History Day

Save the Date! Saturday, August 9th, 2014, from 1pm - 6pm, is the 4th Annual History Day Celebration at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project.

History Day festivities include free live entertainment, music and history. This year, we're also planning a special event to celebrate the return of the Astroland Rocket, the 1960s space-age icon which came home to Coney Island in June and has landed next to the Wonder Wheel in Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. Stay tuned for details of this exciting event to be announced soon!

Returning for an encore performance on History Day are organ grinders from the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association (AMICA) and the Carousel Organ Association of America (COAA) playing hand-cranked musical organs from around the world. Throughout the day, visitors will have the chance to crank some of the organs and experience a thrill from days gone by. The rally is curated by band organ restorer and magician Bob Yorburg, who will perform his interactive show "Professor Phineas Feelgood's World of Magic."

The organ rally, magic show and other performances TBA are free to the public and will be held at the Coney Island History Project, Dreamland Pedestrian Plaza on 12th Street and in Deno's Wonder Wheel Park.

On History Day, the Coney Island History Project will feature special exhibits as well as historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films from our archive. Among the artifacts on view are an original Steeplechase horse from the ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name, the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops from Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, hand-painted figures from Astroland's Musik Express, a Mangels Fairy Whip Car made in Coney Island in the early 1900s, and vintage signs and game pieces. Admission is free of charge.

(Posted on Jul 14, 2014)
Woody Guthrie's Birthday Celebrated in Coney Island

Happy 102nd Birthday, Woody Guthrie! This weekend, in honor of the folk hero's July 14th birthday, the Coney Island History Project will screen "Woody Guthrie's 100th Birthday, Celebrated at Coney Island," a short film by Charles Denson. The film may be viewed on Saturday and Sunday, July 12th and 13th, from 12pm -6pm, at the History Project's exhibit center. Admission is free of charge.

Charles Denson's film was made on July 14, 2012, when the activist songwriter's daughter Nora Guthrie and family members including grandchildren, along with musicians Billy Bragg and Steve Earle and actor Tim Robbins (seen in above photo) made a pilgrimage to Coney Island, where Guthrie lived on Mermaid Avenue for a decade.

The film will be screened next year at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College when the Klezmatics' "Woody Guthrie's Wonder Wheel Tour" performs there on March 8, 2015. This week, the arts center is commemorating Guthrie's birthday with a special discount offer for the Klezmatics' show, which features songs written during Guthrie's Coney Island years such as "Mermaid's Avenue." Use code WOODY20 and save $10 per ticket. The offer expires on Woody's birthday.

In 2008, Woody Guthrie was honored at the Coney Island Hall of Fame ceremony at the Coney Island History Project along with an exhibit "Woody Guthrie's Coney Island Years." History Project director Charles Denson also put up the commemorative plaque, seen in the photo above, at 3520 Mermaid Avenue, where the Guthries lived from 1943 to 1952. The building was demolished in 1972. When Guthrie died in 1967, his ashes were spread in the ocean one block from here, at the foot of West 36th Street.

(Posted on Jul 11, 2014)
City of Water Day

Join Partnerships for Parks, City Parks Foundation and the Coney Island History Project on Saturday, July 12, for City of Water Day in Kaiser Park!

11am - 11:45am: Explore the history of Coney Island Creek with historian Charles Denson, who has documented the Creek for over 40 years and is working on a book and film about the waterway. In 2012, the Coney Island History Project received a grant from Partnerships for Parks to create CreekWalk, a self-guided walking tour brochure and a series of informational plaques installed on the creek side of Kaiser Park.

11:30am - 1pm: Participate in T'ai Chi and other fitness activities

11:30am - 2pm: Talk about transportation. How do you get to the waterfront?

11:30am - 2pm: Meet some of the groups working in Kaiser Park. Design your ideal park and plan for the future of your neighborhood

11:30am - 2pm: Dig in to a vertical garden with Coney Island Beautification Project

Location: Kaiser Park entrance on Neptune Avenue and 31st Street

A citywide project of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, the City of Water Day Festival is a free day-long celebration of the world-class potential of the water that surrounds us and brings us together.

(Posted on Jul 11, 2014)
Coney Island History Project

Grimaldi’s at 1215 Surf Avenue, with its sleek glass facade and bold picturesque signage, appears to be modern, but the building has a fascinating history that represents the century-long transformation of the street’s north side. The structure is a small remnant of the 1907 Lido Hotel on West 12th Street (first known as the Boston Hotel and later as the Coney Island Hippodrome). The original tenant was a cafeteria, the first of several restaurants that would operate at that location.

Lido Cafeteria Coney Island History Project

Lido Cafeteria at 1215 Surf Avenue in the 1920s. Photo © Charles Denson Archive, Coney Island History Project

During the 1940s, the building was reduced to one story and transformed into a penny arcade that operated until the 1970s. Surf Avenue’s north side between West 12th and Stillwell Avenue once boasted dozens of attractions including the Crazy Ghosts dark ride, a McCullough carousel, a billiard parlor, the Hollywood Bar, a bowling alley, the Mardi Gras Movie Theater, and the Lido's Theater, home to 1940s sideshows and the Bread and Puppet theater troupe during the late 1960s.

Penny Arcade Photo copyright Charles Denson

Amusement arcade at 1215 Surf Avenue in the early 1970s. Photo © Charles Denson via Coney Island History Project

All were gone by the mid-1970s. The building at 1215 Surf, like many others on the avenue’s north side, became a cut-rate furniture store, a business not permitted under amusement zoning. The adjacent Lido Hotel was destroyed by fire in the early 1980s but the one-story section now housing Grimaldi’s survived. The vacant Lido site became a flea market, replaced in 2002 with the three-story building currently on the site.

Coney Island Furniture. Photo copyright Charles Denson

Coney Island Furniture at 1215 Surf Avenue in the 1990s. Photo © Charles Denson via Coney Island History Project

A 21st-century resurrection of the block includes the restored Stillwell Avenue Terminal, Applebee's, a proposed Johnny Rockets, two bars, a strip club, and the offices of Community Board 13 and the Alliance for Coney Island.

At the center of it all is Grimaldi’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, located in a structure whose interior of exposed brick walls are the only clue to the building’s historic past.

Grimaldi's 2014 Coney Island History Project

Grimaldi's Pizzeria at 1215 Surf Avenue since 2012. Photo © Charles Denson via Coney Island History Project

This post is part of series titled "Then and Now: Finding Coney Island's Hidden Landmarks" by Charles Denson in the Director's Blog.

(Posted on Jun 30, 2014)

1960s Space Age icon and First Ride in Astroland Park Brought Back by Coney Island History Project and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park

Astroland Rocket Wonder Wheel Park

Astroland Rocket Back Home in Coney Island -- Next to the Wonder Wheel in Deno's Wonder Wheel Park! Photo © Charles Denson. June 4, 2014

The famed Astroland Rocket Ship, one of the first and only surviving early amusement park “simulators,” returned home to Coney Island today after five years in storage at Staten Island's Homeport. It debuted in 1962 at Astroland Park as one of the first of the “imaginary” space voyage simulators constructed during the Space Race. The Rocket showed simulator films of “rocket rides” while the chassis “rocked” its viewers to outer space. The Ride, which has 26 seats, lasted about three minutes, the length of the film.

Originally built as the “Star Flyer,” the Astroland Rocket later sat atop the boardwalk restaurant Gregory and Paul’s. After Astroland closed in 2008, Carol and Jerry Albert, owners of Astroland Park, donated the Rocket to the City, which promised to make it a centerpiece of the new, revitalized amusement and entertainment district.

Astroland Rocket June 3, 2014

Astroland Rocket loaded up at Staten Island's Homeport ready to go home to Coney Island. Photo © Charles Denson. June 3, 2014

In November, the Coney Island History Project answered an RFP by the City’s Economic Development Corporation to bring the Astroland Rocket back to Coney Island. Our proposal was accepted and a few days ago we assumed ownership of the Rocket. Just after midnight, the Rocket began its journey home from Staten Island to a location near our exhibit center in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park provided by the park’s owners, Steve and Dennis Vourderis. History Project co-founder and Astroland owner Carol Albert has paid the cost of moving the Rocket back to Coney Island.

“The Rocket has finally landed back home in Coney Island where it belongs. Thanks to the History Project and Carol Albert for making it happen,” said Steve Vourderis, co-owner of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, who with his wife Stacy spearheaded the park’s annual History Day. They hope to make the Rocket the centerpiece of this year’s celebration on August 9.

"The Coney Island History project has found a safe new place to house the Rocket at Wonder Wheel Park," said Carol Hill Albert, co-founder of the History Project with Jerry Albert, whose family owned and operated Astroland Park from 1962 until its closing in 2008. "Stacey and Steve Vouderis are the proud new caretakers of this classic ride which they will restore and will be used as an exhibition space."

Star Flyer copyright Astroland Archives Coney Island History Project

"Outer space simulators have played a prominent role in Coney's amusement history,” said Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project and author of Coney Island: Lost and Found. “It began when Thompson and Dundy brought 'A Trip to the Moon' to Steeplechase Park in 1902 and culminated in 1962, at the height of the space race, with Astroland's Moon Rocket . The ride provided visitors with an exciting taste of intergalactic travel. The Astroland Rocket has now returned to a place of honor beside the landmark Wonder Wheel, where it will be restored as an exhibit showcasing Coney Island's fascination with space travel."

The restoration of the Rocket, which was seriously damaged during Superstorm Sandy, will be overseen by Steve Vourderis and it will become an educational exhibit designed by Charles Denson. The Rocket exhibit will cover the history of flight-themed attractions in Coney Island, encompassing science, amusements, photos and films.

When the Star Flyer Rocket debuted in 1962 as the first ride in Coney’s new space-age theme park, it was called the “Cape Canaveral Satellite Jet” (TIME), “The Spaceship Auditorium” (Billboard) and the “Cannonball Adderly Rocket” in anticipation of Adderly dedicating the rocket for Astroland’s official opening on July 1, 1962. The rocket was rechristened the “Astroland Moon Rocket” in 1963.

Astroland Moon Rocket © Coney Island History Project (read more)
(Posted on Jun 04, 2014)
The Face of Steeplechase, Coney Island History Project

The Coney Island History Project's first special exhibit of the season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, will be "The Face of Steeplechase Park: Gams, Garters, and Stockings!" A look behind the smiling face of Steeplechase Park features rare photographs and artwork from the park's opening to its demolition, 1897-1966.

Opening 50 years after the closure of Steeplechase Park and 100 years after the death of the park's founder, George C. Tilyou, the exhibit at the Coney Island History Project explores the underlying success of the park and the evolution and meaning of its idiosyncratic logo -- the "Steeplechase Funny Face."

Tilyou, an expert at crowd psychology, began his career as a young boy selling bottles of sand to visitors at his father's beachfront bathhouse and restaurant during the 1860s. Decades later, he created Steeplechase Park, Coney's most successful and long-lived amusement park.

The park's quirky trademark was the grinning "Funny Face," an enigmatic symbol of the park's underlying theme of merriment, hilarity, and, most importantly, sex. The much-imitated face underwent numerous revisions during the park's run. Sometimes it was a gleeful, maniacal visage; at other times, it appeared as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa. Was the face a mask for Tilyou or did it represent his true personality? This exhibit examines the many variations through the decades.

Highbrow and lowbrow culture existed simultaneously at Steeplechase. The 15-acre park was an enclosed wonderland composed of classical architecture and formal gardens tended by brightly uniformed employees. But underlying it was a theme of sex and titillation, a beguilingly Victorian version of sexuality and romance expressed by a leg or petticoat exposed by a tumble or a hidden jet of air. The experience was simultaneously innocent and kinky.

The Insanitorium Steeplechase Park, Coney Island History Project

Tilyou forced the visitor to be part of the show. His main attractions were designed to offer the public a combination of voyeurism and exhibitionism, to put them onstage and make them part of the act. The Insanitorium (originally called the Blow Hole Theater), the Barrel of Love, the Human Roulette Wheel, and the Bounding Billows were contraptions created to break down inhibitions by luring visitors into disorienting traps where anyone "could end up in an intimate arm-and-leg tangle with complete strangers."

Looking back, 50 years after the park closed, it's difficult to believe that something like the Blow Hole Theater, with its hallucinatory stage set, electric paddle-wielding clown, and skirt-lifting air grates, lasted as long as it did. Many of the park's attractions could not exist in today's litigious, politically correct culture. The only survivor of this bizarre period remains the iconic Funny Face, the symbol of an innocent and repressed world.

"The Face of Steeplechase" is curated by Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. The exhibit is on view from May 24 through September 1 (Labor Day), 2014. The Coney Island History Project's exhibition center is located under Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's iconic entrance sign at 3059 West 12th Street, just a few steps off the Boardwalk. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past and special exhibits. Our popular Steeplechase Horse from the ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name is on display along with Spook-A-Rama's Cyclops from Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, hand-painted figures from Astroland's Musik Express, a Mangels Fairy Whip Car made in Coney Island in the early 1900s, and vintage signs and game pieces.

The exhibit center is open Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day, from 12 noon till 6pm. Admission is free of charge.

The Face of Steeplechase, Coney Island History Project (read more)
(Posted on May 19, 2014)