Archive for Coney Island

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):

The Perennial Mystique of Bettie Page

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Hollywood (History), Movies (Contemporary), VISUAL ART, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2017 by travsd

Bettie Page and sister, Coney Island. Parachute Jump in background

April 22 is the birthday of Bettie Page (1923-2008). I feel sort of Bettie Page cult-adjacent, near but not of the intense widespread worship of this iconic pin-up girl of the 1950s. So many people of my generation are so crazy about her that it fascinates me. I feel I get it even if (for some reason) she doesn’t obsess and beguile me as she does so many other people. It’s almost like she’s the Mona Lisa or something to certain people. Without exaggerating, I must know dozens of women who pattern or have patterned their appearance after her, not just burlesque dancers, but artists of various kinds, painters, musicians, stage directors, and women who are simply into vintage culture. My wife has owned this fridge magnet ever since I’ve known her:

Is it something about the period? Is it the clash between the wholesome and the illicit? There is something about Bettie Page that reminds me of actresses in noir films of the 40s, like Veronica Lake. It’s like she’s the girl next door who is game enough to dabble at being daring without being swallowed up in some sinkhole of ruin. She was literally a secretary who posed for naughty pictures for a decade, then stopped doing that. Interestingly, her life didn’t fall apart (mental illness, several divorces) until AFTER she retired from modelling and became a born again Christian.

There are several points of overlap and interest for me about her life and short career. The first is that she is from the great town of Nashville, home of my ancestors. A lot of classic burlesque girls and pin-ups were of my stock: poor Southern white folk. It’s one of the strong connections I feel to classic burlesque culture — a subject for a planned future post.

The second is that she was discovered at Coney Island! She’d come to NYC to be an actress in 1949. A few months later an amateur photographer named Jerry Tibbs saw her on the beach at Coney and asked her to model for him. Ironically, Tibbs was an NYPD officer and Page’s work would eventually take her into illegal territory. But photos like the one at the top of this post, and this one, are illustrations of her connection to the beach and amusement park at Coney Island:

Betty Page is in several burlesque films of the mid ’50s: Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955). I became acquainted with these about five years ago in preparation for directing a couple of editions of Angie Pontani’s Burlesque-a-pades. With the passing of 60 years these films have acquired much charm they probably didn’t seem to possess when they were first released, full of theatrical values and efforts that fell by the wayside in such films as the late ’60s gave way to straight up porn.

Also, as we wrote here, in the 1950s, Bettie posed — Believe it or NOT — for Harold Lloyd! The former silent film comedian experimented with taking art shots of sexy girls with a 3-D camera during his retirement. Some are published in the 2004 book Harold Lloyd’s Hollywood Nudes in 3-D. 

Bettie Page photo by Harold Lloyd

In 2004, Gretchen Mol starred in/ as The Notorious Bettie Page. Ironically, I discovered this film backwards. Mol had appeared in the film adapted from my friend Jeff Nichols’ book Trainwreck, American Loser (2007). The Mad Marchioness then referred me back to the Page bio-pic, for which Mol is obviously much better known.

In 2012 the definitive documentary, Bettie Page Reveals All was released. Access it here at the official site.

The mania continues unabated!

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.

What’s Up at Coney

Posted in AMERICANA, Coney Island, Contemporary Variety, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , , , , , on March 13, 2017 by travsd

We all associate Coney Island with summer (it’s a beach and amusement park after all), but it may be a lesser known fact that there’s stuff happening at Coney Island USA all through the winter season as well. For example, most every Sunday Gary Dreifus presents his kid friendly Magic at Coney show. I was mightily entertained by Mr. Dreifus’s feats in yesterday’s show, as well as those of his special guests Magical Vince and Phil Crosson.  Here’s next week’s line-up:

The magic show takes place in the Coney Island Museum,  open on weekend throughout the winter. The museum has recently been spruced up with some new displays and wall text

 

Koo Koo the Bird Girl and her jolly friend (okay, he’s dressed like a jester, but I don’t know how jolly he is).

 

 

“Slapstick Used By Angelo the Midget at the Steeplechase Blowhole”

And now there is a whole new Hot Dog section of the museum featuring items like:

 

These stained glass windows are from the original Feltman’s Restaurant, birthplace of the hot dog

Thence (the real pull for the day) a special preview event for the new exhibition Five Cents to Dreamland: A Trip to Coney Island, created and curated by the New York Transit Museum. 

A 1998 sideshow banner by the one and only Marie Roberts!

A genuine vintage Strength-Tester mallet.

 

CIUSA Founder Dick Zigun (center): with Concetta Bencivenga, director of the NYTM; and John di Domenico, who serves on the boards of both organizations

 

Coney’s own Patrick Wall, Your Mix-Master

 

CIUSA board members James Fitzsimmons and Dr. Jeff Birnbaum, with Birnbaum’s son

 

Coney Island USA’s annual gala is happening in just two weeks, March 25! An all-star cast celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Mermaid Parade with a Corral Jubilee! Follow this magical portal for tickets and details! 

 

The Coney Island Secession Movement!

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , on February 13, 2017 by travsd

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Yesterday, after I posted my piece about the various contemporary secession movements (hint: none of them are in the middle of the country), Dick Zigun, Coney Island’s Unofficial Mayor protested that I had left out his own movement to make a separate nation of Coney Island. Tut tut tut! Never you fret!  In reality, I only wanted to set this proposal apart so that I could give it the serious consideration it deserves.

As you can see from the map above, Coney Island was once completely surrounded by water, hence its name. The stream on its north side was then partially filled in, giving the neighborhood its modern contours, outlined in white on the map. Zigun’s proposal would dig out those streams again to resume the physical separation, or build a Trumptastic wall. Actually, his entire program, laid out in the attached article, is approximately as coherent and sane and just as Trump’s plans for America.

Coney Island on its own could be the American Monaco. A People’s Playground for the People. Why, a separated Coney Island would be more American than America! Hot dogs for every meal! Middle aged men with pot bellies walking side-by-side with women in bikinis — and that’s in church! And everyone would have fun all the time, except the people on the other side of the tracks, who are all living in poverty!

And Dick has all the qualifications necessary to run a county by contemporary standards. A hat! A sash! A drum to beat! And a following among the biker community!  For Dick Zigun’s full proposal, which I fully endorse, go here. 

Born to Lead

Born to Lead

Much Circus News This Week!

Posted in Circus, Contemporary Variety, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , on February 10, 2017 by travsd

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Just a few oddments of circus news I’ve gotten in recent days, so it made sense to loop ’em together.

  • As we wrote here, the Big Apple Circus went under earlier this year. As reported by the Wall Street Journal yesterday the good news is that Compass Partners LLC has purchased the BAC’s assets at auction earlier this week and the circus will live on in some new form, perhaps even under the same name. Read the full article here. 
  • Good news for lovers of circus history. Illinois State University’s Milner Library is digitizing 300 circus route books from its Circus and Allied Arts Collection and making them available online. Read the full article in Smithsonian Magazine here.
  • Five members of the Flying Wallendas were badly injured Wednesday when they fell off a high wire while rehearsing their eight person pyramid with the Sarasota Circus. Say a prayer for the swift recovery of these brave performers! The story is here. 
  • The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus will be coming to Brooklyn for the last time in just two weeks. They open at the Barkleys Center on February 23. Tickets for their two week farewell engagement will undoubtedly go quickly. You can get them here.
  • Some news from Coney Island USA. Their annual gala, a “Coral Jubilee” celebrating the 35th year of the Mermaid Parade, will be on March 25. I’ll be the keynote speaker at their annual Congress of Curious People, April 21. My topic: “When Did the Circus Become Un-American?”
  • Lastly, as those in the know know, the theme of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival is Circus Arts. Our good friends at the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus have been invited to participate. But they need your help! The unplanned trip to bring their show down to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is by definition un-budgeted for. You should help support them in any case (with the ancient art of circus in precarious danger everywhere you turn), but now’s a particularly good time to send some coin to the Bindlestiffs. Do so here.

William F. Mangels: Fun-Maker

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, German, Impresarios with tags , , , , , , , on February 2, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of William F. Mangels (1867-1958). Born in Germany, Mangels moved to the U.S. in 1883 and became a bicycle repairman. His understanding of wheels, gears, chains, and sprockets let to work on carousels, which led to the formation of his own carousel manufacturing company. Mangels also invented his own original rides, such as “The Whip” and “The Tickler”. He also authored the book The Outdoor Amusement Industry: From Earliest Times to the Present. His headquarters was of course Coney Island. Go here for some pix and description on an exhibition about him we caught at Green-Wood Cemetery a few months back. But, confidentially, I think it’s pretty funny that a guy who made amusement park rides was named “Mangels”. Because…ya know.

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