Archive for the Amusement Parks Category

How Coney Island Gave Us the First Roller Coasters

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island with tags , , , , , on August 16, 2017 by travsd

Today is National Roller Coaster Day! It’s not nearly enough well known that Coney Island was the birthplace of the roller coaster, forgotten mostly because Coney Island amusement parks started being eclipsed by larger, newer ones around the country in the 1950s and 60s. But facts are facts, so I do my part in getting the word out. Here are some of the notable, pathbreaking roller coasters at Coney Island.

The Switchback Railway (1884) at Coney Island was the first roller coaster in the world. There was much that was different about it. Passengers sat sideways. It only went one way. And it was powered strictly by gravity: you were toted to the top of the first hill (by people!), and you coasted until you stopped. Other early ones included the Serpentine Railway (1885), which was the first one to take you on a complete loop to your starting place, and the Oval Coaster (1885), the first one that used a mechanism to take you to the top of the first hill. Both of these coasters worked on the gravity principal as well.

Elephant Scenic Railway (Circa 1886-1896)

A coaster that wrapped around the notorious Elephant Hotel three times. Try getting a night’s rest with screaming passengers outside your window. Burned down with the hotel in 1896.

Loop the Loop (Sea Lion Park) 1901-1910

This was the first SAFE roller coaster with a loop (it had been preceded by the Flip Flap Railway, 1895-1902, at the same park, but it sounds like that one gave ya whiplash). The Loop the Loop sounds pretty dangerous too — only centrifugal force kept your car on the tracks as you went around. Another dangerous sounding one was the Cannon Coaster (1902-1907), on which the car literally jumped over a gap like Evel Knievel. It sounds like they never worked out the kinks in that one. Yipes.

Giant Roller Coaster 

This one was billed at the time as the longest coaster ever built (6,150 feet). It was originally at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, then installed at Brighton Beach circa 1907.

Chase Through the Clouds (1910-1919) a.k.a Mile Sky Chaser (1923-1944)

This one had originally been known s “Chase Through the Clouds” and was located in Brighton Beach until moved to Luna Park following a fire, and given a new name.

Scenic Spiral Wheel, a.k.a The Top (1917-1920)

You often see this impressive looking experiment in old film footage. While your car went around the tracks the entire structure was moving too, in the manner of a child’s top.

Big Dipper a.k.a. the Wild Cat a.k.a the Comet (1921-1945)

We now enter the era of classic roller coasters, when several were built that we would today recognize as modern, fast, high, electrically operated roller coasters. This one went up on the site of the old Switchback Railway, roughly where the NY Aquarium parking lot now is. Its name changed several times over the years.

 

The Thunderbolt (1925-82)

This one is famous for being depicted in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (it’s the one with the house underneath). After it burned and closed in 1982, its rusted out hulk was a beloved landmark in Coney Island for 20 years until torn down to make way for the baseball stadium where the Brooklyn Cyclones now play.

The Limit (1925-1934) later incorporated into the Bobsled (1941-1974)

The Tornado a.k.a The Bobs (1926-1977)

The Cyclone (1927-present)

The only one of the classic coasters still standing. Take a ride on it today!

The Jumbo Jet (1973-2003)

The was one of the few new rides to go up at Coney in the late 20th century. It was still running until 2003. I didn’t remember it (since I never rode it) until I saw this photo!

The history continues. Several new roller coaster rides have opened in the new Luna Park since 2010. Learn about them here.

Coney Island Film Clips

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Hollywood (History), Movies, Movies (Contemporary), My Shows, Silent Film with tags , , on August 12, 2017 by travsd

This is an unusual post for us. It’s designed to be a kind of appendix to the talk I am giving at the Coney Island Museum today, Coney Island and the Movies. But if you weren’t at the talk, you may find it useful and enjoyable too! Just click on the links below to go the clip on Youtube (for as long as the clip remains available on Youtube.)

Shooting the Chutes, Sea Lion Park (1896, Edison) 

Rube and Mandy at Coney Island (1903, Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter)

The Electrocution of an Elephant (1903, Edison, depicts the execution of the rogue elephant Topsy at Luna Park) TRIGGER WARNING: This depicts just what is described.

Coney Island at Night (1905, Edison, directed by Edwin S. Porter) 

Boarding School Girls at Coney Island (1905, Edison)

At Coney Island (1912), Mack Sennett and Mabel Norman cavort around Luna Park and Steeplechase in one of the very earliest Keystones, made only a year after the Dreamland fire. Ford Sterling tries to romance Mabel, but his wife turns out not to like the idea. 

Coney Island (1917, starring Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Al St. John against backdrop of the beach, the Surf Ave Mardi Gras Parade, and the rides at both amusement parks) 

Ford Motor Company Footage of Luna Park, The Bowery etc, ca. 1918

Canned Thrills (Silent Pathe documentary, 1920s showing Steeplechase and Luna Park)

Harold Lloyd in Speedy (1928: 5 minute scene from a feature length silent film, where he brings his date to Luna Park) 

Meet Me Down at Coney Isle (1930, Fox Movietone)

Let’s Go Coney Island! (British Pathe doc, 1932) Just two minutes, rides at Steeplechase, Human Cannonball at Luna Park) 

Shorty at Coney Island (1936 Paramount short starring a chimp at Steeplechase)

Coney Island (Trailer for 1943 Fox film with Betty Grable, George Montgomery, Charles Winniger etc. Not shot on location; strictly studio sets) 

Newsreel (before 1944, showing Steeplechase, Luna Park, independent rides (roller coasters), sideshows and the beach)

Coney Island, USA (1952, documentary)

Little Fugitive (1953)

The Clown (1953. Red Skelton drama has scenes at Steeplechase. No clip)

Imitation of Life 1959 (Douglas Sirk. Scene where Lana Turner and Juanita Moore meet is set at Coney Island in 1947. No clip.)

Carnival of Blood (1970, Low budget horror movie, especially good for coverage of games and dark rides)

1970 Home Movie 

1973 student documentary

Annie Hall (1977, Under the Tornado) 

The Wiz (1978, part of Coney Island sequence, on the Cyclone)

Great raw news footage with Gabe Pressman following 1978 fire that destroyed the Tornado

Scene from The Warriors (1979) 

Requiem for a Dream (2000, set in Brighton Beach, no clip)

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005, pivotal scene on Coney Island beach, no clip)

Cloverfield (2008, great scene on the Wonder Wheel, no clip)

Also Brooklyn (2015), Mr. Roboto (2015 tv series), and the upcoming Woody Allen film Wonder Wheel (2017).

Also: Info about many more films from 1897 through 2004 at this link. 

 

Three Terrific Trav S.D. Talks on Coney Island

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Hollywood (History), Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2017 by travsd

Look, Looka, Looka! Come One, Come All! Come to the Coney Island Museum 3 Saturdays in August and Hear 3 Great Trav S.D. Talks! Stay all day at the beach! Go on the rides! And cap off the day with informative and coolicious true stories in my Fun-Filled Fact-o-rama! Here’s what’s coming up:

Saturday, August 5, 5pm: Coney Island 101

A rare chance to get the big picture of The People’s Playground’s many incarnations as an amusement district, from its early days as a resort with hotels and racetracks, to its numerous storied amusement parks, sideshows, vaudeville and burlesque houses, cinemas, restaurants, and of course, beaches, right up to the present day (and guesses about tomorrow). Trav S.D., author of the books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nicklodeons to Youtube lays out the whole amazing narrative in this colorful illustrated talk.

Saturday, August 12, 5pm: Coney Island and the Movies

It stands to reason that America’s premiere Amusement district would play a key role one of America’s favorite entertainment pastimes: going to the movies. Coney’s amusement parks were a center for some of the world’s first nickelodeons, and many cinemas graced the neighborhood through the first half of the twentieth century. At the same, Coney Island was immortalized in films, from the earliest silent days, all the way to Woody Allen’s upcoming period comedy Wonder Wheel, scheduled to be released in November, 2017. Author and blogger Trav S.D. leads this entertaining illustrated talk, and shares some entertaining clips.

Saturday, August 19, 5pm: More than Munchkins: A History of Performing Little People 

For centuries Little People have been a mainstay of popular entertainment. In this illustrated talk, author and performer Trav S.D. traces the historical ups and downs of very short-statured entertainers from medieval times through the era of P.T. Barnum and dime museums, to side shows and circuses, to vaudeville, to movies and television. Along the way, we trace the evolution of the Little Person’s image in popular culture, from one of cruel derision in the age of the court jester…to one of glamour, as personified by sex symbol and Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage…to a virtual return to carny days on reality tv.

Admission to the Coney island Museum and these talks is a mere $5 for Adults, $3 for Seniors, Kids (under 12) and residents of  Zip Code 11224. More info and directions about the Coney Island Museum and Coney Island USA are here.

Champion Jack Dupree: Seminal Blues Man with a Coney Island Connection

Posted in Blues, Coney Island, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2017 by travsd

July 23 is one of the many possible birth dates given for boogie woogie, blues, and barrelhouse piano player William Thomas “Champion Jack” Dupree (circa 1909 – 1992).  Born and raised in New Orleans, Dupree was the son of a Congolese father and a mother who was mixed-blood African American and Cherokee. Orphaned at age eight, Dupree taught himself piano, and played in saloons and other establishments from  a young age. His stage name came from the fact that he was also a professional boxer in his younger years, and had won a Golden Gloves championship. (This may be one of the reasons for a speech impediment noticeable on some of his recordings, although there are also joking references to a cleft palate). Around 1940 he became part of the Chicago blues scene, although his career was interrupted by years of World War Two service, including two years as a Japanese prisoner. But after the war followed nearly five decades as a successful musician. He was an influence on Jerry Lee Lewis, and recorded with such major artists as The Band, Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and Mick Taylor. He co-wrote the song “Walkin’ the Blues”, covered by Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and many others.

This is our first entry in the blues section of Travalanche in quite some time, and we have a special reason for doing it. This year, Coney Island USA’s building on Surf Avenue turns 100 years old. The building began life as Child’s Restaurant, but for a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was a music venue known as the Blue Bird Casino, where, for a while the house musician was….Champion Jack Dupree. Thanks, Dick Zigun, for the historical tidbit! You’ll be hearing more about the colorful history of the Child’s Restaurant building anon.

 

Six Tall Towers of Coney

Posted in Amusement Parks, AMUSEMENTS, BROOKLYN, Coney Island with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 20, 2017 by travsd

I don’t want to weird you out too much, but I essentially wrote this post while I was asleep last night. I laid the whole thing out in a dream state. Granted, I’d been reading about the subject before going to bed. Feel free not to read anything Freudian into it.

I’ve been working a bit at Coney Island lately and my interest in its history has consequently stepped up. I’m beginning to get a much better understanding of the geography of where the old  parks, pavilions and hotels were located. For those new to the historic layout of Coney — it has never been a single amusement park, like Disney World or Six Flags. In true American fashion, it has always been a neighborhood containing several different amusement parks in competition with each other. We’ll be blogging much more about that and other aspects of Coney Island in the near future.

At any rate, I found it interesting that towers have always been a major feature out there, sometimes as observation structures, sometimes as rides, sometimes as frames for dazzling lighting displays. It seems as though at any given time, there’s always at least one. Here they are!

The Iron Tower:  Never mind what the postcard says, most sources call it the Iron Tower. It was moved to its location, on what is now the grounds of the New York Aquarium, following the Philadelphia Centennial in 1877. It was 300 feet tall (for reference; that’s twice as tall as the Wonder Wheel). Patrons could get to the top on steam powered elevators and see for 30 miles around. Unfortunately the Iron Tower was destroyed in the 1911 Dreamland fire. That will be a recurring theme in this post! The Iron Tower was the tallest structure in the State of New York until the advent of the Beacon Tower (see below)

The Electric Tower: A scant 200 feet tall, The Electric Tower was the centerpiece of Luna Park when it opened for business in 1903. Impressive enough in the daytime, its real selling point was the 20,000 electric lights which illuminated it at night. This, at a time when the use of electric lighting for such purposes was still brand new (Broadway was just getting in on the act at the same time). And to tell you the truth, this would still be an impressive spectacle in our own day. Luna Park was destroyed by fires in 1944.

The Beacon Tower: I said “competition” and I meant it. When Dreamland Amusement Park opened in 1904, its centerpiece the Beacon Tower was both taller (375 ft) than the Iron Tower AND brilliantly illuminated at night like the Electric Tower. But the light which burns brightest often burns the briefest. The Beacon Tower was destined to live a much short life than either of the other two. It was destroyed in the 1911 Dreamland fire after just seven years of existence.

The Airship Tower: I can’t find the height or the date this one was built. It definitely went up some time between 1897 (when the first Steeplechase Park was built; that’s where it was located) and 1905 when it turns up on surviving postcards. The Airship Tower rotated and featured a blimp ride! It was destroyed by the Steeplechase fire in 1907. Steeplechase Park was rebuilt the following year and remained open through 1964.

Parachute Jump:  Now we come to the only one left standing! The 250 foot tall Parachute Jump was a highlight of the 1939 Worlds’ Fair in Queens. It was then purchased by the Tilyous of Steeplechase Park and moved there in 1941, becoming THE iconic Coney Island ride of the 1940s. No longer used as a ride, today it is gloriously lit up at night much as the Electric and Beacon Towers had been back in the day

The Astro Tower: Ironically the last of the big Coney Island amusement towers to be built is no longer standing. The 270 foot tall Astro Tower was erected in the center of Astroland Amusement Park in 1964. It was part of our lives here in New York for decades. I myself took that slow elevator ride to the top at least a couple of times. The Astro Tower remained up until 2013, when it began to sway precipitously, freaking everyone out. It was dismantled immediately.

And now I throw down the gauntlet! I know for certain that new towers are coming to Coney Island, but unfortunately they will be big ticket residential towers. Someone with dough should build something spectacular out there for The People! Something like this 700 foot Tower Globe but not a swindle! (Read its remarkable story here):

When Did the Circus Become Un-American? (Keynote Speech, Congress of Curious Peoples)

Posted in AMERICANA, BROOKLYN, Circus, Coney Island, CULTURE & POLITICS, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Shows with tags , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2017 by travsd

New Sideshow Hall of Fame Wall of Fame

This past weekend was the annual Congress of Curious Peoples at Coney Island USA. I was honored to be asked to give the keynote address this year on the topic “When Did the Circus Become un-American?” My speech followed the public unveiling of CIUSA’s new Sideshow Hall of Fame Wall of Fame (above). The content of my speech is here. Thanks Norman Blake and Carolyn Raship for photos!

WHEN DID THE CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?

…Before we tackle the main question we should point out, and maybe some of you are way ahead of me, that the modern circus in and of itself per se is NOT by definition American, as much as it pains me to point out.  The modern circus was invented in England by equestrian Philip Astley and later improved upon in America even as it was simultaneously evolving all over Europe. There’s plenty about the American circus that may well not speak to Europeans, and they have the right to their erroneous opinions even as I have the right to my infallible ones. At any, there are plenty of the oldest circuses in the world that have ALWAYS been un-American.

But let’s tweak it a little for clarity – WHEN DID THE AMERICAN CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?

As P.T. Barnum famously said, the American circus hangs on two pegs: clowns and elephants. And all at once, the American public seems to be becoming terrified of clowns, and morally outraged at the presentation of elephants. We’ll get to both directly, but I’m going to broaden it somewhat. As we all know, the American circus is in jeopardy: our largest, oldest and best known circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey is closing in a matter of days. Cole Brothers and Clyde Beatty both seem moribund. Big Apple Circus went bankrupt although some new owners promise to resurrect it this fall. But these recent developments are part of a process, a multi-pronged assault that has been going on for the better part of a century. Different aspects of the American circus have been under attack, sometimes perhaps with justification, but the bottom line is that it hurts the circus. So different aspects became “un-American” at different times, so there will be many different answers.

My first answer (and many of my answers will be contradictory) is that circus became un-American as long ago as a century, when it began to be superseded by new-fangled inventions, better mouse-traps, and lost its age old primacy as often the only entertainment medium for the masses in the hinterlands. It lost an economic competition! What is more un-American than that?  Starting in the 1920s and 3o’s it began losing ground to movies, and radio, then TV, and then to home video, and now to hand held gadgets! Circuses and sideshows died, some survived by merging, and those that survived did so by figuring out that its traditional nature was its very charm. It’s nostalgic, and there’s a market for that, although it’s no longer a universal market. We have niches now. Some people won’t even watch a black and white or silent movie nowadays, while other people are at this very moment rediscovering the joys of old time radio shows over the internet. Once populist, a lot of surviving circus is now elitist, and some could say THAT’S un-American, and I would tend to agree. It’s expensive to attend the big top and a lot of the surviving shows feel a need to be self-consciously artistic in a way that frankly turns my stomach, far more than any amount of popcorn or cotton candy.

Next, the Americana aesthetic has been under attack since the mid-20th century. By that I mean: the tent, the sawdust, the midway, the circus that Toby Tyler ran away to join. My feeling has always been that culture must maintain some tradition even as it evolves. It’s the theme of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: you change, yes, but you don’t throw out the essential parts. To cut the umbilicus that connects us to Barnum, to be tied to nothing emotionally significant, makes the American circus vulnerable to destruction.

My first visit to Ringling was in the mid 1970s. I was about ten years old. And I was enormously disappointed. Not sure what I was expecting. My head was full of circus images from stage, screen, books, old photos, and poster art: Magic and visual poetry. But what I got was something impersonal, corporate, amplified, loud, obnoxious and disconnected from its own history, from any history, and from me. And over the years I felt that whenever I saw their three ring show. So when I read the headline about Ringling’s imminent closure, I wept all morning, but when friends were making plans to see it one last time, I was like, “Nah, I don’t want see that fuckin’ thing.” I cried for the loss of continuity and history and so forth, but the reality was that the things I actually cared about were out of it long before I was born: a steam calliope, a brass band, red white and blue bunting, a tented menagerie, a sideshow. Visually I get more of the circus I’m looking for from the picture on a box of animal crackers than from the Ringling shows.

And not to single out Ringling. You don’t get that stuff much of anywhere. Until recently you got even less of it at Big Apple Circus, whose entire aesthetic scheme: costumes, sets and music seemed really European to me. It had the look or feel of Paris or perhaps dare I say Montreal. It looked insecure to me, as though it were seeking validation from a superior culture. We have no need to do that. CIUSA’s motto: “Defending the Honor of American Popular Culture”.  It is Honorable, it is Valid. As Emerson wrote in “The American Scholar”: “We have listened too long to the Courtly Muses of Europe… We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” But some circus seems to have backslid. So when did a lot of circus become aesthetically un-American? If you equate “American” with Americana, as I tend to: decades and decades and decades ago. 50 years ago.

These decisions I know were made for marketing reasons at a time when the country was changing. These changes were happening everywhere. At around the same time, In the early 1970s, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, all had popular variety programs on CBS, and there were these rural comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and then some younger executive came in and pulled the plug on them all at once to accommodate fresher, hipper, more topical shows like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Show. I really love those new shows but there’s something kind of Chairman Mao about feeling a need psychologically to completely eliminate the more traditional programming and wipe it off the face of the earth. That was happening everywhere in music, movies, tv and in the circus. It was like a cultural purge. Is The Beverly Hillbillies the hill I will die on? Actually, yes!

I grant you it’s complicated: 19th century entertainment was not just patriotic, but jingoistic, and even racist and many other things. Maybe trying to separate the patriotic imagery from heinous attitudes at the time, in the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, seemed like trying to separate Siamese Twins. But by burying the traditional visual iconography it lost the connection to its origins. I have zero emotional investment in a circus that lacks those connections. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care if it lives or dies because as far as I’m concerned it’s already dead.

When Cole brothers came here to Coney Island a few years ago, it was quite a shabby show, but it opened with a single lady riding around the ring on a horse, carrying an American flag – I loved the simple, ritualistic, solemnity of it. I decided that shabby as it was it was my favorite circus. That was pretty much what I wanted.

Know that my point isn’t strictly about patriotism; it’s about symbolism. There are plenty of left wing and anarchist circuses I love: Circus Amok, The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the NoFit State Circus. The point is integrity. A large establishment circus that seems to stand for nothing is more like a monster truck rally at the mall than what I am looking for at a circus.

Something else that turned me off during that first visit to the circus, and has never ceased to disappoint me, although I understand it more nowadays – was the existence of safety wires and safety ropes and nets underneath the trapeze and wire walkers. While we’re all smart enough to know there is still a risk in those undertakings even with the safety devices, at some primitive level, I am convinced that these precautions effect the audience psychologically. “So they lack that much confidence, huh? So the guy could do the trick, not do the trick, call in sick and the janitor stands in for him, whatever”. I understand why the measures are in place. Workplace issues, lawsuits, bad publicity or whatever (and some artists still take such risks, the Flying Wallendas recently were hurt rehearsing a trick), but I guarantee at some animal level, to some degree, it effects audience psychology. It’s less impressive, entirely, intrinsically much less thrilling. What is a daredevil with training wheels?! If risk-taking is American, especially risk-taking on OUR behalf, then I leave you to draw your own conclusion about what “safety” is in this context. So whenever they started doing that is another date when the circus became un-American.

That’s aesthetics — So now we come to ethics. And the way Dick has framed the question is interesting: “When did the circus become un-American?”  (note: this talk was prepared at the invitation of CIUSA founder Dick Zigun, who suggested the topic). Because there are actually two conflicting American ethics. One is just as American as the other, and they have been wrestling with each other for centuries, never more so than at the present dire political moment. To put them in circus terms: it’s the Right to Exploit vs. the Right Not to Be Exploited. I have evolved quite a lot on this, and I’ve come to see the light, but God forgive me, purely out of romanticism I used to be 100% pro 19th century circus, which is to say 100% capitalist exploitation in the service of the circus. What is the circus, or what was the circus if not that? The apparatus exists to make its nut. Every single circus movie is about debt and creditors and foreclosures. So much can go wrong: bad weather, townspeople who attack you and chase you out of town, crooked local officials, bad luck: injury, death, sickness, fire. And circus is in the business of presenting living breathing beings as spectacle. Humans and animals are not just your product but also your equipment, your infrastructure. It’s all in the cause of providing amazement to audiences – but it is still a situation where the circus owners own not just canvas, and trucks and trailers but also individuals and creatures. For a time, the circus was the closest thing to a slave plantation there was. Dependent on the circus for food and shelter and far from your point of origin, if you were unpaid or otherwise dissatisfied, it was very difficult to escape. And because everyone agrees that the mission – creating happiness – is Holy, sacrifices are made in its service.

Truth is the first casualty. Entertaining claims of a thousand kinds are made on behalf of the shows and its performers in the form of advertising. And the performers suffer all kinds of privations and discomforts just for a few minutes of glamour and glory each day. And it becomes easy for the impresario to rationalize anything in the name of The Show.

That’s really American. It so American that it might be tempting to call anything else un-American. But the concept of Individual Rights is every bit as American. It’s enshrined in our founding documents, although at first we used to make all sorts of exceptions for African Americans and women and the poor and immigrants and children etc. But progressively we started eliminating the loopholes, and laws were made to protect people and social mores started to change.  And bit by bit these laws came into conflict with things that were uniquely characteristic about the circus. Consumer laws. Truth in advertising! I love food and drug laws but not when they hurt the medicine show! If you can’t claim your tonic is a miracle cure, you might as well pack your sample case and go home! And so it affected the circus in ways big and small, especially the sideshow. If you can’t claim these microcephalic kids from New Jersey are from a missing South American civilization, you are beginning to lose the intrinsic point of the entire enterprise, which is imagination. You need the wiggle room to claim that the seven foot man is a nine foot man!

One of the few cool things RBBB did in the late 20th century was heavily advertise that they were presenting a unicorn. It was a one-horned mountain goat, but it passed muster with lawyers, because well “unicorn” means one horned beast so you can get away with that. And STILL there was controversy and complaint! “Why that’s fraudulent! I thought this was a genuine zoological exhibition presented by scientists!” So some combination of lawyers and the people who use them to sue other people are inimical to the circus arts.

[At this point I produced a glass of water to use as a prop]. Ladies and gentleman, I beg you to direct your attention to this miracle, all the way from the North Pole, this genuine portion of the polar ice cap, exhibited to you in the exact state in which it was found!

And the culture grew so humorless and ill-natured that now you have to advertise in literal language who you are presenting in spite of the obvious fact that everyone knows that Daniel Day-Lewis is not Abraham Lincoln. It’s suddenly quite sinister if you say a 90 year old woman is 200 years old. But it’s very hard to sell tickets to a glass of water!  Puff is extremely American.

But so is muckraking. To flip it, there is the dignity of the performer that needs to be respected and which used to get short shrift as part of that process. The born different and people of color used to get seriously ill-used as part of that process, and by the mid 20th century, the freak show died out. In modern times it’s being reclaimed in a more sensitive way. Is it un-American to respect all people, no matter what they look like? Quite the opposite. But it took a little time to sort out a way to do that in the context of this traditional art form. And now we’ve gone from African Americans being presented as wild men and exhibited as zoological attractions to the Universoul Circus.

Ditched my costume somewhere around here

This eventually led to the expansion of the concept of rights to include animals, and this has proven to be near catastrophic to the art of the circus. To be super obvious, circus is Latin for circle, or ring, that large ring that was devised especially for horses to run around. Eventually this came to include far more exotic creatures from distant climes, such as elephants, apes, lions and tigers, the kinds of beasts people buy tickets especially to see. In a way these became the heart of the circus. Humans had domesticated, trained and exhibited animals for centuries. But starting in the 1970s, the animal rights movement began an unrelenting campaign to end the practice and its manifold forms of documented mistreatment. By recent times the internet and then social media transformed the movement from a fringe cause to one with widespread support, to the extent that sufficient financial pressure could be wielded, finally forcing the major circuses to retire their performing animals or close entirely. (There are still some regional circuses with trained animals, but I would imagine their days are numbered. For example, Kelly Miller Circus and Carson & Barnes Circus, both based in Oklahoma. That’s where they have rodeos and wild west shows, so they might hold out for a while there).

So to return to the opening question: is exploiting animals American? Or is protecting them? I used to work at Big Apple Circus about 20 years ago and I used to become extremely indignant at the hate-mail we would occasionally receive with all of their allegations. (“That’s Mr. Woodcock, he’s not doing what these people are accusing them of!”)  But even without actual torture, you do have to concede that elephants need wide open spaces to be happy, and the minute you realize how unhappy they must be, unless you’re a sadist, all the pleasure goes out of it.

That said, when you take all the animals out of the circus, what are you left with? Much of the thrill and magic is gone. The current touring show Circus 1903 has a wonderful solution, with puppets supplying the missing elephants. I have long thought that circuses could do amazing things with animatronics, and there would be no need to stop at elephants. You could have mastodons. You could have fire breathing dragons. You could have dinosaurs, and there is no need to restrict yourself to the dimensions of actual dinosaurs. Puny things, really. There are ways in which a lack of imagination has been the curse of the circus at least over the past century or so. Presenting the same acts for 200 years!?  That’s one of the things that killed vaudeville! Why shouldn’t it kill the circus? And the application of imagination could be its salvation. Free the animals, enslave the robots. It’s a win/win.

And the subject of imagination brings us to our last topic. A second ago, I asked rhetorically what we’re left with in a circus without animals? (Don’t say Cirque du Soleil. Not a circus, not a circus, not a circus.) But clowns are also under attack! For the past few years there’s been this apparent mass psychosis/ fad involving terror of clowns. When you say this, the clown-phobes are always like, “No, I’ve always been afraid of clowns.” Well, that may be so, but there is a distinct difference between a FIVE year old being irrationally terrified of a children’s birthday clown, and a THIRTY FIVE YEAR OLD needing to be held.

That said, I find the indignation of clowns equally amusing. They always take this tone of, “What do you mean being afraid of clowns, who only bring joy and wonder to the world?” That, too, is a disingenuous self-denial. Anyone who has studied the history of clown, knows that it goes back to the earliest origins of mankind, and it’s always been intrinsically a little scary. That too is part of its function. You don’t put on that grotesque make-up because you want to make people super-comfortable at their familiar surroundings. You’re throwing things off base a little, knocking the globe off its axis. Otherwise there would be no outlandish get-up. You would just be an actor or a stand up comedian! The clown has always been a mix of funny and scary: always. Al Lewis in the Ric Burns Coney Island documentary talks about loving the scary leering face of the Steeplechase Clown over the gates as you walked in.  It’s fun, but it’s also unexpected, otherworldy, abnormal. DESIRABLY so. Otherwise stay home, under the covers.

That said horror and science fiction and even reality started to hit the sinister side a little hard in the 20th century: Batman’s Joker, Stephen King’s It, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and the clown guy Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses. And the music group Insane Clown Posse and their army of Juggalos.  And there’s the fact that serial killer John Wayne Gacy was a children’s clown, and Brian Dennehy played him in that tv movie. But frankly that’s getting to be a cliché. If I see a scary clown, I’m less likely to go, “Oh scary” then “Oh, what a cliché!”

But then a few months ago it was taken up a notch in the “clown sighting phenomenon of September 2016”  When for pranks people started dressing as scary clowns and hanging out in unexpected places like schools and graveyards and scaring people. This account from Wikipedia made me roar with laughter:

“A person in clown attire was spotted in a cemetery in Chicago, Illinois in July 2015. This occurrence involved two residents who spotted the “creepy clown” scaling the gate at the Rosehill Cemetery late at night. After the clown entered the cemetery, he or she turned to face the residents and began waving slowly as they made a video recording. After waving for a few seconds, the clown ran into a dark wooded area and was not seen again. Police investigation of the sighting did not lead to any arrests.”

“Arrests”?! Has no one ever been a teenager? I don’t know how many times I’ve played pranks of that nature. Perhaps a hundred? Like, why do we even know about this? This is a story? That gets reported as news around the world? A kid dressed as a clown was in the graveyard? That is at best a story for your friends at the bar.

And then there was this follow up: “In October 2016, McDonald’s decided that Ronald McDonald would keep a lower profile as a result of the incidents.”

So because of social media, granted there have been hundreds of these incidents, but what’s more intriguing is the widespread panic and terror to the extent that in some places you can’t rent a clown costume and that people who work as clowns have seen a dip in demand for their services.

You don’t have to be some kind of major sociologist to see what’s going on here. One is that this is age of the helicopter parent and the coddled child and now coddled children who grow into infantilized adults. And far more terrifying to me than any losers running around in clown outfits is the idea of all these legal measures empowering police to chase clowns. That is literally a Mack Sennett movie with a tragic ending. And secondly it is an obvious if amusing parallel to living in the age of terrorism, clearly inspired by it and fed by it. “If you see something, say something.” “I saw a clown!” It’s like a parody of the real situation where people are getting really freaked out by people who are different from them in their vicinity and reporting them to police. Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, and that’s not so funny.

I cant help but contrast that spirit with Reverend Billy’s wonderful invocation at the Gala here a few weeks ago, when he sang the praises of Coney Island as the home and haven for freaks, that what the circus teaches us to do is appreciate those who live outside “normal straight society”. Coney Island’s mission again: “defending the honor of American popular culture”. And so my ultimate answer is that in certain ways the circus didn’t become un-American — America has.

 

Magic at Coney: An Interview with Magician Gary Driefus

Posted in BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , on April 20, 2017 by travsd

Sundays at Noon, Gary Dreifus presents his long-running family-oriented magic show at Coney Island USA, featuring a different line-up  of expert illusionists every week. Today, Gary gives us the low-down on this popular show: 

When/ how/ why did you start performing magic?

My interest in magic began in the fourth grade.  I was assigned a “How To” book report and wound up at the 793.8 section of the library.  I took our Dunninger’s Encyclopedia of Magic and performed three effects from the book. I sucked, but it peaked my interest in magic.  Later that year, I witnessed my first live magic performance. I helped the magician take his livestock to the car and he showed me how to do a simple magic trick.  I was hooked! His name was Maurice Keshinova (sp?) and performed as Maurice the Great. He had been a vaudevillian magician and taught me several tricks.

During adolescence, I was a klutz.  My father suggested I renew my interest in magic to gain some dexterity and hand/eye coordination.  He owned a popular bakery in Midwood and a magic shop opened a block away. I had a few hours to kill between sweeping up and closing time at the bakery, so I would go and hang out at the magic store.  We were all young… the manager was Larry Scott (Youngstein), who now owns Havin’ a Party in Canarsie and is the local balloon distributor. Other kids who hung out there were Eric DeCamps, Levent (Cimkentli), Robert Baxt, Brian McGovern.

I graduated Brooklyn College with a degree in Education of the Speech and Hearing Handicapped.  My first job was as a Teacher of the Deaf in JHS 47; the city’s school for the deaf.  Since I was new teacher, they gave me the worst class in the school.  I made a deal with the students. Every day they behaved, I performed a magic trick.  The class became the best in the school and I was running out of material so I started teaching them magic. The “worst” class scored higher in math and reading scores than any other group in the school!

Throughout my professional career, I used magic to motivate, educate and entertain. I was also asked to teach a beginners (and subsequently an intermediate and advanced) magic class at Kingsborough Community College. It was in the late 1990’s that I came across a magic shop on Queens’s Boulevard in Elmhurst. The proprietor was Roger “Rogue” Quan, who asked if I could perform at one of his weekly magic shows.  I agreed, and was then asked if I could host the shows.  Thus began my career as magical host.  Met all the local performers and became friends with many of them.

In 2008, my program was eliminated by the city and I was laid-off.  A friend had a great idea to perform for restaurants and bars. We had contracts on Long Island and the Jersey shore. Unfortunately, we weren’t getting paid and had to run after EVERY penny! I parted ways with my partner and started teaching magic in local community centers.

How/ when did you come to be doing your regular Sunday shows at Coney Island USA?

In the summer of 2010 I was meeting with another magician at the Freak Bar in Coney Island. He introduced me to Patrick Wall, then the stage manager at Coney Island USA. I asked why there weren’t any regular magic shows at Sideshows by the Seashore.  I was told they had tried, but they never took off. I did some research and found that magic and magicians were an integral part of Coney Island. Coney Island was a beacon for magicians throughout the world. The local sideshows at Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park, as well as the local dance halls and theaters were a proving ground for those performing artists looking to hone their skills. Luminaries such as Houdini, his brother Hardeen, Cary Grant, William “Bud” Abbott, Dai Vernon, Jean Hugard and Al Flosso were featured artists who went on to stardom around the world.

I drew up a proposal for a magic variety show and pitched it to Dick Zigun, the artistic director of CIUSA. I began on a Wednesday in September. We had eight acts for that first show… It was some time after midnight that we finished! The important lesson I learned was that performing artists have NO concept of time! Fifteen minutes maximum turned into a 40 minute set! The show was a HUGE success. Audience response was fantastic. Magic at Coney!!! continued as a monthly show, then twice per month the following season.

During the 2013 season, I was asked if we could perform during the off-season. Thus began the Sunday matinees.

What do you like about performing there?

Magic at Coney!!! belongs at the same venue where the last of the sideshows is performed. The Coney Island Museum makes a perfect backdrop, allowing for a mix of both old and new Coney Island.

Who are your heroes, mentors, models in the magic world?

I love watching Marc Salem perform.  I think he’s the top working mentalist today. I love watching Rocco perform. He brings magic to a whole new level. Bobby Torkova is fantastic as is Thomas Solomon. I enjoy working with ALL of the artists involved with Magic at Coney!!!  Each brings his or her own take to the art.

My biggest influences were probably the late Bob Cassidy, Kenton Knepper and Eugene Berger. Ken Weber gave me specific suggestions that changed and improved certain specific effects. Simon Lovell was an incredible performer who also helped me improve.

The entire Magic at Coney!!! project could not have succeeded without the support and dedication of a group of talented magicians.  The friendships I’ve made have been tight and everlasting, and I cannot thank them all enough.

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