of giant rods of metal.”
After a few more run-ins, Carroll and Schoeck began to talk about Schoeck’s unique talent. These conversations led to a film short proposal, and eventually a feature length documentary, Bending Steel. Full funding from a very successful Kickstarter campaign has made the truly independent film, slated to enter the festival circuit in January, a reality. Touching upon the rich history of the strongmen, the film also possesses much more depth in exploring Schoeck’s personal journey, the incredible amount of discipline required to execute such feats of strength, and the motivation driving his passion.
“Back in the day, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, strongmen were more common; there used to be a couple of strongmen in every city,” says Carroll. “They would perform for crowds, and when vaudeville had its heyday they were very popular. There was a whole group of these very classic strongmen that would show incredible feats of strength to amaze audiences. Then, once vaudeville died away and radio, TV, and other forms of entertainment picked up, that audience shrank and shrank. That time and place where they used to perform just kind of disappeared.”
Despite its decline as a popular form of entertainment, the practice has not been abandoned entirely. Forty-three-year-old Schoeck has been training for over two years in the tradition of classic vaudevillian strongmen. He can twist horseshoes, bend nails and steel bars, and rip through entire packs of cards, all with his bare hands.
Schoeck trains with a professional strongman out of Pennsylvania named Chris Rider, who was trained by Slim the Hammerman, now in his 70s. Slim the Hammerman is the protégé of one of the most famous strongmen, The Mighty Atom (aka Joseph L. Greenstein), an internationally recognized icon from Coney Island’s golden age.
Today’s strongman community consists of a handful of devoted performers that follow the same disciplines advocated by The Mighty Atom in order to achieve a perfect balance of not only physical strength but mental stamina as well.
“It can be extremely inspirational,” says Carroll. “I mean, you’re seeing someone whose doing something that should technically be impossible in theory. They’re overcoming an incredible amount of pain. There is an incredible amount of mental tolerance that goes into these disciplines, whether it’s driving a nail through a thick piece of wood with their hands or bending a piece of structural steel on the back of their neck, or a small bolt over their thumb. It’s an incredibly painful feat of strength, whatever it is.”
The progression of Schoeck’s character in the film is inspiring on two levels. The demeanor of Carroll’s subject immediately struck the filmmaker as “stand-offish” on first impression, and Schoeck himself describes himself in the film’s trailer as feeling like an “extraterrestrial” in his lacking ability to fit in with others. The narrative of the film follows his transformation in overcoming these social anxieties by gaining confidence and a sense of community through his identification with a true niche passion.
“I think it made me a better performer,” says Schoeck. “The movie guys needed footage of me getting out there and performing in front of people and I think if it had not been for the movie, I wouldn’t be as advanced in that area as I am now. It gave me, in reflection, a sense that a group of people really believed in me, believed in me so much that they would dedicate so much of their lives to this project.”
All of his hard work and training culminated last August, when Schoeck gave his cardinal performance in front of a large audience in the first organized strongman gala on Coney Island in 60 years. Last month, several of the big names in the field gathered together once more for the Olde Time Coney Island Strongman Spectacular.
Schoeck and Carroll hope the upcoming film will draw more attention to the strongman as a historical and cultural institution. In the next two months on the same Coney Island stage, Schoeck will also attempt to break two world records. He has ambitions to try and push himself and his skills as far as possible to become a better strongman and a better person.
“Feeling the article bend, it’s a tremendous sense of freedom,” says Schoeck. “It’s all about the journey. It’s learning how to free yourself from all those self-imposed limitations. We all naturally have inhibitions and reservations about ourselves. Learning to move to immovable helps you to shed them. You truly start to train yourself to be a person with no limitations and along that revelation you become a better person because the trials, the failures, and pushing through the pain gives you a sense of inner strength. You really learn what you’re made of.”