On Coney Island, the World’s Fairs and More

This is a truncated version of a talk I gave at the Coney Island Museum on May 4, 2019. In many cases I’ve already posted articles about different subjects mentioned in the post. Just click on the link to learn more about the items in question. 

This is a kind of a sister talk to one I gave at the Queens Theatre in Flushing recently, on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the 1939 World’s Fair. The idea behind the present presentation is the cross-fertilization between Coney Island’s amusement parks and the various world’s fairs between 1876 and 1965. In preparing previous talks and articles about Coney Island I couldn’t help but notice that almost every world’s fair introduced innovations that got incorporated into Coney Island and associated with it thereafter. In preparing this particular talk, I noticed that it also cuts both ways; there were also some elements that Coney Island contributed to the world’s fairs.

Each of the world fairs deserves its own day long symposium. This particular essay is very specific: it’s about the interaction we described, so there’s not time to properly paint the fabulousness of each fair – but just be aware , each one was dazzling, almost of the them all helped change popular culture and in most cases even permanently altered the physical landscape of the cities in which they were held.

Also, the time of which we are treating, from the mid 19th century through the mid 20th century, was a period of much ferment. There are some cases where the phenomena of which we’re speaking aren’t necessarily unique to either the world’s fairs or Coney Island, although in most cases, the fairs and Coney led the way.

The glorious thing for me about both subjects is the intersection between the high and the low. The worlds fairs’ were at the outset educational and promotional events showcasing the best the nations of the world had to offer in the realms of science, industry, art and so forth. But there was also a need to make the fairs solvent, so there was increasingly a populist element, and a greater emphasis on amusement. Similarly, the early, spectacular days of Coney also had higher aspirations, and cultural and scientific aspirations as well


London 1851: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations

Worlds fair’s are the world’s most elaborate pissing contests. France had held about a dozen national expositions since 1798. Now the British Empire wanted to demonstrate that they were pre-eminent at everything in the world. Their exposition was held in the famed Crystal Palace, built especially for the occasion.

It was an exercise in high Victorianism and was highly successful. With its profits, the British built the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum and the Natural History Museum.

New York 1853: Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations

Not to be outdone, New York built its own Crystal Palace (next to the reservoir, on the present site of the New York Public Library and Bryant Park) and held its first world’s fair.

These two early fairs (London and New York) exhibited much to the world that is worthy of note but it would be a digression to go into detail about that here. They are mainly of interest because the organizers upped the ante and the scale of these events, made them international in scope and were successful, so they inspired the later ones. One innovation presented at this fair WOULD play a relevant role in the future, however — elevator brakes. The New York Crystal Palace burned to the grown in 1858, just five years after it was built.

The World’s Fairs: 

Philadelphia 1876: International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine

This influential fair (held on the centennial of the Declaration of Independence) was America’s first official world’s fair (i.e. the first sanctioned by the new international committee) and it essentially began the competition among American cities for supremacy that would characterize the Great Age. The baton would later be taken up by Chicago, Buffalo, St. Louis, Omaha, San Francisco, and New York twice more, among others.

Machinery Hall, A&I Building, "1876: A Centennial Exhibition"

Elements from this world’s fair’s Machinery exhibition were on view at the Smithsonian through 2004, and I went to see it several times: it was a major influence on the aesthetics of my American Vaudeville Theatre, at least in the early years. I was especially impressed and inspired by the copious use of America flag bunting, and the near-fetishization of cast iron, steam engines, cogs and gears, pistons, pipes and valves, levers, pressure gauges, the sort of stuff that would later be associated with steampunk. Room after room of this stuff. The optimism of an early age! New inventions like the telephone, the telegraph and the typewriter were introduced at this fair. As were a couple of smaller innovations not irrelevant to Coney Island: Heinz Ketchup and Hires Root beer.

Amusement-park rides and “hoochie koochie dancers” were NOT yet part of the mix, and show folk were not allowed to have concessions on the grounds, so a nearby shanty town arose full of dime museums, fortune tellers and the like. . On view in this tawdry row were a 602 pound fat woman and “man-eating Feejees”, as well as the one and only General Mite, who later performed at Coney Island. (Obviously dime museums and then sideshows were infiltrating Coney around the same time. There was a midget palace in Brighton Beach as early as 1880. Early New York dime museum operators like Bunnell’s and Worth’s had presences out there, as well.

The most conspicuous legacy of the Philadelphia World’s Fair to Coney island though was the 300 foot Iron Tower, which you can read about here.  This tower employed a steam powered elevator to get to the top, necessitating the use of those elevator breaks we mentioned as originating at the Crystal Palace exposition in 1853.

Paris, 1878: Exposition Univeriselle

This fair celebrated the end of the Franco-Prussian war.This fair featured hot air balloon ascensions orchestrated by Henri Giffard. This was not new, precisely. people had been going up in balloons since the late 18th century. It was regularly done at Vauxhall Gardens in London. But I include it here to provide a bit of color and a taste for the period. Giffard’s balloon was unprecedentedly large. It could hold 50 people a time and flew 35,000 people by the end of the festival. As early as the 1880s there were also balloon ascensions at the hotels in Manhattan Beach and later they had them at the amusement parks of Coney Island, at least in the early years. I wish they had them now!

Paris 1889: Another Exposition Universelle

This one was held on the centennial of the Storming of the Bastille. This is the fair that gave the world the Eiffel Tower. (About a decade later Steeplechase Park would also install a replica of the Eiffel tower, not unlike the one that’s in Las Vegas now.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was a highlight at this fair, as well as the world’s fairs of 1893 (Chicago) and 1898 (Omaha). Buffalo Bill Cody’s show had actually come to Coney Island as early as 1883, during its first year of operation.

One of his employees (a trick rider for the show) Samuel Gumpertz would go on to manage Lilliputia or the Midget City at Dreamland amusement park in Coney Island. Midget villages of this nature would be a staple of several world’s fairs through 1939. Gumpertz would later manage Dreamland in its entirety, as well as the later Dreamland Circus Sideshow. 

Another staple of Buffalo Bill’s show was the exhibition (or the exploitation) of living Native Americans as part of the presentation. Naturally they came to Paris with the show, a phenomenon not unrelated to the fair’s “Village Negre”, an exhibited village of huts containing 400 African natives. Such “human zoos” had begun to be popular around the 1870s, and were also a prominent feature at Coney Island (and would up being featured at nearly every world’s fair through 1939).

In these sensationalized ethnographic displays, the people wore their native garb, In the exhibits of people from Africa or Pacific Islands or South America there was a good deal of nakedness, and I’m sure a good part of the public attended especially for that. It was like the National Geographic of its times – for some people a substitute for Playboy.

In America this concept would be given a crass new twist:

Chicago 1893 : The World’s Columbian Exposition

This one was held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s first journey to the Americas (it opened one year late).

The fair’s Midway Plaisance (from whence we get the term “midway”  had many ethnographic displays. Among these exhibits were ones purporting to represent the Middle East and North Africa. There was a “Streets of Cairo”, and a Persian one, and an Algerian one. And a highlight of these exhibits was native dance. We know this kind of dancing so well but in Victorian society it was like a thunderbolt – women draped in this very light sheer but colorful fabrics, with veils and harem pants and a bare midriff , doing these sinewy, snakelike motions, suggestively undulating their hips, and doing these beckoning come-hither motions with their arms. Earlier in the century THE WALTZ had been scandalous. To see a woman doing this in the 1890s was spectacular. It went by many names: “belly dancing” (because of the bare midriff); a muscle dance/ mussel dance (for two reasons); or “kouta kouta”, which became “coutchee coutchee” which became “houchee-couchee” and sometimes “cooch dance, which is a phrase that sounds vulgar to us now because as outgrowth “cooch” became a nickname for female genitalia. At any rate, the popularity of this form of dancing dates from this fair. The queen of the new craze was a lady known as Little Egypt, but there were others, such as Princess Radja, Fatima, Zora, etc.

After the Chicago fair closed, these performers came to New York and danced in Manhattan’s Grand Central Place for a few weeks. Then they moved to Coney Island, which established its own Midway Plaisance, with its own “Streets of Cairo”, Algerian pavilion, Turkish Theatre, and Moroccan Village. One reads accounts of the cooch dancers there from the mid 1890s and into the new century.

Another hit of the Chicago World’s Fair was strong man Eugene Sandow. In the wake of his wide popularity, Coney Island strong men became a whole new performance category, including guys like The Mighty Atom and Joe Rollino.

Another highlight of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was the spectacular electric illumination, giving it the nickname “The White City”. This was a cutting edge novelty at the time, and the fair organizers pulled out all the stops, outfitting the building exteriors with 100,000 incandescent lights. In about a decade, this would also be a major attraction at Coney Island. Luna Park had 250,000 lights; Dreamland had over a million.

Fred Thompson, later co-founder of Coney Island’s Luna Park, was a manager of exhibitions at the 1893 fair.

Perhaps most famously, the 1893 fair gave us the world’s first ferris wheel, which then inspired George C. Tilyou’s Coney Island ferris wheel the following year. Read that story (and more) here. 

Lastly, Coney Island’s first amusement park Sea Lion Park (sort of) owes its origins to the Chicago World’s Fair. It’s proprietor Captain Paul Boyton preceded his Coney venture with a trial version in Chicago in 1894 just after the fair closed.

Berlin 1896: “Great Industrial Exposition of Berlin”

Dr. Martin A. Couney’s baby incubators debuted at this fair. They were later exhibited at Coney Island’s Luna Park, as well as subsequent world’s fairs.

Omaha 1898: Trans-Mississippi International Exposition

Buffalo’s Wild West was again featured at this exposition. This was also the fair at which Ching Ling Foo made an enormous hit, prompting his historic vaudeville tour. This was also the fair where Fred Thompson met Skip Dundy. 

Buffalo, 1901. Pan American Exposition

Today this fair is most famous for being the site of President McKinley’s assassination and Teddy Roosevelt’s ascension to the presidency.

This is the fair where Thompson and Dundy opened their Trip to the Moon ride, which became the basis for Coney Island’s Luna Park, which they also founded. More on that here.

St Louis 1904. Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

This one was held in honor of the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase (opened one year late), and is the setting for the musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The ice cream cone, cotton candy and Dr. Pepper were all introduced at this fair. It remains the largest world’s fair in American history. Wireless communication was demonstrated, as well as automobiles, which were still novel. Almost 20 million attended.

As we said, the original genuine Ferris wheel made its second and last appearance at this fair. It was dismantled and destroyed in 1906, because it was too expensive to move.

Princess Radjah, who got her start at Coney, worked this fair. As did Tod Browning, later famous for directing the movie Freaks . Also presented at this fair was Heckler’s Flea Circus, which went on to a stint at Coney Island before arriving at its final location,Hubert’s Museum,

San Francisco and San Diego 1915 (The Panama-Pacific International Exposition and the Panama-California Exposition)  

Two world’s fairs in California at the same time, both intended to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. In between both cities is of course Los Angeles, movie capital of the world. As he often did when newsworthy and photogenic events of this nature came up, silent comedy mogul Mack Sennett sent his clowns to the site to improvise comedy movies. Back in 1912 he had done this very same thing at Coney Island, in the film, aptly called At Coney Island, featuring himself, Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling. By 1915, thanks largely to the success of Charlie Chaplin at Keystone, Sennett was pretty much just a studio chief now, too busy to be in his movies himself any more. A lot of the roles of the sort he used to play were now played by Fatty Arbuckle. When the world’s fairs hit, he sent Arbuckle and Normand to each of them to improvise comedy movies: Fatty and Mabel Viewing the Worlds Fair at San Francisco (1915) and Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915). Two years after this, under Arbuckle’s direction, the whole thing turns full circle again. in 1917, after Arbuckle had left Sennett and had his own studio Comique, he came to Coney Island with his stock company of Buster Keaton and Al St John and made a very similar movie, called Coney Island. Fatty is at the amusement park with his wife, they get separated and shenanigans result. Lots of great documentary footage of rides, Luna Park etc. One of the best things is footage of the now-defunct Coney Island Mardi Gras Parade. Still an exciting magical place, still has Luna Park and Steeplechase. And this would be true a dozen years later when Harold Lloyd shot several scenes of his movie Speedy there.

One other interesting related fact: The Panama-Pacific Exposition had a Hawaiian exposition that resulted in the popularization of both the ukulele and the pedal steel guitar, both native Hawaiian instruments.

Chicago 1933. A Century of Progress International Exposition

This one celebrated the centennial of Chicago. At this world’s fair Faith Bacon and Sally Rand each competed head to head for burlesque supremacy by performing their respective fan dances. In 1939 they divided the spoils: Rand performed at the San Francisco World Fair and Bacon performed at the New York one. Bacon was busted at the New York fair and was soon reduced to performing at carnivals, whereas Rand enjoyed high class bookings til the end of her days. Of the two, Bacon was the more likely to have performed burlesque in Coney Island. If she didn’t dance there personally, countless dancers who appropriated her act did.

The 1939 New York World’s Fair: Read about it in my recent post here.

There were naturally no world’s fairs during the Second World War. And no REAL ones for a while during the Cold War. But then there’s one last thing to talk about.

The 1964 New York Worlds Fair “Peace Through Understanding”.

This one had a real Kennedy era/ United Nations/ Jetsons/ space race kind of orientation. Like the 1939 world’s fair, also at Flushing Meadows, this one was about hope and visions of the future.

Interestingly, Coney Island’s Astroland, which opened in 1962 was informed by a similar rocketry theme

And Freedomland, which had opened in the Bronx in 1960, had an entire space age section called “Satellite City”. Was it good or bad that all stuff was going on in the same city at the same time? Was it just the zeitgeist? was it too much competition, especially when people had moved out to the suburbs and now had the option of going to places like Disneyland and Hershey Park and Six Flags?

Note this timeline:

The world’s fair opened April 1964

Coney Island’s Steeplechase closed in September 1964

Freedomland closed at the end of the 1964 season as well

and then the worlds fair itself proved a big money loser.

One of the reasons may have been that even though there was stimulating stuff at the fair like Walt Disney’s animatronics, it had a disappointing midway. This was Robert Moses’ baby, after all. He famously ruined Coney Island, and he was also the mastermind of this fair, and purposely gave it a sort of anemic midway presence, because he hated amusement parks. His thing was public parks, and now Queens has a large public park.

And it also has a carousel which it stole from Coney Island for this fair, further weakening Coney island as a destination. The fair took two of Coney Island’s last few carousels (it once had 20): Feltman’s Carousel (1903) and the Stubbman Carousel (1908). They were combined into one big new one and transported to Flushing, It’s still there, renamed the Flushing Meadows Carousel.

Folks rightly think of the 1964 exposition as the last true worlds fair. There have been others since but they have been smaller in scale and specialized, scarcely deserving of the name. We seem to have lost the optimism that had been at the heart of every world’s fair since the late 18th century. People once envisioned a better world, and proudly showcased ideas and products that were helping to bring it about. Another factor perhaps: the world’s fairs were sort of friendly international competitions, in the spirit of the Olympics. Today, everything is kind of global and corporate, not the property of one nations. For better or worse, both and neither probably, culture is part of that process. And yet, counterintuitively, “progress” seems no longer to be genuine goal on any nation’s agenda, nor has it been for a long time. We wrote some about that here.

At the same time, Coney Island kept deteriorating in the late 20th century, though it has finally rebounded in recent years. There is a LOT of competition out there. Disney has theme parks in California, Florida, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Las Vegas is now much more like an amusement park. There’s Branson. In Washington DC the Smithsonian has grown and grown. People carry education, international communication and entertainment with them wherever they go on their phones. Why are there no more big world’s fairs? There is one, and it is perpetual. It’s called THE WORLD.