Coney Island Memories - Trip report

Thursday, September 10, 2009 11:09 PM

I hope you enjoy this journey with me.

Are things ever what you envision them to be?

I’d been putting off a visit to Manhattan for sometime. Not for any real reason other than circumstance. I knew I wanted to venture to the great white way to see 9 to 5 on Broadway. (I love me some Dolly!) My intention was to see it in the spring, but in typical “me” fashion, time began escaping. The economy bottomed and in late July the trade papers began uttering rumblings of an early closure due to not recouping weekly running costs. (Sorry, I’m a 15 year vet of Broadway booking and producing) It’s a problem many, many Broadway shows are facing these days. (Well, unless they have the deep pockets of the mouse, wear a porcelain mask or feature a certain green witch.)

With news of 9 to 5’s imminent demise, I immediately booked my trip to NYC and I arrived on Aug 23rd. Monday the 24th saw a huge dream realized… and no, it had nothing to do with Dolly. ;-) The timing couldn’t have been better.

You see, ever since I was a wee lad, I was fascinated with turn of the century amusement parks. Top of that heap was Coney Island in Brooklyn.

For those who have little knowledge of Coney, I’ll give a brief layman’s Coney Island history lesson.

Coney Island was not 1 park, as many assume. Coney Island was a collection of amusements and attractions that once made up a beachfront resort stretching nearly 4 miles in Brooklyn. Brooklyn lies between the Atlantic Ocean and the island of Manhattan. In its heyday, Coney Island annually attracted millions of visitors to its beaches. Amusements began cropping up in the form of side shows, then rides, eventually scenic railways (the predecessor to the modern coaster) and over-the-top parks and attractions.

A subway line was built from Manhattan to Coney around 1915, and this prompted the resort area to explode. By the 1920’s Coney Island was the world’s most expansive and leading amusement resort area. The three main parks on the beachfront were Luna Park, Steeplechase, and Dreamland. Steeplechase is credited as being the frontrunner and example by which modern amusement parks were based.

In addition to these parks, plots of land were leased to entrepreneurs who, among other things, built the new novelty… scenic railways. These ramshackle gravity driven railcars soon became roller coasters. Three notable coasters were built during the 1920s, the Tornado, Thunderbolt and Cyclone. The Cyclone remains the only coaster from Coney’s heyday still in operation. I believe it was ironically the last coaster built in it’s time period. The Tornado was lost in the 1970s and the Thunderbolt met its fate just this decade after standing but not operating for 20 years.

After World War II, Coney fell victim to crime and urban development. Ultimately, gang warfare in the 1950’s (think West Side Story) and extreme low income housing installations resulted in the essential demise of America’s playground. Steeplechase Park was the holdout, but fell victim to closure in the mid 1960s. The demise can be blamed on the collective feel that Coney was no longer a safe place to visit.

Astroland was opened around 1962 as an attempt to revive the dying amusement business. However the ongoing threat of crime, highly publicized subway incidents and the Worlds Fair nearly closed the park. It struggled and survived until recently when the owners sold the park to a new developer. It stands idle today.

Coney Island sort of became an embarrassment of sorts to NYC Officials in the 1970s. Fred Trump (Donald’s father) actually spearheaded a campaign aimed at destroying any remaining amusements and having the area rezoned to outlaw them. Thankfully, he failed, saving what little is left. The man was so hell-bent on destroying what history remained that he actually held parties to throw bricks at still-standing structures!

There are 4 significant attractions that have survived from the heyday of Coney Island. The Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s Hot Dog Stand, The Parachute Jump and the Cyclone are the few trace remnants.

History lesson over.

I can’t quite describe my pre-conceived visions of what my experience at Coney Island would be like. I had seen it from the air when flying in and out of NY airports. And Lord knows I had read enough about it. However I wasn’t quite sure of how run-down and barren it would be and if much of it’s past would be recognizable. My friend Nathan was a good sport and willing to go with me on the excursion. At the very least, it was good to have the support and conversation as the subway ride from the Times Square area went on, and on, and on…

I have to admit trepidation in riding the subway through what I had always heard was a high crime area. I’m a big guy, so is Nathan… and we can hold our own… but I did wonder if the word TOURIST would beacon out from our forehead inviting trouble. How naïve! As the train went on, stop after stop, fewer people were left on it. By the end, we were virtually the only two left in the train. (Not counting the person sleeping in a curled up ball in the rear corner. They never woke up to my knowledge and are probably still there.)

As the train rounded Brighton Beach, I began to piece it together. In front of me was the area I had so often envisioned in my mind. Yet it was seemingly different from those mental snapshots. It was a very warm, bright sunny day, so there were people bathing on the beaches. From inside the train, I first saw the ocean, then the Cyclone, then the Wonder Wheel and finally the Parachute Jump. Quite honestly, I had déjà vu (the experience, not the ride) reminding me of defunct parks from my childhood. I instantly remembered the smell and feel of Ocean View Park and Buckroe Beach. They were a stones throw away from me as a kid. Those parks are long gone, but no doubt once thrived on the successfully laid groundwork of Coney Island.

There are still arcades and side-show type attractions… but not in a nice vintage way. Most were reminiscent of one of those horrid portable carnivals that travel the country. Most annoying was the loud rap music screaming from inside these places and airbrushed graffiti on the outside exteriors. We passed by Surf Avenue t-shirt souvenir junk stand hecklers and headed directly for the coaster.

So there I finally stood at the entrance to the Cyclone after 37 years. (Of me, not it.) But I can’t explain what I felt. I guess you could say it was like seeing a long lost friend, or meeting one you’ve never met face to face. It was instantly familiar to me, but also unfamiliar. I felt a million miles away from home in that instant. Odd. But, lots of things crossed my mind. It surprised me that so much of it was made of steel. It was well kept, but rundown at the same time. It only had around 20 people riding. It had that “smell” - you know the one. Grease, wonderful hot coaster chain grease. It’s been painted about a million times. There were very few tourists. It was actually bigger/longer than I expected.

After a confusing ticket purchase at the entrance booth (under the 2nd turnaround) we were up the entrance ramp and boarding the front seat of the train with no wait. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably soak up the surroundings a bit more. But it seemed like in a flash I was trying feverishly to fit 6’ 3” me into an overly padded car built for people 5’ tall.

CLUNK!

…was the sound my knee made hitting the metal lap bar bracket getting into the very front seat. I had the souvenir bruise for a week, something those junk peddlers couldn’t sell.

No time to say “ouch” though… we were already off and running. Never in my life have I felt such pressure to get in, sit down and be latched so quickly into a coaster. We were turning the corner to the lift before I even realized I still had my hat on. Heck I don’t think I even saw the infamous “Secure Wigs and Hats” sign until back in the station! (Did you know that the “wig” part of the sign serves a purpose? It has shut down several times due to wigs flying off and jamming the wheels!)

The coaster ride experience was what I predicted it to be. Rough, very rough. But it’s allowable for such a piece of history. The train dips left to right shimmying up the lift. The first drop was every bit as steep as people claim it to be. But that second drop off the turn… eeeeeouch! Don’t ask me to quote the ride to you. I just know it was longer than I expected it to be… but in an okay way. After about two minutes, it was done. My first ride on the Cyclone was reality, and now a part of history. We opted to pay the $5 for a re-ride which proved just as rough and just as rushed. LOL

After exiting, I took my pictures, filmed the coaster in action, and called my Dad from the boardwalk. I was feeling all sentimental and wanted him to somehow be there to ride it with me. He’s the one that got me started on these things after all. I got his voice mail. LOL!

Nathan is scared of heights.
So of course I insisted that we ride the Wonder Wheel next.
Nathan is scared of unstable things.
So of course I insisted we ride a swinging car.

The devil in me didn’t get enough of a charge out of forcing him to the top of the Empire State Building the night prior. (*See footnote at the bottom) So I thought the Wonder Wheel would do the trick.

Deno’s Wonder Wheel has a story of its own. Constantinos Dionysios Vourderis, otherwise known as Denos, came to the US as an immigrant and earned a living as a young man pushing vending carts. He once promised his wife that he would buy her the Wonder Wheel as a symbol of his love. “The largest wedding ring” he called it. He eventually managed a restaurant at Coney and began managing the park that was home to the Wonder Wheel. When the owners fell on hard times, Denos asked to buy it, and was sold the ride for far less than its value… all because they knew his love for the ride would preserve its history. He built a new park around it, and viola! Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park. Great story, huh?

I digress…

It seems my evil plans backfire. Once we got on the wheel, I immediately started clicking pictures and filming. Within an instant we dipped, dropped and swung. It unnerved me. I had ridden the version at California Adventure, and had no issue there. But I guess the rusty bolts and the fact that it’s about 80 years old had a larger impact than I thought. After the initial descent, I was fine and managed to capture on video Nathan breathlessly screaming “Oh, Oh, Oh dear Lord!!!” and holding on like a frightened caged cat. Muhahahahaha!

With that, the riding portion of our day was over. Well, amusement riding portion anyway. Other than kiddie or carnival type rides, there’s few amusements there to enjoy these days. So we walked the boardwalk.

Now although I couldn’t explain what I felt when arriving at the Cyclone, I distinctly recall what I felt as we walked the boardwalk. I felt old boards, classic old boards that seem unsecure and ready to break. It felt so great and nostalgic to me. Actually, it was my uneasy feeling on those boards that gave me the sensation of time gone by. This was THE most famous boardwalk ever built, and I was there. Thank God it’s been preserved (albeit moved in the 60s) over the years and not sacrificed for beachfront condos.

As monumental as this was to me, it was also melancholy. There are ghosts of the past that seemingly haunt the boardwalk. These looming spirits seem to blow in the air even on a bright sunny day. There’s a sound, a look, a feel that exists that can’t really be put into words. It reminds you of men in Bowlers, and Women wearing corsets and children in knee high socks all roaming around in awe of the sites at a time when electricity was astounding. There’s a mental reminder of just how far and distant our world, and country is from its roots. Progress and technology has made our lives so much easier, but it came at a cost of our innocence. I envy those simpler times.

In place of the Great Luna and Dreamland now there’s an Aquarium. In place of Steeplechase, there’s a minor league ball field. Where the Thunderbolt stood rotting for so long, is an overgrown field. The Parachute Jump, Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower, still stands (non operationally) to this day, and likely gives ghost rides to those spirits still roaming the boardwalk.

Then there’s Nathan’s Hot Dog Stand. It’s nearly 100 years old, and true to its claims, serves the best chili dogs ever made. And yes, I planned it… I planned for Nathan and I to end our time at Coney Island eating an original Nathan’s hot dog. It was the least I could do for someone so willing to brave the Wonder Wheel.

I wish the best for Coney Island. But I don’t see it ever returning to the glory days it once knew. I am ecstatic that the Cyclone, Parachute Jump, and Wonder Wheel are all preserved as historical landmarks to remind people such as us of the great place it was and all the laughter and excitement it brought to so many. I am grateful that I got to, in a small way, play a spectator’s part in its continuing history.

Will I return?

Maybe, if it feels right. But for now I am happy with my new visions and understanding of what Coney Island was and is. I have enjoyed learning and exploring and will continue to so do by viewing archives of what once existed. However, I want to preserve my fond memories like those old black and white vintage snapshots of the past. My trip to Coney Island is one that I’ll recall with fondness like so many millions of happy visitors before me.

(For those that may be interested… yes I saw 9 to 5, yes it was as good as I hoped, yes I’d recommend it, yes it closed this past weekend. LOL!)

*Footnotes:
Empire State Building: It’s a long wait to get to the top, only to be pushed and shoved like cattle along with an endless amount of foreign tourists all to get a glimpse of… rooftops. It was the only disappointing part of an amazing week in Manhattan.

It is of note that out of the endless amount of things to do in NYC, it is my opinion that a ride on the Staten Island Ferry at dusk cannot be beat. It is an amazing experience that costs… nothing. It is by far my favorite experience there.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009 11:32 PM

Great trip report. You do a nice job of capturing the "gritty" feel of the place.

My wife was a stage manager in NY for several years (still has her Equity card). She keeps threatening to bring me out there. You should come to Fall Affair so she can talk shop!

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Friday, September 11, 2009 10:28 AM

Shaggy, thank you for that. Your TR/history lesson was educational and entertaining. I've wanted to get out to NY to visit Coney for many years, but never had the chance. I had wondered if it would still be worth it now, but you've convinced me it would.

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Friday, September 11, 2009 10:44 AM

Amazing TR, Shaggy. I get the "you're so nostalgic" bit all the time, but you truly get it. Without an appreciation for what was, it's hard to understand what we have now, and why. Coney is one of the few places I've been where the people who enjoyed it a hundred years ago are still there hanging around while we enjoy it today....kinda like the hotel at Conneaut. Your report certainly "captured" that vibe....spirit. Thanks! :)

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Friday, September 11, 2009 10:48 AM

Thanks Jeff, Mike and Gator... I enjoyed writing it.

Jeff - I welcome shop talk anytime! I've been quite lucky (knock wood) that I was able to actually make a successful career out of something I loved as much as coasters. Broadway is a very, very difficult business to be in these days... but it has its rewards. Although I spent my early years actually "on the boards" my forte has always been the administrative/management side of things. I actually went to college (a billion years ago) on a scholarship for scenic design.

You wife, no doubt, understands the old addage that "the show onstage is nothing compared to the one backstage." I've been backstage for literally hundreds of shows, and the work it takes still amazes me. The hardest job IMO is Stage Managing and calling a show.

Last edited by Shaggy, Friday, September 11, 2009 10:49 AM
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Friday, September 11, 2009 4:57 PM

Six Flags built parachute rides like the one at Coney Island called Texas Chute Out (at SFOT) and Great Gasp (at SFOG). The Georgia ride is gone now but the Texas one still operates.

One of the most famous rides at Coney Island was the Steeplechase ride. This was a type of racing coaster with horses as cars. Each horse could hold two riders who rode astride them just like on a real horse or a merry-go-round. This ride gave Steepleshase Park its name. When the park closed, the ride was moved to a park in Florida which I believe is now defunct. Blackpool Pleasure Beach in England still has such a ride.

Steeplechase Park once had a huge funhouse awith a wide variety of devices in it such as spinning floor sections, revolving barrels, etc. It was called the Pavilion of Fun. Funhouses like this (but on a smaller scale) were found in many other parks during the first half od the 20th century. Liability concerns ultimately doomed most of them.

Another unusual ride from the past was the Virginia Reel, a type of side friction coaster with a continuous downhill track and circular cars that spun. Unfortunately it is gone now. This would be another good idea for a project at Knoebels once Flying Turns and Black Diamond are operating.

The last surviving Carousel at Coney was the B&B Carousel. This was one of the few Carousels in recent years to have a ring machine. The City of New York bought the ride to preserve it but it is now dismantled and undergoing renovation. Plans are to ultimately return the ride to Coney Island in the future.

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Friday, September 11, 2009 8:53 PM

As she put it, the thing she misses is calling a show. She could do without the rehearsals and such. :)

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Friday, September 11, 2009 10:06 PM

Great TR. Reads like a magazine article-- actually better than many articles I've read lately.

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