Monday, June 14, 2010
Coney Island (Part VI): Horace Bullard: You Can’t Dream Too Much
So ends my series on poor old Coney Island, with the second part of an unpublished 1987 Village Voice assignment on would-be savior, Horace Bullard. Mr. Bullard’s noble 20-year odyssey was slowly battered apart by a Brooklyn political machine resembling the Tower of Babel. Bullard’s Coney Island properties, understandably, ended up in serious tax arrears. After Mayor Giuliani took office in 1994, he apparently killed Bullard’s plans in favor of constructing the (minor league Mets-affiliate) Brooklyn Cyclones’ KeySpan Park. It’s suspected Giuliani ordered an early morning demolition on the crumbling Thunderbolt roller coaster, which Bullard wanted to restore. Half-Black, half-Puerto Rican, the Kansas Fried Chicken founder Bullard charged in court that Giuliani’s actions were motivated by racial bias.
The International Theme Park Service told Bullard he’d need a larger amusement area to make the whole thing profitable, to handle the projected crowds. And so, he’s currently looking at Drierofferman Park—150 unused Brooklyn acres a mile away for parking, an area conservationists don’t want used.
“By taking the parking a mile away, you won’t have cars all over the street. We’ll shuttle people. Parades can run down Surf Avenue. I also wanna get a Coney Island express train from Times Square.”
The most colorful chart on Mr. Bullard’s coffee table shows his current plans. They contain several unique attractions, recreating a few of Coney’s legendary rides. The parachute drop will be rebuilt. The Steeplechase wooden mechanical horse race ride, which once circled the Pavilion of Fun in a “steeple chase” (thus the name), is being recreated. Bullard hopes to revamp the old Thunderbolt, now rotting in its lot. He’ll build a mountain on Surf Avenue with waterfalls, a rapids and a runaway train. A castle at the top will contain a museum for Dodgers and Coney Island memorabilia.
Bullard also wants a Walk of Fame, setting plaques for Brooklyn’s famous sons and daughters who are willing to return for a dedication. “We were gonna include a memorial to George C. Tilyou (Steeplechase’s 19th century creator).” Unfortunately, the Tilyou estate is fighting to prevent usage of the demonic cartoon face that was Steeplechase’s trademark symbol. “After that much opposition, we figured not to bother with a memorial. Because Tilyou was a genius doesn’t mean his descendants are.”
Coney Island business and government figures express both strong support and lingering doubts. Sam Horowitz, the area’s councilman for 16 years, envisions Coney as having “great bookends.” The Aquarium, Cyclone and Astroland on one side, a giant new Steeplechase on the other. “If Bullard isn’t able to deliver,” says Horowitz, “that will be the last shot for Steeplechase returning. It all sounds terrific, but I’m disappointed with the delays. I’d hate to see Steeplechase just lay there with a few park benches. This is one of New York’s most valued properties, it’s the Brooklyn Riviera on the Atlantic Ocean.”
The Atlantic is a third bookend. When Fred Trump purchased Steeplechase after it closed in the ’60s, he wanted to erect deluxe housing. Councilman Horowitz owned the Tilyou Movie Theatre in 1965, across from Steeplechase. His neighborhood defeated Trump’s plans, and the city bought back the hallowed ground.
“Drierofferman Park,” worries Horowitz, “where Bullard wants parking, sits near a high-rise area. They might get up in arms about having thousands of cars come through their neighborhood. I’m in favor of filling in the Coney Island Creek for parking. It’s just polluted water, a one-time waterway for boats, goes right up to the Brooklyn Union Gas sight. This creek has no value whatsoever, and could fulfill the parking without infringing on residents.”
Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Julius Spiegel says an urban renewal is in store for Coney, regardless of whether a new amusement park emerges. “He’s got all the permits and licenses he needs from us. We’re very excited by his plans. All our eggs are in Bullard’s basket.”
Under current plans, the eroded beach, where mass bathing was invented in America, will be enlarged, marinas and promenades added. The boardwalk will likely be sealed up underneath. Despite its song-worthy appeal, Under the Boardwalk (Coney is where the song took place) is an underworld for citizens to defecate, sleep and escape with wallets after muggings.
Dennis Paperman, President of the Brighton Beach Board of Trade (Coney’s sister neighborhood), says, “The revitalization of Coney Island has been dumped on for the past 20 years. Things must be done now. Bullard’s intentions are honorable, but I was told he’ll need $162-million. To my understanding that kind of backing has not been given. We don’t want more speculation here. The project, to me, remains a dream.”
The New York City Public Development Corporation, however, says it read two “letters of interest” demonstrating Bullard had over a hundred-million cash behind him. “The project then reached a new plateau,” says Frank Marino. “Horace also had spent $6 million from his own pocket so far, which impressed us.” Marino says the project still must pass through ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), a standard red-tape process. The parking is also an unresolved issue with Public Development. “We think this project, however, could start a Coney Island renaissance. The next six months will be critical to it happening or not.”
Max Rosey, who can recite the entire evolution of the hot dog, is public relations director for Nathan’s: “Bullard’s respected in the community and we wish him well. His plans are for the good of the people, and Nathan’s would love a major new amusement park here.”
Only slumlord landowner Hy Singer—Bullard’s “ca-ca” nemesis—refuses to comment on the whole affair. He is in litigation, does not want to be “tried by the press.” (He furthermore became overly suspicious as to whether this reporter was not some rival’s shill, and cancelled a meeting at Nathan’s—“You should be grateful I’m calling,” said Singer, “and not just standing you up.”)
Bullard recently toured Canada, Germany, the Great Adventures and Disneylands (“Boring.” He was only impressed by Epcot Center). Many of his rides will have to be European imports, except for the Coney Island recreations. And an eagle ride Bullard designed: “They make a looping platform called the Flying Carpet. I got hold of the manufacturer and said I want the same contraption built into an eagle. I want the head to turn in the direction he’s flying. When you’re walking on the midway, this eagle is swooping at ya.”
In the old days, operators used to say if riders knew how safe the rides were, they wouldn’t scream. “Today, you’re restricted with rides because of insurance,” explains Bullard. “You couldn’t have a ride like the Big Slide today, where people hung by ropes and slid down into sand. Somebody’d say they twisted their neck. You didn’t have the craze for lawsuits then. Today you’ve got to make every ride 100% safe, yet try and make it feel almost safe. When I go to these manufacturers, I tell them my rides have to be suicide-proof.”
Bullard gets misty-eyed, the park comes alive: “My ticket takers are gonna wear the RKO usher-type uniforms and bark, ‘Have your tickets ready!’ Everyone in this park is gonna be an actor. The guy sweeping is gonna be an actor. The workers are gonna have fun. The benches will look like animals. I have three sets of architects so far, and I don’t wanna get stuck with one guy’s placid Midwestern look. I gotta make sure the architects don’t lose that feeling. A smart operator goes around the world looking for strange things to bring into their park.”
He feels freak shows are passé, won’t put deformed folks on display, which the Coney Island of yore did. Snake charmers, sword swallowers or the Fattest Man in the World would be okay. “We’d use him to say this is why you shouldn’t overeat.” (Bradshaw’s Circus of World Curiosities is an old-timey sideshow currently working the Coney seashore.)
How about all those mom-and-pop spookhouses and sleazy little attractions that used to spice up the side streets?
“You’re gonna get all that back, between 15th Street and Astroland. We want that, to rent out stores as cheap as possible and create more carnival novelties. We want barkers all over, a requirement for each store, carny folks, off-Broadway actors.”
Will he reopen the theater in the Shore building for vaudeville?
“That will stay office space. There has to be a balance here between fantasy and business. You can’t dream too much. I mean, I’m doing enough dreaming.”
For further dreaming:
© 1987, 2010, Josh Alan Friedman