Anyone who thinks the Bronx is no place for a cowboy has never met Angelo Iodice.
His childhood playground was Pelham Bay Park — the largest public park in New York City — where he and his brother would ride horses through the forest and even sneak off to the beach and take them swimming.
They had found a whole new world in their borough that didn’t involve hard concrete or wailing sirens, he said. And when he saw his first rodeo at Madison Square Garden, he was hooked.
“They had trick riding, which is people who perform acrobatic stunts on a galloping horse,” recalled Iodice during a recent telephone interview. “It used to be one of the early events in rodeos, and that was it. I knew right then and there, that’s what I was born to do.”
After a decade-long career on the national rodeo circuit as AJ Silver, the professional cowboy pivoted toward a western variety act, combining trick roping, bullwhip artistry and comedy that inevitably found a home in the vaudeville and burlesque scene 20 years ago.
There, he became a sideshow act in his own right and discovered his family — most recently with Coney Island USA, which will perform its first-ever “Hillbilly Burlesque” on Saturday night at The Suffolk Theater in Riverhead.
Adam Realman, “dean and professa” at the not-for-profit arts organization’s Sideshow School, will host the country music edition of the famous burlesque review, a revival of the traditions featuring sexy and strange women, new vaudeville, toe-tapping music and sideshow “freaks” — he chief among them.
“There’s not gonna be any of what are called ‘natural born’ freaks,” Realman explained. “Those are people who are born different — extra limbs, or no limbs, for example. But what you are gonna see is what are called ‘working acts,’ and I’ll be doing some of that: sword swallowing, an escape, a feat of strength. But I don’t want to spoil it!”
The Coney Island native first came across the sideshow in the mid-1980s, he said, when he noticed a once-vacant storefront bustling with activity.
“One week there’s nothing there, and the next week, there’re banners out and a guy talking about what a great show you’re gonna see on the inside,” he said. “I paid the money, went in and was just exposed to a world of mystery. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I had seen, really, the last of the traveling sideshow performers from that Golden Age of the Sideshow.”
Week after week, Realman dragged his friends and family to see the acts, until he enrolled in the Sideshow School himself, 15 years later. There, he learned how to swallow swords, spit fire, walk on glass, lay on a bed of nails and hammer them into his face, skills he has taught to hundreds of students over the last decade.
“The people who get into the actual performance of these acts are certainly unique individuals,” he said, “because not everybody is going to want to put themselves at risk for someone else’s entertainment.”
Iodice could relate to the sideshow performers he has met over the years, he said, often incorporating their humorous, sexy, campy and thought-provoking skills into his own repertoire — breathing new life into a dying art form.
“In some ways, I was like a sideshow performer, you know, ‘this man trapped in two worlds,’” he said of being a Bronx native and a professional cowboy. “I’m a freak myself — and that’s okay, it’s true. I just related to all these other performers. Why does someone do burlesque? They see it and, just like me when I saw the trick riding, there was something that made me say, ‘I have to do that.’”
Enter professional rodeo couple Nick and Helen Panzella, fellow Bronx natives and mentors for the young cowboy. They taught him rope skills and trick riding, respectively, she being among the top talent in the nation.
“She was known was for doing tricks that typically only men did. She was an amazing trainer for me,” Iodice said. “It’s like, I just lucked out finding these people. I could have lived out west and not had the same opportunities that I found in the Bronx.”
To appease his family, Iodice put his aspirations on hold to study and graduate from Pace University, where he found the equestrian program and became captain of its newly formed polo team.
But there was no denying his future plans, he said. The rodeo trail was calling — and it would take him across the United States.
“Depending on where you were in the country, the North and South still existed, so there was a lot of jokes about being a Yankee. But overall, they just judged me on my skill — and I was really good!” he reminisced with a modest laugh. “And at the time, I was the only trick rider from North America to do a trick where you pass under the belly of a galloping horse from one side to the other.”
The tricks did catch up with Iodice — more specifically, his knees — and he then created the western cowboy arts stage act that he will bring to the East End. Right around the same time, he returned to his roots and moved back to New York, where he discovered the burgeoning downtown variety scene of the late 1990s.
“It was sort of the perfect home for me. I could take my skills and present them in a more modern, edgy way, and I became part of the sideshow, the circus, the variety, the burlesque performers,” he said. “We were all in one world. We definitely weren’t the high art of Lincoln Center, but it became really popular. You never knew what you were gonna see, so a cowboy from the Bronx just fit in magically in that format.”
Last year, Iodice received a grant for his new one-man show, “AJ Silver: A Cowboy from the Bronx,” a high-energy love letter to his childhood home that fuses a western variety show with the story of his own life, he said.
“It’s no secret that being performer of any type is tough, especially in New York City, especially in America,” he said. “I feel like we don’t really fit into what society wants us to do — and that’s especially true for the other performers in the show, the sideshow performers, the burlesque performers.
“I think we’re all following our heart and at the end, you might not have the biggest retirement package, but we’ll be able to look back on our life and say, ‘Hey, I did what I wanted to do,’” he continued. “It’s not easy … I feel like our career choice is always judged — whether it’s by family, whether it’s by society. We just have to stay true to ourselves at the end.”
Coney Island USA’s special country music edition of its burlesque review, “Hillbilly Burlesque,” will stage on Saturday, February 22, at 8 p.m. at the Suffolk Theater in Riverhead. Tickets are $35 or $39. For more information, call 631-727-4343 or visit suffolktheater.com.