‘Bending Steel’ explores the lost art of the old time Coney Island strongman

Holly Bailey

Bending Steel Official Movie Trailer from Bending Steel Movie on Vimeo.

New York is a city fueled by eccentric personalities, but when Dave Carroll encountered his neighbor Chris Schoeck in the basement of their apartment building in Queens two years ago, it was an experience that was more than a little unusual.

Carroll’s dog, Gizmo, had escaped down a hallway, attracted by the sound of clanging metal. When Carroll turned the corner, he found Schoeck, a shy man of slight build, standing in a storage space surrounded by piles of what Carroll described as “bizarre objects.” There were bent nails, hammers and horseshoes and chains hanging from the wall. In one corner, there was a stack of phonebooks torn completely in half.

“I found it kind of startling, to be honest,” Carroll recalled in a recent interview. “I had run into Chris before in the elevator and around the building, and he had already seemed to me to be an odd guy. He didn’t look you in the eye and didn’t really talk.”

Weirded out, Carroll greeted Schoeck, grabbed his dog and “quickly walked away.” But Carroll couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d seen. Two weeks later, he returned to the basement and sought out his odd neighbor. “What’s going on with the metal?” Carroll asked him.

The answer was surprising: Schoeck told him he was bending steel and other objects in hopes of becoming a strongman like the old vaudeville performers at Coney Island back in the late 1880s.

That chance encounter is the basis of “Bending Steel,” a documentary directed by Carroll about Schoeck’s attempts to master unusual feats of strength. The film, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on Saturday and plays throughout next week, examines the obscure art form of being an old time strongman, which lives on even as such entertainers at Coney Island have largely disappeared.

But while the movie details the history and colorful performers of that world, the film is really about Schoeck’s personal journey. At 43, Schoeck appears isolated, struggling to find a place in the world. Describing himself in the film as an “extraterrestrial,” he has few friends and a distant relationship with his parents. He admits that he doesn’t seek out relationships, in part because they are simply too messy.

But soon Schoeck finds himself mingling with a group of men who also have also found solace in mastering strength--including Chris Rider, a performer from Pennsylvania who, among other things, bends wrenches and uses his long ponytail to tow cars.

“I started to find a lot of fulfillment,” Schoeck said in a recent interview. “They became a family to me, a supportive group of people, and I found things that were never really in my life before.”

All of the strongmen have a stage name, and soon they give Schoeck his: “Wonder”—a nickname inspired by the fact that he’s so slight he doesn’t look like a guy who could bend steel. Rider becomes a mentor to Schoeck, who longs to be an entertainer but struggles to master the showmanship required in part because he’s so reluctant to engage with other people.

“He had a desire to become something he wasn’t, and that’s the tension of the film,” Carroll said.

Given his isolation, Schoeck told Yahoo News he was initially reluctant to be filmed talking about his “hobby.” He spends about $400 a month ordering various items of steel to practice his feats. Asked what made him finally open up to someone—much less a filmmaker with a camera—Schoeck let out a long sigh, before laughing awkwardly.

“That’s a difficult question,” he admitted. “I never really thought it was going to turn into what it turned into.” But, he admitted, “I enjoy getting the gratification of having other people take an interest in what I was doing. I guess it was a way of coming out of my shell.”

The film shines a light on an art form undergoing a revival in Coney Island. On May 19, Schoeck and several of his friends are scheduled to appear as part of the Olde Time Coney Island Strong Man Spectacular at Coney Island, USA, a non-profit arts facility along Surf Avenue. The group is trying to bring back strongman performers on a permanent basis, along with burlesque dancers and other old school performers that highlighted Coney Island’s early days.

Schoeck says he began trying to bend steel in 2010, after reading stories about men even smaller than he is accomplishing great physical feats. In the film, he focuses on trying to bend a two-inch plank of steel, going so far as to hang it on his wall to convince his mind that he can do it.

“You feel a tremendous amount of power when you are bending steel,” Schoeck said. “The way it feels when you work on it for a while and it starts to give… it’s fulfilling.”

But the film also casts it as a metaphor for Schoeck trying to take back control of his own life—and Carroll says he believes viewers, even if they have no interest the history of old time strongman, can relate Schoek's challenges.

“The film is about overcoming your perceived limitations, believing you can accomplish something,” Carroll says. “I think that’s something that everybody can understand and relate to.”