Monday, May 31, 2010

Coney Island (Part IV)

So ends this sketchy, rudimentary overview I did for a documentary filmmaker 20 years ago. But next week this space will run my unpublished Village Voice interview with Horace Bullard on the reconstruction of Coney Island—that never happened.

The sublime element of sleaze became more prominent through the 1950s and ’60s. There was further decay as property taxes rose with the minimum wage. Mom-and-pop rides and side-street spook houses across Surf Avenue cut costs on maintenance and appearance.

Power broker Robert Moses, New York’s commissioner of parks, had a spiteful dislike of Coney Island. Jones Beach on Long Island—Moses’ defining parks achievement—was a pristine “passive park.” No hurly burly, no cotton candy, concessionaires or gypsies. The Marine Beach Theater presented Guy Lombardo and operettas. Moses built six-lane highways, but he wouldn’t repave the streets of Coney Island. The Belt Parkway, built to provide tri-state access out to Jones Beach, bypassed Coney Island with no exits or markers. This was an unforgivable insult to the old-timers on Surf Avenue.

Coney Island reached its peak attendance of 2.5 million on July 3, 1947. But as cars became a middle-class commodity, and highways led out to Long Island, attendance declined through the 1950s. Once the grand destination of steamers, buses and subways, Coney Island was not equipped for parking thousands of cars. Throughout the ’50s, neighborhood demographics shifted to Black and Puerto Rican tenants, as whites fled to the suburbs. Coney’s bathhouses closed. One old-timer attributed this to the development of nylon and Dacron bathing suits. Synthetic materials dried easily, people could change in their car or throw clothes over a bathing suit. Aside from changing rooms, the old bathhouses rented cotton and woolen suits.

In the late ’50s, Steeplechase began to receive complaints from seminarians. Knee-length skirts blown above the waistline provoked prurient heckling. Some gals wore no panties. So the Pantomime Theater—rude clowns with electric cattle prods and paddles that whacked women’s fannies—was discontinued. The horny dwarf, Little Angelo, was gone.

Coney Island withstood greater peril with each decade. Still, it created one-of-a-kind rides, never duplicated. Showmen with no formal training would dream up rides in the winter, and go for broke, gamble all they had. If one engineer said it couldn’t be done, the next would build it. A half-dozen landmarks have survived most of the 20th century as a testament to this ingenuity.

The Cyclone roller coaster was built in 1927 for over $100,000. Its first drop is 83 feet, providing a spiritual kick to the adrenal system. It originally cost 25 cents to ride. Today [in the 1980s] the brakemen appear supremely bored. But they still herd in flocks of customers, who emerge from the exit in a euphoric mood. The creaky wooden frame is beloved by millions; many aficionados still consider it the world’s preeminent coaster. [The Cyclone, now $8 a ride, still thrives in the 21st Century—an isolated, but official New York City and National Historic Landmark.]

The Thunderbolt opened in 1925, with a fabulous 90-degree first drop. Its owners, the Morans, resided in a home built within the roller coaster. Inside was a perfectly normal household, the only odd effect being that the dishes rattled and the walls shook every three minutes as the ’Bolt roared overhead. Mrs. Moran, after 40 years, didn’t even notice, and even visiting dinner guests [of which I was one] gradually became accustomed to it. Their backyard was like a lost-and-found, typical of any roller coaster. It was littered with watches, wigs, glasses, billfolds, false teeth, a cop’s gun. One rider accidentally scattered $4,500 in fifty- and hundred-dollar bills, which the Morans recovered fully for the passenger. Featured in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the Thunderbolt ceased operation when Fred Moran died in 1982.

Steeplechase did not modernize during its last decade, the 1960s. It could have inherited new rides from Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey, which was operated by the family that started the Cyclone. Infighting amongst the Tilyou heirs prevented progress. Steeplechase closed after the 1964 season, the cause of much sadness in Brooklyn. The Tilyous sold the land to notorious Queens developer Fred Trump, Donald’s father. Trump held a party celebrating the demolition of the great Victorian structure in 1966. He offered bricks to throw at the Pavilion of Fun’s windows, with plans to develop luxury housing. Trump’s land was never developed and remains a wasteland to this day.

The new Astroland became the predominant amusement park of Coney Island when Steeplechase closed. Converted from the Feltman restaurant property in 1962, it continued to grow until 1975. Still, the landmarks outside of Astroland took on more significance. Coney was bookended by the Cylone on one side and the Thunderbolt on the other. A third major roller coaster, the Tornado, remained in-between. The Bobsled, brought to Coney in 1940 from the New York World’s Fair, was a crazed indoor coaster. Low-tech spookhouses and bumper cars rumbled over sparky electric tracks on the side streets. Also surviving was the terrifying Wonder Wheel. Built in 1920, its Ferris wheel passenger cars creak back and forth on rollers as they revolve through the sky.

Steeplechase’s parachute jump also arrived from the World’s Fair in 1940, and still stands like a proud skeleton. Engineers at first claimed the 250-foot tower couldn’t be erected near the water. With 12 chutes on cables, the ride provided a thrilling 20-foot free fall, until the chute opened. It was entirely different from today’s jumps, which run like high-speed elevators, with no free fall. Today’s generic, assembly-line rides, built on the metric system, are ordered from Europe for theme parks.

Though ruins are respected in Europe for millennia, America destroys its history for quick kills. This is the domain of the real estate speculator. Project housing now festers where Luna Park and Dreamland once stood.

Riots in Brooklyn erupted during the late 1960s. Concessionaires on Surf Avenue were hung by their feet, their little carny operations looted. High-voltage cables from entire rides were yanked out during the night. Like other inner cities, Coney Island was tainted by arsons, vandalism, junkies, muggers of old people, welfare cases and syphilitic streetwalkers.

Yet the season began each year, with millions still attending. In the 1980s, Coney Island came close to a grand vision for revival: casino gambling, a la Atlantic City. Attempting to pull of this wizardly feat was Horace Bullard, owner of the Kansas Fried Chicken chain. For a decade he studied Coney’s history, spent millions acquiring property, and hired architects to design a proposed $150-million nostalgic recreation of Steeplechase.

Bullard disliked soulless corporate theme parks like Six Flags, landfilled with European rides, lacking carny atmosphere and gourmet junk food. Where even the smell of cotton candy is eliminated by enclosed food stands.

Bullard encountered 35 individual landowners on Coney Island, most of whom would not work together. Like a Tower of Babel. The Tilyou estate even fought to prevent usage of the Steeplechase face. Bullard had planned a museum at the top of his park for the Brooklyn Dodgers and George C. Tilyou. “After that much opposition,” he said, “we figured not to bother with a memorial. Because Tilyou was a genius doesn’t mean his descendants are.” In the old days, operators said if riders knew how safe rides were, they wouldn’t scream. But in an age of litigation, Bullard wanted his rides suicide-proof.

Yet Coney Island could not be budged. It sits today [in the 1980s] on hallowed ground, like a Mediterranean archaeological site. The scent of giant lollipops and steamed corn still infuses the old tile walls at the Stillwell Avenue station, where four subways reach their destination. Philip’s Saltwater Taffee is manufactured in the same subway shop since the 1920s, across from Nathan’s. An ancient pissoir runs in the public men’s room.

There is still two-and-a-half miles of beachfront. The wooden Boardwalk, two miles long, 80 feet wide, is superbly maintained. Each summer brings out Bradshaw’s Circus of World Curiosities, along with airplane shows in the sky. Astroland and Dino’s Wonder Wheel Park open each season. Only three classic rides are still in operation: The Cyclone, the B&B carousel and the Wonder Wheel. And there is Nathan’s.

Much of Coney is carnival rubble. Abandoned sea-beaten pavilions, with burned-out neon-fossil facades. Barely visible lettering that once boasted Dancing and Entertainment. The World of Wax is deserted, crumbling, the Thunderbolt lays rotting [it was finally ordered demolished by Mayor Giuliani in 2000]. Junkyard dogs yap from fenced-in lots, the rides they protect reduced to rubble. Fred Trump once offered to raze the Parachute Drop, calling it a “piece of rust.” But engineers said it was still sturdy, even through storms, and it still stands.

An odd sign bearing a familiar leering face, posted by a group called the Coney Island Hysterical Society, reads:

“Steeplechase Park. . . Come back. . . Come back. . .”

Thunderbolt in 1995

© 1990, 2010, Josh Alan Friedman

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

Monday, May 17, 2010

Coney Island (Part II)

Scott Russo Archive

Dreamland opened in 1904, outdoing all that came before. Political favoritism surrounded the incredible speed in which the $3.5-million, virgin-white park was built.

There were a million lights at Dreamland, compared to Luna Park’s 250,000; two chutes to Luna’s one; a 375-foot tower, which was 200 feet taller than Luna’s tower. Only the Park Row Building in New York stood taller, in this pre-skyscraper age. Dreamland’s central spire tower matched exactly the 22-story height of the Times Tower, completed in Times Square that year. “Everything New, But the Ocean,” ran the ad slogan.

The entrance to Dreamland led to a Biblical spectacular called Creation. Senator Reynolds strove for gentility with his Canals of Venice, and imitation Renaissance palaces. Dreamland’s mock city fire, with some 200 fleeing victims, showed a fire department extinguish flames in a six-story building. Luna had a four-story fire. The miniature steam railroad at Dreamland went electric in 1910. Luna stayed with steam. Electric train travel would later outmode steam in the real world.

The Dreamland railroad ran through Lilliputia, a colony of 300 midgets in a miniature world, with its own midget circus, music hall, police, and a midget fire department dashing to false alarms. Here lived Mrs. General Tom Thumb, widow of the world famous Barnum midget, now remarried to a tiny Italian count.

Untold numbers of Africans, Filipinos and Aborigines were shepherded to Coney Island, living under god knows what kind of slave-labor conditions. Samuel Gumpertz, hired as Dreamland’s manager by Reynolds, often traveled to Africa and Asia, importing freaks and tribesmen. He lured 212 Bantoc tribesmen, alleged headhunters who ate dog casseroles and lived in Hipa huts by the Coney Island sea. Aside from living expenses, they supposedly received $1.50 a week.

While Luna Park had a circus, Dreamland presented Bostock’s Animal Show. One witness described Bostock’s bears, leopards, lions and tigers as having been “tortured into talent.” Most famous among Luna’s elephant herd was Topsy, who helped build the park. Topsy killed three men in three years, one of whom fed the six-ton animal a lighted cigarette. In a shameless public relations move, Luna co-creator Elmer Dundy brought in Edison’s men to utilize Luna Park’s electric plant for something new. With her keeper refusing to take part, Topsy was electrocuted in public.


Coney Island became known throughout the Western world as the City of Fire. Yet much of its façade was built of lathe, burlap and cardboard. Immigrants arriving from Europe saw the Steeplechase Ferris wheel from 38 miles at sea, before the Statue of Liberty. It is inconceivable today to imagine how 19th century townsfolk, newly accustomed to electricity, were dumbstruck by 1.2-million light bulbs. “Enough light to illuminate a city of 500,000 souls,” according to Scientific American magazine, which did yearly profiles on each upcoming season at Coney. People were frightened and dazzled. Sigmund Freud, in his only trip to America, came to ponder Dreamland one day in 1909. The founder of psychoanalysis would have entered the park by way of a tunnel that ran between the thighs of a 30-foot nude female carving with boobs the size of elephants. Freud later called America “a gigantic mistake.”

The exotic route to Coney was by way of steamer, squadrons of which landed on the piers each day. The middle-class came by locomotive, through Brooklyn coal yards and soap factories. The mechanical rides were nothing short of revolutionary, engines used for fun and chaos instead of work. This, in an age before airplanes, cars and lawsuits. Coney was the spawning ground for amusement parks. Tilyou’s Steeplechase racetrack was soon duplicated at a half-dozen other parks.

America’s first roller coaster was the invention of LaMarcus A. Thompson. His 6-mph Switchback Railway, on Coney Island, was a popular success in 1884. Passengers rolled down a track, filed up a stairway while the car was hoisted to a second level of track, reloaded, then rolled back down. The next modification arose when an inventor joined the upper and lower track portions with a loop. A moving chain-lift was installed for a third coaster—a chilling effect still in use today.

Coasters evolved left and right on Coney. The Flip-Flap hurt too many people’s necks, and became obsolete after two years. The Leap Frog of 1904 used two cars coasting toward each other—at the fatal moment of impact, one scuttled over the other’s back. The Virginia Reel used circular cars that revolved during their descent.

Then engineers figured that an ellipse, rather than a perfectly circular loop, could prevent neck injuries. The Loop the Loop, on West 10th Street, perfected the roller coaster philosophy: it must seem at once totally lethal and absolutely safe.

Coasters became the bread-and-butter attractions of amusement parks, with their combination of thrills and intimacy. Jolting couples together on the turns, but with just the right kind of jolt. These nuances, these double dips and drops were varied each year for improvement. But there is no telling how many romantic evenings were soured by vomiting episodes, after a Tornado ride on a belly full of Coney Island red hots.

LaMarcus A. Thompson continued his coaster innovations in Atlantic City. Tilyou brought him back where he built the $40,000 Pikes Peak on Surf Avenue in Brooklyn. Here, the roller coaster tripped switches that illuminated scenes within caves and tunnels. But the most dangerous coaster was the Rough Riders, named after Teddy Roosevelt’s men. Motormen in Spanish-American War uniforms ran full throttle on steep downgrades and sharp curves. In 1910, two cars tore loose, sailing 16 people 60 feet in the air. Four died.

Scott Russo Archive

Next week: Gorky and destruction.

© 1990, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Black Cracker On the Air

Hear Josh on The Allan Handelman Show this Friday, May 14th. 101.1 WZTK, North Carolina.

Josh will be talking Black Cracker starting around 5:20 pm Eastern time.

Click the WZTK streaming link below to listen live on Friday:

http://player.streamtheworld.com/liveplayer.php?CALLSIGN=WZTKFM

Monday, May 10, 2010

Coney Island (Part I)

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.

Scott Russo Archive

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.

Actual parking tag received at Coney during my childhood

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.

Scott Russo Archive

Next week: Dreamland

© 1990, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Josh's Lost New York

Al Goldstein's bar mitzvah, Brooklyn, 1949. He'd later wear the same suit for his first hooker.

(from I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life)

© 2010 Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, May 3, 2010

Thunder Road Bites the Dust


Originally appeared as “The Saga of Jacksboro Highway,” in Gallery, March 1989

Driving up the bend of Jacksboro Highway, retired cowpokes squint their eyes upon a familiar landscape unchanged in 50 years. It is the sepia-toned Massey’s 21 Club and the Rockwood Motel, a 1930s motor lodge, surrounded by green hills and bathed in a massive horizon. Old farmers and former Fort Worth rodeo cowboys mosey on in around happy hour. This is the same bar they’ve been drinking at since they were young and wild, when Jacksboro Highway was known as “Thunder Road”—a 16-mile stretch between Fort Worth and Azle, Texas.

Jacksboro Highway attracted the meanest white people in all of Texas. Outlaws hid there and gangsters flourished within the 40-odd honky-tonk beer joints and lavish nightclubs. The 16-mile stream of neon offered a proliferation of illegal slot machines, backroom gambling, whores, dope, booze and constant shootouts.

By 1990 the Highway Department will be razing Massey’s 21 Club, along with most of the remaining old honky-tonks along the Jax.

Massey’s was one of the safer spots. Proprietor Bobby Sitton promised his father-in-law, Hubert Massey, he’d keep the club looking the same as it did in the 1930s. He’s kept his promise.

“I really don’t know why,” says Bobby, “but back in those days there was a lot of mean people around. ’Course, most of ’em all been thinned out. Stabbed to death, car wrecks, shot, dynamited or still in the pen from back in the old days. Very few of ’em just flat died.”

Sitton, 56, grew up on the Jax, and talks friendly as apple pie. Yet he’s bowlegged and battle-scarred, with knife scars across the belly. He’s been shot twice in local bars and he's “got stitches on top of stitches” across his head, where countless beer bottles have crashed.

“When you own a club on the Jacksboro, you may be the owner, but you’re always the bouncer,” says Sitton. His hands seem constructed like large, puffy fists. He scratches his head, bewildered as to why Jacksboro was more violent than other places on Earth.

“When we were growing up out here, it just seemed like the thing to do was fighting. Mostly just good ol’ fist fighting, no guns or knives. Worst thing was a beer bottle on the head. Get out there, pick a fight, have a good knockdown drag-out. I’ve been beat on all my life.”

The most troublesome problem Bobby now faces is the loss of his club and the old motel behind it, The Rockwood. Massey’s rose from the base of a streetcar diner in 1934. It is like a western version of Sardi’s on Broadway, deserving of landmark status. Red leather bar stools are built into the counter. Old silver beer refrigerators align the tender’s side of the bar. The seating booths are made of cozy red leather, each fitted with a Seeburg Consolette jukebox. Massey’s water still comes from a well dug out by Bobby’s father-in-law. (“Best well water you ever drunk in your life,” Sitton proudly points out.) His handsome mother-in-law, with a regal beehive, lends class to the joint, bantering with old customers at the bar. Today, she speaks with Billy Ray Robinson, owner of the Arabian-baroque Caravan Motel up on the corner, which his daddy and uncle built. He’ll lose his land to the highway, too.

You expect Clark Gable to swagger in for a cup o’ Joe; a gum-snappin’ Jean Harlow to strut over and jot down your Old Bushmills order on a pad. Like most owners of rough-and-tumble joints, Bobby Sitton will sooner stress his gentle nature. His role model in the art of behaving like a gentleman was Hubert Massey, whose family also founded Fort Worth’s greatest chicken-fried steak restaurant on Eighth Avenue.

“A genuine statesman and gentleman,” says Bobby, who watched his father-in-law offer countless gangsters a free drink with the condition they “call it a day and leave.”

“This club is a family place, where ladies wear dresses and dance to the old-fashioned waltz. We don’t allow any known criminals, prostitutes or dope dealers to come in here.”

On weekends, Massey’s features country-and-Western dancing to the seasoned Jacksboro Highway Band. Leon Short, the 52-year-old lead singer, is the great-great grandson of Luke Short, who gunned down Marshall Longhair Jim Courtright (a former outlaw himself) outside the White Elephant Saloon on Hell’s Half Acre in Fort Worth, about two miles from the saloon’s current location. “Blasted off the sheriff's thumb,” says Bobby, as if he saw it, “so he couldn't shoot—then blew him away.”

One of the legendary survivors of the old Jax, Cliff Helton, sits at the bar. There’s a 50-year-old photo of Cliff by the cash register. He's out on the Highway, posing alongside his freshly crashed 1936 Ford, wearing a Great Gatsby suit and a movie-star smile. Folks used to refer to Cliff as the Mayor of Jacksboro Highway. He owned dozens of joints, bars, bar-B-Q’s. He stood shotgun over them all, and shot off many a kneecap. They say he gambled most every one away at the flip of a card. As “one of the survivors,” now in his seventies, Cliff doesn’t necessarily like to talk about the old days.

“He’s mellowed some,” says one old-timer at the bar, “but you don’t wanna fool with him. You push him in the corner, do something bad, he gonna do it back worse.”

Jacksboro Highway’s gang warfare of the 1950s created a situation where most of the gangsters shot themselves into extinction. Dozens received gangland executions, their bodies strewn about narrow graves by Lake Worth. Every night, some fool would walk into a bar and announce he was the “toughest man in Texas,” and wait for someone to prove him wrong.

But the professional tough guys had names like Cecil Green, who was shot by gunmen in a Jacksboro nightspot while he counted an extortion haul. Sitting with him was Tincy Eggleston, who escaped the bullet hail. Tincy later had his head blown off by Gene Paul Norris, over robbery money from an alleged Cuban weapons deal. One of the last heavies to go, Norris was gunned down in 1957 by an army of Texas Rangers, state troopers and Fort Worth cops. They chased him into a field after he robbed the Carswell Air Force Base payroll.

The regulars at the last honky-tonks on the Jax still speak quietly the names of those gangsters, 25 years after the last of them were killed. But they can’t figure why the highway is just now being “cleaned up,” two decades later.

The gambling halls and gangster dens all died with the outlaws. But the encroaching fast-food chains that already clutter the Jax will finish off the last of the wild West. The Highway Department will swathe out an eight-lane freeway of corporate shopping malls, and plow over the remnants of Thunder Road.

They will also be eliminating a cowpoke tradition that hasn’t lost a moment from the days when the southeast corner of downtown Fort Worth was known as “Hell’s Half Acre.” It was an outlaw community unrivaled in the West. By the turn of the century there were over 80 whorehouses in business. Fannie Porter’s house of ill repute harbored the Hole in the Wall Gang (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Legend has it Bonnie and Clyde stayed in the Right Hotel on North Main Street, now called the Stockyards Hotel. In fact, the suite they are said to have slept in is named after them.

Hell’s Half Acre seemed to move onto Jacksboro Highway by the 1930s. It was still mostly prairie between downtown Fort Worth and Lake Worth. The Jacksboro was built up by the state of Texas to accommodate Carswell Air Force Base and an aircraft factory, bringing thousands of soldiers and plant workers to the area. Cops called it the “Jax Beer Highway” in the ’40s and ’50s, where blue-collar hay hands and packing-house workers got drunk, fought and sometimes killed each other. White kids with money from the Arlington suburbs scored reefers in the back alleys, at a time when marijuana was still a dark secret of Negroes and Orientals. The honky-tonks became off-limits to Carswell personnel when it became evident that cowpokes, Yankee fliers and hay hands made for volatile bedfellows.


The bouncers could usually control the fights at the good clubs. Since World War II, the Rocket Club has been peeling back its canvas roof for summer dancing under the stars. It’s now a white-washed ghost of its former self, where Mexican dances are held. The new highway will demolish it. Top Texas swing bands, including Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, and The Light Crust Doughboys, made it out to the Jax to play such palaces as the Coconut Grove, the Skyliner and the Casino.

Bill Luttrell began playing the Highway that many country musicians avoided, at Hattie’s Silver Dollar in 1946: “It was a real bad place,” says the guitarist, with a hearty laugh. “Notorious for fighting. People from Azle came out there. Two women started fighting one night, then one guy tried to break ’em up and, ’course, everybody in the house jumped on him. I thought we’d never escape. We hit the window with a mike stand and crawled out. When the fight was over, we went back for our PA, which was literally destroyed.

“I played the Skyliner, the last big strip joint [which featured Dallas stripper Candy Barr], on the last night, about 20 years ago. Little Lynn was starring; she’d been part of the Jack Ruby murder trial. I don’t think the police chief much liked her coming here, ’cause they raided us that night at 10 o’clock. Took all the strippers and the club owner to jail. I went down to pick him up. This was a union club, too, so we all got paid; even the strippers were union. Then the Skyliner reopened as a dance joint. The new guy that owned it wrote everybody hot checks, including the beer company, the radio station and newspaper [that ran his] ads, even Ernest Tubb, who headlined opening night.”

The worst thing Luttrell remembers was the night a guitarist named Jimmy Garner went to sub for him at the Rockwood Lounge. “He got killed. He bumped into two mean drunks who got mad and stabbed him.”


The big neon V out on Jacksboro is a dining landmark. Vivian Courtney’s Restaurant still serves great chicken fried anything. During World War II, the establishment was called Harmon’s, and served more dinners by car hop than anywhere on the strip. Vivian took over in 1946.

She raised two daughters here, and curls an eyebrow suspiciously over Jacksboro’s myths and legends. “Nobody ever bothered us.”

“I think Mansfield Highway was just as dangerous,” drawls her husband Bill, a tall, burly Texan. “For what they say happened on this highway, they coulda went to the moon. All I remember is what I did.”

The Courtneys’ restaurant will likely lose its locale when the freeway is built. They’re not particularly sentimental and feel too old to fight it.

“Time marches on,” says Bill, pointing out that 60 local chain-type businesses signed up in support of the new highway. “When the Highway Department wants our land, they’ll take it.”


“All I'm doin’ is settin’ and wonderin’,” says Inez, owner of the Inez 50-50 Club, a country-and-Western bar with hot live music. “They didn’t build these new K-marts and Jack-In-The-Boxes to be torn down,” she observes. Touring the strip by car, she points out how all the new fast-food stores seem strategically set more than 36 feet off the road, within legal limits to remain if a freeway cuts up the middle. If the highway goes south, they’ll have to cut down K-Mart, bigger than a football field, which seems unlikely. If they route around north, they’ll steer traffic away, leaving Inez’ club in a back-road shadow. If they cut down the middle, they’ll have to buy her out at “fair market prices” and raze the club.

“Once they build the new highway, business’ll probably be good for a year. Then all these little neighborhood places—people gonna quit comin’, they’ll forget, they’ll hate to get off the highway, it’ll be dangerous. You know how it goes.”

Inez has been on the highway since her youth. Still sexy at 70, she’s on the lookout for a 10th husband. “You can’t be married and run a club. You gotta marry the club.

“I’ve been up and down the road,” she says, steering her luxury car past ghost locations. She points to an empty lot: “That’s where Tincy Eggleston’s gang used to hang out, a bad bunch. They blowed it up, that’s why it’s not there anymore. I guess they’re all pretty near dead, but I don’t like to say anything ’cause they have families.

“That was the Sweet Two Two Five. . . . Up on the hill was the Chateau. After the Fort Worth Stock Show, they’d all be up here at night, playing slot machines, diceboards, girls.

“Oh, I throwed Willie Nelson outta my club many a time,” she remembers, “back in ’50, ’51. He was married to a Mexican girl, and he worked at a service station with my baby boy. He didn't sing—he used to talk sad and play his guitar. Drove me crazy. I had a little old place called the Hayloft, and he’d set up there with his feet hangin’ down. Customers’d say, ‘Please get him down.’ I'd say, ‘Willie, they want you to get out.’ He’d usually go somewhere else, till they run him off, just playin’ for drinks.”

Thirty years ago, out on the Jax, a club owner could send in $12 tax per month to the state. Now, Inez explains, it’s become much harder to run a club. “I sold beer 10 cents a bottle, three for a quarter. Now for each drink I have to send 12 cents to the state. I’m audited in Austin, have to send them three thousand dollars a month.”

Like other club owners on the Jax, Inez claims she never associated or did trade with gangsters. “I have never had any serious trouble at my club. I’ve held a license 47 years, and never had a shootin’ or a cuttin’.” The main troubles Inez had were good-old knock-down drag-out fights, which could only have occurred in a time of prosperity, when the country was happier. Fighting clean was a euphoric tradition, and has gone the way of drive-ins and Buffalo nickels.

“We had lots of rodeo boys, they just loved to fight. With their fists. They were just squares, not characters, who’d get drunk and see who’s toughest. Somebody’d say he could whup anyone on the highway; next thing ya know, they’d meet up the street and make bets. Then they’d come back, buy each other beers. . . . But people won’t fight no more, you’ll get killed, they’ll get a gun and come back to blow yer head off. The honor of fighting has gone. I think it's ’cause of dope, people are more worried, can’t afford a night out anymore. They don’t fool with fighting, just leave ’em alone or they’ll kill ya.

“I’m getting old,” claims Inez. “I’d like to get out of it. It’s slowed down at the club, I don’t think there’s much goin’ on now on Jacksboro Highway. They might relocate me, but I don’t know where to go. Lord, yes, I will retire if they buy my place. Forty-seven years of this is enough.”

Bobby Sitton remembers Inez’ place as “real dangerous, still lotsa trouble.” But of Massey’s, he claims there hasn’t been a fight in several years: “And I was involved in it myself. About fifteen Irishmen come in. First time we ever had any problems with the Irish. They were filthy-mouthed, like they’d finish their beer and th’owed it behind the bar. I ordered ’em outta the place. Then one of ’em th’owed a beer in my face. Nobody th’ows no beer on me. I knocked the hell outta him, smacked him a damn good one, sent him all the way into the jukebox. All his friends got up, and it come out to quite a battle raw. I fought ’em all the way from here to the dance floor, got knocked down a few times myself. My wife jumped off the bar on about five of ’em. The bar girl called the law, and the po-lice got here quick, arrested some of ’em.”

Bobby Sitton at Oakwood Cemetery, Fort Worth, 1988

Bobby often visits the Oakwood Cemetery, “the most beautiful cemetery you ever seen.” On the short drive to Oakwood, he proudly points out the dives of yesteryear: “Used to be a place here called Lottie’s—I got shot in the arm by the bartender. We’d had a fallin’ out night before, and he didn’t serve me a beer, so I hit him over the head with a beer bottle. My fault. He shot me in the damn arm, I had to crawl out to keep him from shootin’ again. Then he come outside and still shot at me.

“And there's the old Cartwheel Club, and boy, you talk about fightin’. There was a hell hole if there ever was one. The old man who owned it, name was Grip. Well, one night he decided I needed to leave. So I started out and the sonofagun shot me through the side. I guess I wasn't leavin’ quick enough to suit him. That created a pretty good stink, ’cause I had a bunch of friends who got upset and broke all the windows out.”

Bobby steps out at Oakwood Cemetery, off the highway on Fort Worth’s North Side. This was his childhood playground. “Some of my best friends are buried here,” he laments, stepping slowly over the lumpy green earth. A German shepherd stands guard over a tombstone, his former master. Bobby says they used to hang outlaws right here at the old hanging tree, before burying them. They’d have the trial right across the river at the courthouse.

Oakwood Cemetery provides Bobby’s favorite bird’s-eye view into downtown Fort Worth, across the Trinity River. Tall smokestacks rise up behind the train tracks, where “three niggers fell when they were building ’em . . . and my best friend is buried right there. He was shot between the eyes over a woman, back in the ’50s.

“I still have some pretty good fights back at my motel, mostly with women,” Bobby admits. The Rockwood stands behind Massey’s, and is in considerably worse condition. The rooms run $12.95 per night, and each is equipped with an open space for a 1930s auto. “I do my best to keep a clean motel, but you can’t always tell if they’re prostitutes till they show their colors.

“Most of ’em white women, fight ya like a dog. I never hit a woman with my fist in my whole life. But I had one that sicced her damn dog on me. We had a knock-down, drag-out fight, she hung her fangs in my arm, almost bit it off—the woman, not the dog. Couldn’t pry her jaws off. Boy, I mean I hit her back. She hadda let go to cuss me. And when she did, we rassled outta my office into the drive, and I’ll be darned if she didn’t sic that dog on me again. Little old poodle. I drug her to the front gate and tossed her out on Jacksboro Highway.

“Well, her blouse got tore off, she didn’t have a bra on, but there wasn’t anything to see, believe me, flat chest. That tickled me. I laughed and said, ‘Lookit there!’ She had two tattoos above where’s supposed to be some female stuff, that said, ‘Have Fun.’

“‘I’ll tell you one thing, you Jacksboro Highway ho’,’ I told her, ‘you better git down the highway, or next time I’m gonna fight you like a man.’”


The old-timers left on the Jax are so folksy, it’s hard to imagine they were reared in such violent times. “Coldest Beer and Friendliest People in Texas,” reads the logo outside Massey’s 21 Club. But the last of the mom-and-pop joints along Jacksboro—as well as the rest of America—will soon be homogenized into assembly-line malls. All of what is ethnic, regional or historic will disappear in the ongoing corporate Texas chainsaw massacre, dictated by demographic surveys, not human spirit. Fort Worth presents its yearly Pioneer Days in the stockyards, but it is for tourists. The unbroken thread of the real wild West will remain on Jacksboro Highway for about a year.

“Our time’s runnin’ out,” laments Bobby Sitton, hunched over his beloved Massey’s bar. “That highway’s gonna git us.” The state will pay them a “fair market price” for the land and building. “But we’re not getting a damn thing for the loss of customers we built up for 50 years. They’re even taking the Rockwood Christian Church across the street. Used to be the old Massey home place. We sold it to the church with an understanding they’d never start a crusade against us. Now, it looks like they gonna go down the chute, too, with us.”


© 1989, 2010 Josh Alan Friedman