Monday, May 24, 2010

Coney Island (Part III)

Charles Dickens supposedly found Coney Island the only thing to his liking in America. Noted music critic, James Huneker, picked up on the sucker ethic, perfected at Coney, wherein people are supposed to enjoy being conned out of their money on the midway: “Every device imaginable by which man may be separated from his dimes without adequate return is in operation. You. . . go into a funny house. . . and later are tumbled into the open, insulted, mortified, disgusted, angry—and laughing.”

In 1906, the Russian socialist realism writer, Maxim Gorky, found “a slimy marsh of boredom. . . mean panderers to debased tastes unfold the disgusting nakedness of their falsehood.” But the ambivalent Gorky wrote of Luna Park at night: “A fantastic city all of fire suddenly rises from the ocean into the sky. Fabulous and beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful is this fiery scintillation.”

In 1907, George C. Tilyou’s Steeplechase burned down—the first of several fatal fires to hit Coney Island. The next morning, before the ruins was posted this sign:

I had troubles yesterday that I have not today
I have troubles today that I had not yesterday
On this site will be erected a bigger, better Steeplechase Park.
Admission to the Burning ruins—10 cents.

In nine months, Tilyou constructed a Victorian palace of cast-iron and glass. It was named the Pavilion of Fun, with an eight-horse-race ride surrounding it. Rain or shine, the new Steeplechase, in 1908, was an indoor amusement park, topped by a five-acre funhouse. It would stand until 1966, when the Trump organization demolished it.

For six years after Dreamland was built, the three parks of Coney Island flourished. Dreamland, with its upscale pretensions and political jobbery, never quite reached the popularity of the other two. Then on opening Memorial Day of the 1911 season, the greatest spectacle ever to hit Coney Island occurred. All of Dreamland went up in flames. It began with an electrical short in the papier-mâché Hell Gate ride—the park’s recreation of Hell. The flames went higher than any of Coney’s towers. Bullets flew from exploding ammo in the shooting galleries. White castles melted, 50,000 rental bathing suits turned to ash. Most horrific and tragic, animals died screaming within their cages, parrots flew through the air on fire. Manic lions ran through the streets, their manes ablaze, and were shot down in hails of police bullets.

Thirty three fire companies came through the night, as the flames spread out of Dreamland, destroying other landmarks. The Midget City Fire Department, after enacting hundreds of false alarms, fought with miniature pumps to save their Old Nuremberg building. All that remained was rubble—and the famous waltz, “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland,” written by Beth Slater Witson and Leo Friedman in 1909.

The next day, a million New Yorkers paid 10 cents to view the smoldering ruins. Dreamland was never rebuilt.

Luna’s Elmer Dundy died in 1907. His co-founder, Frederic Thompson, died an alcoholic in 1919. A business group then took control of Luna Park, refusing to put back money for upkeep. There were a lot of light bulbs to change. It slowly deteriorated, until Luna too was devastated by a fire in 1944. Wild rumors circulated about Ebbet’s Field relocating there. It was razed in 1946.

Perhaps Luna’s most remarkable contribution to science were the Preemies, which it inherited from Dreamland. From 1904 through 1943, the Premature Baby Incubators were directed by Dr. Martin Arthur Couney, who invented the mechanical baby incubator in the 1890s. The medical profession was uninterested, so he accepted Thompson’s offer to set up shop at Luna. Here was a combination of medical integrity and showmanship. A miniature hospital exhibit, showing oxygen supplied through tubes to babies, with five wet nurses—any of whom was fired if caught eating the local junk food. Dr. Couney saved over 6,500 of the 8,000 prematures delivered to him, many from poor families. His Coney Island babies, who never would have survived in the outside world, held reunions years later at Coney Island.

After World War I, the 5-cent subway reached Coney. Crowds quadrupled from 250,000 to a million per day—phenomenal by modern count, where Disneyland might peak at four-million attendance in a year. The crowds became a working-class melting pot, as tens of thousands of Jews, Italians and Irish bordered Coney’s neighborhood. The three great racetracks were outlawed in 1916. Luna Park’s War of the Worlds and other disasters held less interest after the real world war. But the sideshows and cabarets were training grounds for Irving Berlin, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Mae West, Houdini and George Burns. Silent screen star Marie Dressler sold popcorn in her youth, Clara Bow sold hot dogs at Nathan’s. Cary Grant was a stilt walker at Steeplechase.

Nathan Handwerker didn’t invent the hot dog, but worked a grill for the restaurant where they originated. German immigrant Charles Feltman came up with the process in 1869, on the Coney Island shore. Nobody knew what went into his Red Hots, as they were named, so they began calling them Hot Dogs. By World War I, when Feltman’s huge seaside restaurant, with its own roller coaster and dance hall, was selling 10-cent hot dogs, Nathan’s opened nearby, undercutting him with 5-cent hot dogs and 3-cent sodas. The fat French fries were unique. Campaigning presidents and New York mayors posed often with a Nathan’s hot dog in their mugs; the king and queen of England posed with Feltman’s.

Some old-timers swear the more expensive Feltman’s was greater, but Nathan’s became a 20th Century junk food institution. Sinatra once flew a few Nathan’s hot dogs to Europe by jet, when lonely for a taste of Brooklyn. Feltman’s restaurant grounds kept up its Gay 90s décor for six decades, still screening silent flicks in the 1940s. It closed in the ’50s. Nathan’s went on to franchise inferior chain locations across New York. None of them compare to the magical preparation of its salt-air Coney Island base, which still thrives today.

Cabarets were closed during Prohibition, but many sideshows opened through the 1930s. The Tahiti Dancing Girls were “hotter’n horse radish.” At the opening of the 1936 season, Angelo the dwarf, of Steeplechase, boasted to Post columnist Earl Wilson, “I’ve seen more undies, close up, with the women in them, than any man alive.” His job was to whack women’s fannies with a dingbat while their skirts blew up from floorboard airbursts. His disreputable behavior as a carnie molester finally got him fired.

Unfazed by the Depression, Steeplechase offered a 50-cent ticket for 50 rides. Poor folks could buy a 25-cent ticket for half as many. They also hired Black employees, encouraging Black attendance in an era when other state fairs designated special Negro Days. Negro bus parties drove in from Baltimore and D.C. While the rest of Coney Island and the beach seemed off-limits, Steeplechase wasn’t. Only its huge outdoor pool remained segregated, right until the last season in 1964. Jimmy Onorato, the manager, once speculated it was a miracle that Blacks never tried to enter the pool all those years. “I think that some of the season bathers would have maimed them if they did,” he said.

George C. Tilyou died in 1914, whereupon his 18-year-old son took charge. The Tilyou family remained the owners, though feuding erupted upon the death of Edward, George’s eldest, in 1944. But while the rest of Coney Island took on a slow pall of age, Steeplechase had a new coat of paint each season, with manicured lawns, uniformed employees and three dozen American flags. Before building Disneyland, Walt Disney spent a week with Jimmy Onorato, Steeplechase’s manager of 37 years.

Next week: Roller coasters and sublime sleaze.

© 1990, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman


  1. Is there anything more beautiful than rainy, wet New York neon?

  2. Went to day camp near steeplechase in '66.That grotesque face!

  3. Great read Josh, Thanks. I moved to the Amalgamated Warbasse Houses on Ocean Parkway and Neptune avenue when they opened in 1965. Coney Island was great. My first job was at Astroland Park, taking tickets at the various rides. And Big Tony never did catch me reselling the tickets I was supposed to rip up. Lucky for me : )