Meet the juggler who brought a barge museum to Red Hook
This is the Waterfront Museum’s 25th anniversary in the neighborhood.
Meet the clown who saved Lehigh Valley Barge #79 and turned it into a floating museum.
When I say clown, I don’t mean he’s a fool. I mean he was a professional juggler who studied at Jacques Lecoq’s school for physical theater in Paris.
The legendary Lecoq gave him the name Apollo, but Brooklyn knows him as David Sharps — the president of the Waterfront Museum, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary as a Red Hook cultural institution.
He rescued a century-old wooden railroad barge from mud flats south of the George Washington Bridge back in 1985. The barge now serves as a floating museum, a performance venue and an education center.
The Waterfront Museum is docked in a prominent spot in a cove beside Red Hook Stores, where Fairway Market is located.
Three hundred tons of harbor sludge
In a recent interview, Sharps recalled the barge was filled with 300 tons of harbor sludge when he started his rescue mission. The epic cleanup effort involved gasoline pumps and hoses. It took two years.
Sharps, who has devoted his life to Lehigh Valley Barge #79, paid $500 for the mud-filled vessel.
“When I bought this barge, I had never used a power tool in my life,” he said. “That’s the definition of foolish.”
The cove where the barge museum is docked is private property with public access. It belongs to the O’Connell Organization, which has preserved and reused a portfolio of historic 19th-century waterfront industrial buildings in Red Hook.
Greg O’Connell (the former NYPD detective behind the O’Connell Organization) invited Lehigh Valley Barge #79 to Red Hook after Sharps spent several years trying to find a permanent home for it in New Jersey. Sharps brought the barge to Red Hook in 1994.
Wild dogs on the waterfront
The beloved neighborhood was a less tourist-friendly place back then. Sharps said the stories long-time residents tell about packs of wild dogs in the streets are true.
“I had three cats that were eaten by wild dogs,” he said. “They would chase me on my bicycle.”
Sharps loved the area then, and he loves it now. He and his wife Sarah Burd-Sharps have lived there, on the barge, all these years and raised their two kids, now adults.
“It’s been really great having a front-row seat to Red Hook’s reclaiming of its waterfront,” he said. “It was once bustling, then long forgotten.
“It’s my real hope as Red Hook moves forward that we’re able to keep what brings people to Red Hook — its historic and scenic charm,” Sharps added.
What’s on tap for the anniversary
Sharps said that the barge will have its busiest entertainment season ever to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
It includes the “Circus Afloat” series from June 30 through July 28. Four different groups will perform. Two of them are made up of veterans of the Big Apple Circus.
Also, Brooklyn-based Brave New World Repertory Theatre will present a staged reading of a site-specific adaptation of an Arthur Miller screenplay called “The Hook” from June 22-23. From Sept. 12-29, the troupe will present full productions of Miller’s play, “A View From the Bridge.”
From the Appalachians to the Seine
Sharps grew up in the landlocked Appalachian Mountains in Garrett County, Maryland. He became a professional juggler one summer during his college years. He’d gone to Ocean City, Maryland to work as a busboy at a hotel.
A juggler the hotel hired for its July 4, 1976, bicentennial celebrations cancelled. The man in charge of special events asked Sharps, “Do you juggle?”
Sharps — who was a college golfer — had good hand-eye coordination and knew enough about juggling to handle the job. He quit the busboy gig and became a performer.
When Sharps was finishing college at West Virginia University, he and the assistant director of a mime troupe teamed up professionally. He taught her juggling. She taught him mime.
Their act combined those two performance arts with movement and puppetry. They worked on cruise ships — his first introduction to waterborne living.
Later, Sharps attended L’Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris from 1982 through 1984 on a French government scholarship.
During his second year of school, he heard about a barge that needed a caretaker. And voilà — Sharps had a floating home on the Seine River.
A vacation that never ended
After he completed his studies with Lecoq, Sharps returned to the United States. He was headed to Los Angeles to try his hand at film-making. But on his way there he stopped to visit New York — and discovered Manhattan’s 79th Street Boat Basin, where people lived on their vessels.
Sharps almost bought a houseboat from an owner there.
But instead he wound up as a caretaker aboard a barge in New Jersey for a year. During that time, a tugboat captain told him about sludge-filled Lehigh Valley Barge #79 being for sale. The rest is history.
The barge museum has had its share of drama.
Coping with expenses
In addition to raising money for operating expenses and ongoing maintenance year after year, the floating museum must come up with $250,000 every decade to dry-dock the barge for an inspection. It’s required because Lehigh Valley Barge #79 is a Coast Guard-approved attraction vessel, which means it operates dockside.
Money comes from donors and earned income from school groups and the proceeds from shows. Grants from the city Department of Cultural Affairs help pay for programming.
And numerous manufacturers donate products and materials for the barge’s upkeep — such as an entire heating system, roofing and Benjamin Moore paints. Honeywell gave the barge smoke and heat detectors that meet Coast Guard requirements.
In exchange, the manufacturers use barge museum testimonials about their products in marketing and trade-show materials.
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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