It wasn’t until a century after its creation that Coney Island received its literary due in books and documentaries, most notably through Kevin Baker (Dreamland, the book) and Ric Burns (Coney Island, the doc, from PBS’s American Experience series). I was never able to get a firm hand on the subject, but wrote a few rudimentary, half-assed attempts. One was a commissioned overview for a filmmaker in the 1980s. He intended to use this as narration weaving throughout a documentary. I don’t recall his name, or even know if the doc was finished or released.
No world’s fair or exposition of the 19th Century ever approached what was to evolve upon Coney Island. On this holy land, the hot dog and the roller coaster was born. Mass ocean bathing was first practiced. Coney Island prophesied the 20th Century to come—trips to the moon, Mars, world wars, electric trains. Battlefield recreations and naval armadas employed thousands of extras, and would be financially impossible to stage today. Like the lost city of Atlantis, it is hard to believe the ruins that exist today were once so magnificent.
The locale was a sandy five-mile stretch at the foot of Brooklyn. In the 1870s, three huge Victorian hotels were built by the ocean shore. Coney Island became the summer resort for Manhattan’s high society, for stars of stage and sports. The rich built mansions. There were huge garden-filled restaurants with Sousa bands, one of which served draft champagne instead of beer. Three first-class racetracks went up. There were hopes Coney would become the new Newport.
But Coney also attracted crooks, pickpockets, con men and whores. They felt Coney was their rightful place, amid illegal gambling joints and knock-out drop saloons. A 34-room hotel and dance hall, in the shape of a 150-foot elephant, became the hot spot for fornication.
By 1890, clergy referred to it as “Sodom by the Sea,” one of several nicknames that would stick for decades. An 1893 article in the sanctimonious New York Times declared it a Brooklyn outgrowth of New York’s crooked Boss Tweed administration. “Scenes that Shock and Disgust,” read the cover story, maintaining Coney Island yearned for more victims to make drunk and rob.
The father of Coney Island, George C. Tilyou, moved there in 1865, at the age of three. His parents established the Surf House, which sold beer and rented bathing suits. A seaside huckster, Tilyou commissioned his own Ferris wheel in 1894. Though it was half the size of the one at the Chicago World’s Fair, created by George Ferris, he claimed it as the world’s largest.
Coney Island’s corruption thrived under the iron-fist rule of John Y. McKane, a politician who stunted Tilyou’s efforts running a seaside theater. When the reform movement sent McKane to Sing Sing, Tilyou became the Island’s guiding force. Next to the elephant-shaped hotel was Sea Lion Park, featuring a water slide into a fake lagoon called Shoot the Chutes. Tilyou believed the middle-class was repelled by Coney’s criminal reputation. Thus, competing with Sea Lion, he built an enclosed 15-acre amusement park, keeping the 19th Century riff-raff out. His attraction to outdo the Chutes was an imported English ride that simulated a horse race.
Steeplechase was christened in 1897, named after its wooden horse ride that rang around the park on track. And thus, like Times Square, another crime-ridden New York vicinity grew into glory—then would fall into slums at the end of its long epoch.
Steeplechase remained the soul of Coney Island for 69 years. George C. Tilyou’s Funny Place, as it was known, was packaged for respectable, law-abiding citizens. Nevertheless, it devised devious methods for young men and women’s bodies to entwine. Skirts were blown up by air gushers in the floor, revealing ankles and pantaloons—a forbidden sight. The Oceanside entrance made visitors walk through the Barrel of Love, a 10-by-30 foot polished wooden drum that spun unsuspecting strangers—hopefully of the opposite sex—into suggestive contact.
A one-price ticket was printed—25-cents for 25 attractions. People saw themselves in distorted mirrors, lost control of their muscles on the Human Roulette Wheel, the Whirlpool, the Human Pool Table. Men held tight to women’s waists on the Steeplechase race, shattering social mores of the Victorian age. The exit led through a labyrinth onto the “Insanitarium” stage. Clowns and dwarves cackled as they pulled levers delivering shocks and air bursts. Couples limped past dancing card decks, swaying barrels, heaving floor patches. Staircases flattened into slides. A roaring crowd of those who went before watched their humility. Then they would join the audience, laughing at others, their inhibitions loosened by machine-age technology.
The Steeplechase logo—which many mistook for Tilyou’s mug—was a demonic face leering out at summer crowds for 70 years. His hair parted center, winging out to both sides. The mouth smiled obscenely over 33 teeth. One critic called it “the most incredibly vulgar trademark ever seen.”
Coney Island’s exploits were motivated by entrepreneurial one-upmanship. Its creators were architectural visionaries. The Trip to the Moon appeared at the 1901 Pan-American Expo in Buffalo, New York, a cyclorama spaceship voyage. Visitors disembarked on the lunar surface to be given green cheese by dancing moon maidens and giants. Its creators, Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy, were invited by Tilyou to relocate at Steeplechase. Following its success during the 1902 season, Thompson & Dundy left Tilyou. They bought out Sea Lion Park and became America’s latest P.T. Barnums.
At a cost of $1-million, Coney’s second great theme park, Luna Park, was quickly built in time to open the 1903 season. According to legend, the financially drained Thompson & Dundy scrounged to borrow $22 in silver for ticket-booth change on opening day in 1903. Attending opening night were 45,000, many admitted free when the ticket booths ran out of change. The Trip to the Moon was its centerpiece, but the park was ablaze with 250,000 incandescent light bulbs. It contained strange make-believe lands and people, sculpted animals, fiery pinwheels. An Eskimo Village, a Japanese Garden, a Dutch Windmill, a trip 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Four elephants slid down water slides, in an act that would today draw the ire of animal rights activists more than the circus. Forty camels roamed the Streets of Delhi. A huge medieval castle staged a 15-minute recreation of the Johnstown flood of 1889. A tidal wave destroyed hundreds of model buildings to restage the Galveston flood of 1900. British illusionist Henry J. Pain used theatrical technology for the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and resulting fall of Pompeii, beneath streams of pyrotechnic magnesium powder. Luna Park was described as Eden, an electric Baghdad as Aladdin never dreamed. “Oriental orgasmic,” according to one astute art critic.
Audiences sat in a battery that was supposedly guarding New York harbor. They watched patriotically as the Navy sunk the combined fleets of Germany, France, Britain and Spain. This was before America became a world power. New disasters were ushered in as nature created them. On opening day of one season, a full-scale battle was reenacted with actual British veterans of the South African Boer Wars. A thousand troops took the field. Salaries for the 600 regular soldiers were too prohibitive, so the mock battle ceased after one season.
Luna Park cleared a $600,000 profit during its first season—astronomical in 1903. This attracted a third major player in Coney Island’s development. Realtor and sometime state senator Paul Reynolds formed an investment group to build a third park.
Next week: Dreamland
© 1990, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman