Sunday, February 23, 2014

114. Freedom, Fakery, and Freaks: Coney Island

Luna Park

     Smoke suddenly poured out of the four-story building’s upper stories, and flames engulfed the roof and shot out the windows.  Fire trucks clanged and clattered, firemen shot long streams of water upward and mounted tall ladders toward the upper stories where, as crowds gaped from the sidewalks below, terrified men and women leaped out of windows into the safety nets stretched out far below. 

     Soaring towers and minarets, spires, domes, flags, golden arches, lagoons, dazzling by day but entrancing by night, when every tower, spike, and dome, every bit of ornamental architecture, was defined by strings of light bulbs, and the whole storybook Baghdad became something even more idyllic, festive, magical.


     Day or night, the streets of Delhi featured gilded chariots, prancing horses, soldiers, dancing girls, and elephants you could ride upon, while an airship crammed with passengers left earth, plunged into darkness, survived thunder and pounding rain, traversed a calm night of stars, and in the pink light of dawn approached the moon’s surface, a breathtaking experience seasoned curiously by singing moon men holding green cheese.

     There were parading camels, a Venice-like city with gondoliers, an Eskimo village, elephants shooting the chute, acrobats, trained bears, a cakewalking pony, and a mountain torrent you could zoom through to splash in a glacier lake.  You could, on one occasion, watch an elephant being electrocuted, and if that bothered you, and you sat on a chair that tilted over and dumped you on the ground, for consolation you could go to a delicatessen and devour a sausage, or pork chops, or liver pudding, or sweet potatoes, or deviled crabs, or plum pudding, or any number of other offerings, all of them made entirely of candy.   

     Such was Luna Park, one of the three great amusement parks at Coney Island in the early years of the twentieth century: 722 acres of splendors, surprises, and horrors that cost its inspired creator, showman Frederic W. Thompson, a million dollars, but whose wonders were available to the public at ten cents a head.  Yes, the buildings were all of plaster, and the structure engulfed in flames survived to burn again and again: fakery, but fakery raised to the point of sublimity.  Luna Park was a gigantic stage set such as had never been seen before, flamboyant, dynamic, and extravagant, a dream world with laughs and surprises, and at times a nightmare world as well.  Above all, it couldn’t be drab or dull, since the multitudes Thompson hoped to entertain had enough drabness and dullness in their everyday lives.  They came to Coney Island to escape.  “What is presented to them,” he insisted, “must have life, action, motion, sensation, surprise, shock, swiftness or else comedy.”  In Luna Park he gave them all that, and more.  It was bizarre, it was crazy, it was fun.

Sand, surf, and Sodom

     Luna Park flourished in the heyday of Coney Island, but Coney Island already had a  long history as a place of entertainment.  But first: why “Coney” and why “Island”?  As for “Coney,” there are several explanations offered, the most commonly accepted one being that rabbits, or conies, once inhabited the area.  (Konijn = “rabbit” in Dutch.)  And Coney Island is not a true island but an “almost island,” or peninsula, 5 miles long and ¾ of a mile in width, separated from Brooklyn at its western end by Coney Island Creek.  There was once talk of extending the creek eastward to Sheepshead Bay and turning it into a navigable canal, which would have made Coney a true island, but this never happened and part of the creek was filled in; but the name “Coney Island” has stuck.

Seen from the air, Coney does seem almost an island.

     For years Coney Island was a barren stretch of windswept sand far removed from the settled part of Brooklyn, but its all-day exposure to the sun destined it for something better.  That something began in 1829, with the construction of the first road accessing it and the appearance of the first beach hotel, the Coney Island House, which soon became a renowned summer vacation hotel.  People liked being near the open ocean and its breezes in at least the milder part of the year, and soon began dipping their well-clothed limbs in the chilly water and feeling the force of the waves, the tickly froth of the surf.  A strange new sport, sun and surf bathing, was coming into being, a sport that involved a modest display of flesh and therefore constituted, for Victorians, was a rather daring adventure. 

     By the 1860s hotels, bathhouses, and beer halls were springing up, and a steamboat began making regular trips from Manhattan to a long pier sticking out far into the ocean.  But Coney now offered more than sun and surf, as pavilions sprang up housing games, carousels, gypsy fortunetellers, vaudeville, and melodrama.  Not that gentility universally prevailed, since Coney, being outside the jurisdiction of the Manhattan and Brooklyn authorities, also drew prostitutes, pickpockets, and gamblers, not so many of them as to spoil the place as a fashionable middle-class resort, but just enough to give it a tangy edge and let moralists denounce it as Sodom by the Sea. 

The birth of an atrocity

     How appropriate it was, in my opinion, that Sodom should produce a contribution to American life – popular, inescapable, and horrible – that is predicted to last as long as the Republic itself.  In 1867 (though some say later) a young German immigrant named Charles Feltman, who made a living selling pies to Coney visitors, stuck a Vienna sausage into a kaiser roll, tasted it, added mustard, tasted it again, and so created a new food that he christened a “red hot.”  It caught on at once, garnered attention and jealousy as well, and when a newspaper article suggested that it might involve dog meat, the new food became known as the “hot dog.” 


     In a previous post I have recorded my antipathy, my utter loathing, for this ludicrously phallic concoction, a loathing that dates from an occasion at college when, in the school lunch line, I was given a wienie still encased in its wrapping, on which were printed its ingredients: meat scraps that no red-blooded American would knowingly ingest, but that are sneaked into this most pernicious and popular of foods.  I would like to record that Feltman died of an overdose of wienies (an imagined forerunner of today’s annual wienie-eating contest at Nathan’s), but alas, he became rich overnight, founded a lavish hotel that was fabulously successful, its restaurant the biggest and best on Coney Island.  Diners dined in beautiful gardens to soft music, but the hot dog was nowhere to be seen, for Feltman, having come to his senses, realized the impropriety of serving so lowly a food in the most elegant hotel on the Island.  The hot dog was relegated to the stands oppressively present all over Coney, though it would later achieve fame as the featured attraction of Nathan’s Famous at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues, an eatery still flourishing today.

     Insanity can be contagious.  My partner Bob’s Haitian home-care aide assures me that hot dogs are known and devoured in Haiti.  And Bob’s Norwegian doctor has told of eating them in the beautifully landscaped Tivoli Garden in Copenhagen, and has described a popular Norse variation: a hot dog with shrimp salad added, wrapped in a potato pancake.  Even in France, that bastion of culinary elegance, I recall seeing signs CHIENS CHAUDS.  And the foul things must exist in China as well, since I have seen a photo of them there.  Maybe they have yet to penetrate the unexplored wilds of New Guinea, but it’s only a matter of time.

Steeplechase and Dreamland

     A new era for Coney began in the 1890s, when the entrepreneur George C. Tilyou, a Coney native who had already installed an immensely successful Ferris wheel, decided that, if he built an amusement park and enclosed it so as to keep out undesirables, he could attract a free-spending middle-class clientele.  The result, in 1897, was Steeplechase Park, the first of the three great Coney amusement parks, featuring a simulated horse race where people mounted horses one or two at a time (giving couples a chance for a good long hug) and raced off on an undulating curved metal track.

File:Steeplechase ride LC-USZ62-78291.jpg
The Steeplechase Ride.

File:Steeplechase jack 1905.jpg     But Steeplechase offered much more than that, since Tilyou knew that change and variety were required, to keep the crowds coming season after season.  And he knew that they wanted more than just to gaze at marvels and catastrophes; they wanted interaction, they wanted to be jostled and tossed and whirled and tumbled, as long as no one got hurt and it was all in fun.  Presiding over the park was the Steeplechase Man, whose hideous grinning face greeted visitors high over the entrance for decades, and grinned at them from tickets for the rides inside, foretokening the giddy fun to be had.  And inside were Venetian canals, an elephant ride, a Human Roulette Wheel that flung riders out to its periphery, a Pavilion of Fun with indoor rides that jarred and tumbled participants, a swimming pool, a sunken garden, a merry-go-round, and countless other devices producing thrills, chills, and spills.  When the park burned down in 1907, Tilyou promptly rebuilt it and promised more and better features and delivered them; his park would go on for years.

     Luna Park opened in 1903, and Dreamland just one year later.  Dreamland, launched not by showmen but a consortium of politicians investing in real estate, was a lavish imitation of Luna, which it tried to outdo in every way.  Its buildings were pure white, with massive arches and columns, and its dominating Beacon Tower soared 375 feet into the sky, its light at night visible for miles out at sea.  There were lion and leopard tamers, a huge ballroom on a pier, and a Midget City with a population of three hundred and its own midget fire department.  Visitors could tour a Pennsylvania coal mine, ride a scenic railroad through the mountains of Switzerland, and take a simulated airplane ride over the Atlantic and a submarine ride under it.  Or witness the Fall of Pompeii where, as Vesuvius erupted in colored fire, toga-clad inhabitants ran about in panic, and a whole city disappeared in torrents of blazing magnesium powder.  It was all spectacular and yet, lacking a showman’s expert touch, never quite matched the spark and spice of Luna.  But the spectacle to top all spectacles came very early on the morning of May 27, 1911, when some hot tar caught fire, the flames spread, the great tower toppled, and most of Dreamland became a nighttime conflagration that left only smoking ruins by morning.  Some animals died screaming in their cages; one lion escaped into the street and had to be shot.  Already in financial difficulties, Dreamland was never rebuilt; its site is now occupied by the New York Aquarium.

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The Dreamland tower and lagoon.

     What inspired the creators of these three stellar amusement parks, and what were those parks really about?  The forerunners were many: Barnum and the traveling circus; Edison’s illumination of Manhattan, showing what marvels electricity could create; splashy Broadway musicals whose backstage machinery could produce spectacular effects; and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, with its dazzling blend of grandiose buildings, canals, and lagoons, plus a separate amusement area.  People wanted to be dazzled, surprised, shocked, and jostled, and would pay to experience it.  They didn’t want lectures and uplift; they wanted amazement and fun.  And at Coney they got it.

     Perhaps the abiding spirit of Coney, both the parks and the other entertainments and the beach, is best expressed by a photo showing a quintet of grinning girls in bathing costumes, raising their skirts to show their well-clad derrières.  Respectable young ladies, one suspects, who out at Coney, far removed from the constraints of family, school, job, and church, could for a moment be deliciously, collectively naughty.  If Victorian propriety was showing cracks in the city, out at Coney it was fast disintegrating.  Coney was lots of things, among them delicious and collective naughtiness.  And who, by the way, was the photographer?  A boyfriend?  A stranger?  Who?  If we knew, it would tell us just that much more about Coney. 

The later Coney

     In 1920 the subway reached Coney Island, so that vast numbers of city residents could taste its marvels for only a fare of a nickel.  The whole atmosphere of Coney changed, as the era of huge amusement parks gave way to sideshows with screaming barkers, hot dog stands, blaring music, noisy shooting galleries, roaring roller coasters, and a sun-drenched beach jammed with people.  There was still life aplenty, but it was more raucous, more garish, and maybe just a bit sleazy.  Frederic Thompson, the creator of Luna Park, lapsed into alcoholism and debt, declared bankruptcy, left his park to the management of others, and died in 1919.  Luna survived, but without inspired leadership it lost its innovative character and saw its revenues steadily decline.  George Tilyou died in 1914, but his family continued to manage Steeplechase, which by the 1920s was losing out to radio and movies, those new entertainers of millions, in a world where Victorian morality had crumbled, so that Coney seemed less special, less naughty, less unique.  People came in ever greater numbers, but the experience wasn’t quite the same.  When Luna, with declining revenues, succumbed to fire in 1946 and became a parking lot, of the trio of great amusement parks only Steeplechase remained.

     It was to Steeplechase Park that my partner Bob came for the first time one afternoon in 1951, at the impressionable age of fourteen.  Having long heard of Coney Island, he came from Jersey City with his friend Henry and was immediately struck by the many concessions all jammed together, the looming, screeching roller coasters, the Parachute Jump, the freak shows with barkers, the famous boardwalk, and the crowded beach.  Entering Steeplechase Park, he and Henry mounted one of the iron horses of the Steeplechase Ride and embarked on the raucous race.  Then, to leave the ride, you had to exit across a stage where women’s skirts were suddenly blown up by blasts of air, and midgets with electric rods poked you and gave you a mild shock, while an audience roared with laughter.  Having been buzzed by the midgets, Bob and Henry then joined the audience and laughed as others crossing the stage suffered the same fate.  After that they sampled the Whirlpool, other rides, and a Spook Tunnel, and Bob knew that he would be back, and back many times, in winter as well as in summer, so as to undertake the more challenging charms of the Wonder Wheel, the roller coasters, and the Parachute Jump.  Coming from Jersey City, where he perceived a sameness in everyone and a lack of imagination, he discovered two things above all in Coney Island: freedom and imagination.  Which is exactly what the genteel crowds flocking to Luna and the other parks had discovered in the distant era of Coney’s heyday.

     After that, in the 1950s Bob went to Coney Island many times, with Henry or other friends or alone.  He always began his visit by eating a half dozen clams at Nathan’s, plus a hot dog and beer.  Then he was off to his favorite amusements: first seat in the Cyclone roller coaster, costing only a quarter; the Steeplechase Ride and other rides; the Wonder Wheel; walking the boardwalk from one end to the other as he and Henry talked; walking to the end of the pier for a view of the crowded beach; and the freak shows, where the barkers’ ballyhoo delighted him, and the freaks, though mostly fake, helped him appreciate people who are different.  But he did the Parachute Jump only once, for this enthusiastic roller coaster fan found the Jump frightening.  With a roller coaster, after all, there was solid track beneath you; with the Parachute Jump, only a flimsy seat and a chasm of empty space.

     Bob also went in winter, starting as always with clams at Nathan’s, which was open all year.  And what did he find?  The rides all covered up, the boardwalk devoid of crowds, the beach almost empty so he could walk on it, and, hovering all around him, the ghosts of the summer people.  Coney then seemed wild and desolate, truly an island apart, and he loved it.  And always, vast and moody, there was the gray Atlantic.

 Coney today

    The amusement zone of the Coney Island of today, much shrunken, has survived many assaults.  In the 1940s the heavy hand of master builder Robert Moses (see post #78) demolished many structures to make room for the Aquarium, an ice skating rink, and public housing.  Steeplechase Park finally closed in 1964, and the property was sold to developer Fred Trump, the father of Donald Trump, who, convinced that the amusement area would now die a natural death, fought in court for years to get it rezoned, so he could build luxury housing; he failed, and the property remained vacant.  Since then there have been other plans to revitalize Coney, with developers, residents, and the city squabbling endlessly, as the claims of recreation are pitted against those of commercial interests and public housing.  Even now the brouhaha continues, and I wouldn’t presume to predict how all these controversies will finally, if ever, end.

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The beach today: July 4, 2006.
Jaime Haire

     Symbolic of Coney’s glorious past and dubious present was the Thunderbolt roller coaster, a wooden structure whose curving, mounting, plunging track loomed over Coney along 15th Street, operating from 1925 until 1982.  Having ridden it many times, Bob recalled the mild beginning, the steeper drops that followed, and the final stretch when the coaster plunged almost to the ground, like a mighty beast suddenly revealing its jaws and teeth, before delivering riders safely to the loading station.  He remembered too the coaster’s last days many years later, the horrid sounds as the trains negotiated the poorly maintained track, the peeling paint, the missing lights, the loose nuts and bolts, the seat that fell off its springs and had to be pushed back into place, the sense of impending danger, but also the feeling that an old friend was telling him it still had integrity and excitement in its aged bones.  After the coaster closed, it sat huge and silent in an abandoned lot that grew rich in sumac and weeds, a sight that Bob and I viewed many times as we walked the boardwalk from the Aquarium to Gargiulo’s, our favorite Italian restaurant. 

The abandoned Thunderbolt, 1995.

     Under the Thunderbolt was a little house that had once, long before, been a hotel.  Later the coaster’s owner had lived there with his mother, and then also with his lady friend, who stayed on for years after he died.  In the winter it was quiet, almost rural, she said, but in the summer, as the coaster roared by overhead, things occasionally broke and her pictures hung slanted.  Passers-by had no idea that anyone lived there, and that was how she wanted it. Finally, at her family’s insistence, after some forty years she moved out.

     There were those who wanted to save the Thunderbolt, but early one morning in 2000 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, without notice to anyone, sent bulldozers to demolish it, probably because it blocked the view for a baseball stadium already under construction: a decisive but probably illegal act.  But famous names die hard: in 2013 word came that a new steel roller coaster would be built on Coney Island; its name: the Thunderbolt.  And a new Luna Park opened in 2010.  Coney’s death as an amusement zone has been predicted more than once, but somehow it always manages to survive.

                                                                                              David Shankbone

     Me and roller coasters:  My partner Bob loves them, says each one has its own personality, subscribes to a magazine called RollerCoaster, has ridden many, making a trip once to Pittsburgh just to ride the famous Thunderbolt there.  And me?  No way!  As a teenager I once rode a coaster at Riverview Park in Chicago, and will never forget that first climb up, up, up, and then -- whoosh! – the hurtling plunge down, down, down, holding fast to the rail in front of me and wondering if I would survive the ride or end up mangled flesh in a jumble of wreckage.  Yes, I survived, but I had had my fill of roller coasters.  The gentle charm of the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island, yes.  The Parachute Jump, likewise.  But a roller coaster, there or anywhere, never.  Call me a spoilsport, a namby-pamby, a wimp.  I’ll gladly accept all those epithets and worse, if it frees me from any pressure to ride a roller coaster ever again.  I’d rather face a bayonet charge, hungry lions, a tsunami.  But one of those hurtling, twisting, roaring monsters full of screaming occupants, never.

     Free at last:  My inmate buddy Joe, whose story inspired post #43, Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo (still the most visited of all my posts by far), has just been released, after 20 years (minus 3 months) in prison.  He now begins another life entirely.  Over the last 13 years or so, he and I have exchanged over 500 letters, so I know a lot about him and his  story.  In time, he will tell that story, and quite a story it is.

     Coming soon:  Greenwich Village, Bohemians, Pfaff’s, Walt Whitman and how gay was he?

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder