Fun, American Style

For New Yorkers, Coney Island had it all; the beach, hot dogs, thrilling rides--and a clown with a cattle prod. They don't make amusement parks like that anymore

For New Yorkers, Coney Island had it all; the beach, hot dogs, thrilling rides--and a clown with a cattle prod. They don't make amusement parks like that anymore.

"There's that sick ride, Mom!" says a five-year-old, standing on the broad, sturdy boardwalk by the sea an pointing at a whitewashed contraption.

"Yeah," Mom replies.

"That's the ride that makes you sick."

The ride in question is none other than the Cyclone, a steel-and-lumber creation dating from 1927. Many still consider it the roller coaster's ultimate expression, the Beethoven's Ninth of coaster thrills. Pinned helplessly into your seat by a large steel bar, you surrender yourself to swooping, stomach-turning, adrenaline-pumping glee, a perfectly orchestrated symphony of sight lines and motion sickness.

Other landmarks in the old neighborhood long ago succumbed to the wrecker's ball or to flames fanned by the ever-present sea breezes, but the Cyclone still reigns over Brooklyn's Coney Island. For well over a century, people have come to Coney, as New Yorkers call it, to get away from reality--of which the rest of New York has more than its share.

Coney Island? So who goes there anymore? Even 40 years ago, New Yorkers were saying it wasn't what it used to be. Coney was where they and their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents idled away their youth's few idle moments. It was known as the Nickel Empire--and today a nickel won't buy even a phone call. Not surprising, then, that your typical New Yorker usually meets any talk of a Coney revival with a what-you-kiddin'-me expression and a dismissive wave. But at least to some extent, that's what's happening here.

It's been several years since I'd braved the Cyclone and trod the wide, Nantucket-gray boardwalk, and the place does look a lot better than I remembered. Contrary to the Drifters' song, you can't go under the boardwalk anymore, because in 1993 the Army Corps of Engineers brought the beach to boardwalk level. Walk along the boardwalk today and you're as likely to hear Russian as English spoken by your fellow promenaders, the frequency of the former increasing as you head east into neighboring Brighton Beach, home to the largest immigrant Russian community in the United States.

Perhaps the best way for a newcomer to approach Coney Island is to put all the history and the nostalgic tales aside, at least at the beginning, and come at the place with an open mind, wide eyes, and an empty, cast-iron stomach. (A couple of kids in tow wouldn't hurt either.)

An excellent way into Coney is by el--the elevated train, what New Yorkers call the subway when it rises above ground. Riding the F train farther and farther south into the bowels of Brooklyn, the urban sprawl eventually resolves itself as Fun Land. The Coney Island experience begins with your first glimpse of the Cyclone's dips and rises, like an urban Loch Ness creature promising thrills and escape around the next bend.

There's no surf visible from Surf Avenue; just traffic down the broad boulevard a block from the boardwalk, and the Cyclone and the neighboring Astroland observation tower. Flea market stalls line one side of the avenue, along with a Russian-owned furniture store with its name in English and Cyrillic lettering.

Coney Island is not an island. On a map, it looks like the base holding up the vaguely teapot-shaped and very busy borough of Brooklyn. Coney's sands are part of the longest continuous public beach on the Atlantic seaboard, 3.5 miles stretching eastward from Coney to Brighton Beach to Manhattan Beach. The beach itself is remarkably clean, with the benevolent atmosphere of good things that happen to be free. People cast fishing lines off the jagged black rocks of the slim jetties.

Four blocks are all that remains of the "official" Coney Island amusement area, or at least the part the Chamber of Commerce would like visitors to notice. One of the jewels of the renewed Coney is the New York Aquarium, regarded as one of the country's best.

New York has had an aquarium since 1896; it's been at Coney since 1957. Both the aquarium's indoor and outdoor exhibits are enchanting, attractive and inventive, and make for an ideal family outing. Don't miss the spectacle of dolphins at feeding time, when the animals propel themselves vertically out of the water, shake fins to hands with the trainers and whirl around on command, splashing everything in sight in the process, including the giddy spectators.

The aquarium draws 780,000 visitors a year. Not quite a quarter-million came last season to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, but that's still a decent crowd. The park is named for Deno Vourderis, the late Greek immigrant who bought the Wonder Wheel and ran the place for years. The 150-foot-tall Wonder Wheel, built in 1920, is an "eccentric Ferris wheel," says Deno's son Dennis Vourderis, who now owns the park with his brother. The ride has 16 cars that roll tipsily back and forth between the inner and outer wheels when the thing is in motion. There are also eight stationary cars for the less daring. In any case, the Wonder Wheel boasts a perfect safety record--and an incredible view. From the top under ideal conditions, or so the owners claim, you can see for 70 miles.

Once you've staggered off of the Wonder Wheel, wander into the nearby penny arcade, where kids get their kicks going round on low-flying toy fire trucks and helicopters and the ever-popular Tilt-A-Whirl, inducing nausea in cotton-candy eaters since 1926. Stroll past the Talking Love Meter, the Mating Game, and the machine that squashes pennies into 50-cent souvenirs destined to be tucked away in corners of countless bureau drawers for eternity.

At some point, the history is inescapable. Coney Island got its name from the Dutch, who called it Konijn Eiland after the plentiful rabbits (konijen) there. In 1664, the English took possession of New Amsterdam, Coney Island along with it, after a bloodless show of gunboats.

For a time Coney filled the role of New York's upper-class beach resort before the rich fled to Long Island. As the nineteenth century progressed, the west end became a working-class enclave (and haven for criminals and their pals), the middle class took over Brighton Beach, and the rich frequented the hotels of Manhattan Beach and the early gated community of Sea Gate at the peninsula's western end. Three race tracks, built at Brighton Beach, Sheepshead Bay and Gravesend between 1879 and 1886, spurred Coney's growth as a resort area.

In the 1880s the Surf Theater, an early vaudeville house, was built on a side street between Surf Avenue and the ocean. The area was dubbed the Bowery, after the lower Manhattan original, of which it seemed very much a seaside extension. In 1882, James V. Lafferty built the Elephant Hotel, a building in the shape of--well, you know. A cigar stand set up shop in one of the pachyderm's legs. The hotel burned down in 1896.

Eventually, Coney developed a reputation as an entertainment center, and future celebrities honed their craft by the sea. An Italian immigrant named Angelo Siciliano, better known as Charles Atlas, "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man," was Coney Island's first strongman. Archibald Leach, much better known as Cary Grant, worked at Coney for a time as a Man on Stilts. Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor mugged their way through Coney's bawdy houses and vaudeville halls.

The world's first true roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, debuted at Coney Island in June of 1884. An invention of one Lamarcus Thompson, the contraption's cars basically rolled downhill; riders had to get off the train so workers could push the car up another hill, then the riders got back in and rolled back to where they'd started. Despite the clunky concept, the ride was a hit--after all, it had no competition. For a little while.

Even thrillseekers have to eat. Today you can't miss Nathan's at the corner of Surf and Stillwell, once at Fun Land's center, now on its outskirts. Nathan's claim to fame is, of course, the hot dog, a bit of edible Americana invented at Coney. Nathan's founder, Nathan Handwerker, didn't invent it, but he does have an indirect connection with the man who did.

Feltman's restaurant and beer garden became a Coney landmark. Eventually, his empire included a 100-foot-long pier with bath lockers, a showcase carousel, a penny arcade and a ballroom large enough to hold 3,000 dancers. Feltman died in 1910, leaving his business to his sons and grandson.

Nathan Handwerker got a job as a counterman at Feltman's restaurant in 1915. The next year he opened his own place--where the original Nathan's still stands--and promptly undercut Feltman's 10-cent price for a hot dog by 50 percent. The nickel dogs didn't immediately win over the suspicious public. One story has Handwerker dressing derelicts in white doctors' outfits and hanging a sign out front, "If doctors eat our hot dogs, you know they're good!" Apparently, that did the trick. In later years, the place sold an average of 75,000 dogs every summer weekend.

Bernie Podell, 75, of San Diego, lived in Brighton Beach until he went off to war in 1943. In his youth, he says, "The rich people would go to Feltman's for hot dogs, and we would go to Nathan's. The secret to Nathan's was they had an ultra-hot grill, and the hot dogs actually burst at the casings. The Feltman's hot dogs just sat there, and you didn't get that real hot dog smell. It's the old story; with Nathan's, I think the sizzle is what sold it."

In 1920 the el reached Coney, bringing the shore and the amusements (and the hot dogs) within easy reach of millions of New Yorkers with a few nickels in their pockets. On an average summer weekend in 1905, 200,000 people came to Coney. That figure had tripled by 1915, and after 1920 the number of fun-seekers exceeded a million. And the crowds kept coming.

Three years later, the beach, no longer the preserve of various resort hotels, was opened to the public. That same year, 1923, the present boardwalk was finished, and the more affluent visitors could rent quaint wicker rolling chairs and roll up and down the 80-foot-wide expanse.

Tastes changed over the decades, but not Coney's reputation as a place where the impossible and outlandish tended to happen every noisy day and dazzling night. Luna Park, which opened in 1903 and burned down in 1944, was the incarnation of early 20th-century fantasyland. The park, built around a lagoon by Frederick Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy, had a big illuminated crescent moon hanging over the entrance, and its signature ride was called A Trip to the Moon. But while that made for a convenient tie-in, the park was named after Dundy's sister, Luna. Its other rides, heavily influenced by Jules Verne's late Victorian sci-fi fantasies, included Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the Three Ring Circus in Mid-Air, Shoot-the-Chutes (an Edwardian-era Splash Mountain) and the Fatal Wedding--and occasional cockroach races for variety.

Luna Park was famous for its gorgeous nighttime illumination of a huge number of Oriental-style domes and minarets, all done with 250,000 white lightbulbs. Russian novelist Maxim Gorki once visited Luna Park and raved, "With the advent of night, a fantastic city all of fire suddenly rises from the ocean into the sky."

Dreamland opened in 1904, a year after Luna Park, and, unfortunately, lasted only seven years before burning to the ground (the aquarium now stands on the site). Although almost nobody now alive remembers Dreamland, it must have been quite a place. Its most striking feature was a million lightbulbs, four times as many as Luna Park had. Dreamland's tower was 375 feet tall and lit from top to bottom. Reportedly, ships 50 miles at sea could see the glow from its lights. Dreamland boasted attractions like the largest ballroom in the world, built on the Iron Pier. There was also a midget village called Lilliputia, built to half scale, populated with 300 little people. It was the creation of Samuel Gumpertz and the ancestor of the legendary Coney freak shows that Gumpertz ran through the end of the 1920s.

Steeplechase had been around for a while. George Tilyou opened the first one in 1897, but it burned down on a July night 10 years later.

The new Steeplechase opened the following year and became a true New York legend. It called itself "The Funny Place," and from all accounts, it was the amusement park with the best sense of humor, the place to be in Coney.

When Steeplechase opened it advertised "10 hours of fun for 10 cents" and offered 28 rides on 12 acres. Its main shtick remained unchanged for generations. You would get on the park's namesake ride, a "horse race" on wooden steeds that ran creakily around a circular track. Once the "race" was finished, you were ushered onto a stage through a doghouse and greeted by several Steeplechase characters, including a midget clown wielding an electric cattle prod. "I was petrified of him," remembers former Coney kid Kim Sinrod, "but you couldn't ride the horses and avoid the funhouse." It was Alice-in-Wonderland by way of Brooklyn.

The maze then led to the so-called Blowhole Theater, where air rushed up from a grate in the floor. It might blow off men's hats, but that was nothing. Let Bernie Podell tell it: "One of the biggest thrills was watching the girls get their skirts blown over their heads." It was as memorable a sight for 14-year-old boys in 1961 as it was for their grandfathers in 1908 and their dads in 1936. And they always remembered the women who had neglected to wear underwear.

After going through all of this, you got to sit in bleacher seats and enjoy seeing others being put through the same rigamarole. If that wasn't entertainment, what was? The whole package speaks volumes about the American character in the early-to-mid-twentieth century. We won't see Steeplechase's like again.

Urban decay, rather than fire, finally caught up with Steeplechase. In the '50s, low-income housing projects that still stand, uglifying the skyline, were built on the site of Luna Park (by Fred Trump, Donald's father), and Coney Island's reputation as a family-outing mecca nose-dived as fast as the Cyclone. The Funny Place shut its doors for good on September 20, 1964. (Competition from the New York World's Fair that year surely hadn't helped, but the handwriting had been on the wall for some time.)

Coney today isn't all reflections of faded glory, though.

"Coney Island U.S.A.," a postmodern, hip sideshow on Surf Avenue, is a nonprofit corporation presided over by Dick Zigun, holder of a master's degree in theater arts from Yale and the self-appointed savior of the art of carny. "I don't have any childhood memories of going to Coney Island," says the fortyish Zigun, a modern impresario who grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut ("P.T. Barnum's home town," he makes sure to interject). He chucked a previous career as an experimental playwright when he came to Coney. "I just thought Coney Island might work as a staging ground," he says. "And it has."

Zigun's self-aware (but still fun) mock freak show for the '90s features five performers in ten acts, in a continuous show during high season. Performers include Enchanta, a snake charmer who dances with albino Burmese pythons, and a "bearded lady with an attitude" who juggles machetes and wriggles out of a straitjacket--alas, not simultaneously. Outside, the audience can buy T-shirts and vintage Coney postcards and have a tropical mixed drink at the kitsch-filled Freak Bar, a Generation X delight. Around the corner is an upstairs museum of Coney artifacts, which Zigun expects to be finished this season.

Coney's crowd is "one of the most multicultural audiences you can find anywhere in the world," says Zigun, who estimates that about 15 percent of the sideshow's visitors are "hipsters" from Brooklyn and Manhattan; there are also lots of Japanese, German and Dutch tourists. It may not be Dreamland, not exactly, but the world still comes to New York's playground by the sea.

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