Archive for Coney Island

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):

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.

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