"The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard" will be on view at the Coney Island History Project from May 25 through July 7, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 12 noon-6pm. The exhibit of photo documentation and several examples of original artwork being restored is open to the public free of charge. The 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.
The mural-covered interior of the Playland Arcade on Coney Island's Surf Avenue delighted patrons for many decades yet few knew the story behind the colorful artwork that covered every inch of the establishment. Playland closed in 1981 and the building stood empty until it was demolished in 2013. The Coney Island History Project's multi-year mission to save and document the unusual murals inside the Playland Building ended successfully on February 14 with the removal of several of Larry Millard's iconic artworks and the remaining letters from the Bowery entrance's neon sign hours before demolition.Previously saved murals were displayed at the Coney Island History Project's exhibit center last year. We worked with Gateway Demolition to remove several of the murals just before demolition. Our previous efforts at preservation were hampered by trespassers, vandals, black mold, the untimely death of Playland's caretaker, Andy Badalamenti, as well as Superstorm Sandy, but finally the story of the artist who created them can be told.
In the winter of 1957 a mysterious unemployed artist named Larry Millard showed up at the Playland Arcade on Surf Avenue looking for work. Forty-five-year-old Millard claimed to have been a cartoonist for the New York Daily News and offered his services as a sign painter. Playland owner Alex Elowitz hired him to paint some small lettered Skeeball signs. His lettering was perfect and he continued working at the arcade through the summer of 1958 painting large and colorful and murals on every inch of wall space.
Millard followed a daily routine, arriving early in the morning unshaven and smelling of alcohol, suffering from the shakes. He was given a couple of bucks for a bottle of Thunderbird wine that he bought at the liquor store across the street next to Mama Kirsh's restaurant. The drink steadied his hand, enabling him to paint.
Stanley Fox, who worked at the arcade owned by his brother, described Millard as "artsy-looking," with dark hair and a mustache, always wearing a Fedora and usually accompanied by his girlfriend, an African-American woman named Eunice. Millard would arrive daily with sketches to be approved by Elowitz. "My brother paid him by the day, maybe $25. Larry lived somewhere in Coney Island, although no one was sure where."
Millard's Skeeball signs led to the complex cartoons he illustrated with puns and jokes: busty, leggy women with hapless boyfriends. Many of his murals were in the cartoon style of Lil' Abner creator Al Capp. The public loved his work and he continued painting Playland until every wall was filled. When Millard finished his murals at the Playland building he began painting outdoor signs around Coney Island, and murals at Stauch's and at the B&B Carousell.
Millard disappeared from Coney Island around 1960 and was never seen again. He left a mark much like native petroglyphs: deceivingly simple yet undecipherable and opaque. His work is mysterious and edgy, erotic and "cartoony." When you look past the inherent humor in his pieces it's possible that most of his sketches were sad self-portraits telling his life story: the portrait of a tortured soul who had bad luck with women. --- Charles Denson
Horace Bullard passed away on April 9th after a long, painful bout with Lou Gehrig's disease. Although he was a controversial figure and I disagreed with him over the years, I believed that his 1980s plan for Coney Island was viable and heartfelt. Horace spent millions of dollars buying property and putting together plans for a major Coney Island amusement park. He remained confident that his plan would come to fruition until a recession and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani ended his dream.
I spent many hours interviewing Bullard for my book, "Coney Island: Lost and Found" and we stayed in touch over the last ten years. Unfortunately, he could not let go of his anger over the loss of his Coney Island lease and his belief that Mayor Giuliani's decision to cancel the lease was racially motivated. Horace became bitter after losing the Steeplechase site and he let his remaining properties, including the Shore Theater and Thunderbolt Roller Coaster, deteriorate. He never fully recovered after Giuliani illegally ordered the demolition of the old coaster in November 2000.
Last spring an interested party representing a popular sports figure contacted me about a plan to buy and restore the Shore Theater and asked me to be the go-between as they were having problems with the negotiations. I agreed to contact Bullard and it seemed that the sale might actually happen. Unfortunately, during this process there were loud calls in the media for the city to take the building using eminent domain. The timing could not have been worse. Bullard was riled and nothing more was said about the plan.
Bullard's grand amusement scheme was bold, audacious and fantastic. Back in the 80s he had investors lined up and the support of the public, the media, and elected officials . He had everything he needed except luck. His decade-long road show kept Coney in the public eye when many had written it off. Bullard's death brings a dramatic but sad chapter of Coney Island history to a close. As his daughter told me, "My dad had such a passion and dream for Coney Island. He was and extraordinary man in so many ways . . ."
– Charles Denson
Coney Island History Project Executive Director Charles Denson visited two classes at PS 226 as part of the Brooklyn Public Library's educational outreach program. The students were completing a year-long project about Coney Island that included debates about development, creating video documentaries, and site visits to the neighborhood. The program was developed by the Brooklyn Public Library's local history division, Brooklyn Connections, which has also invited Denson to speak at a workshop for teachers called "Local History in the Classroom."
"The students were incredible," said Denson. "They were fascinated by Coney Island's history and asked probing questions about development, culture, and the past and future of the community. They were also interested in the techniques of primary source research, which really surprised me." Denson's book, "Coney Island: Lost and Found" was used as the program's textbook. "In the past the Coney Island History Project has worked with local schools PS 188 and Mark Twain, and we hope to expand the history program this year to include local ecology and how climate change will affect Coney Island's future," said Denson.
Missed Opening Day? Visit the Coney Island History Project on Easter, one of Coney's most popular days of the season, to preview our 2013 exhibits. Located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, our exhibition center--rebuilt after Superstorm Sandy--will be open from 1 PM to 6 PM on Sunday, March 31. Admission is free for one and all!
You're invited to take a free souvenir photo with the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops seen in the above slide show of Opening Day. This amazing piece of folk art was originally on the roof of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's 1950s dark ride, which was restored after flood damage from Superstorm Sandy.
This season, the History Project will exhibit films and photos about Sandy's impact on Coney Island. As part of our continuing oral history project we'll be recording personal stories about the storm's aftermath and how it affected the Coney Island community. The public is invited to come to our exhibit center for an audio or video recording, or we can come to your home or business.
Additional exhibits for 2013 include "Coney Island Creek," "The Wonder Wheel: Coney Island's Iconic Amusement Attraction," and "The Curious Art of Larry Millard," an artist whose murals covered the now-demolished Playland Arcade.
The History Project's regular exhibition season is from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. Hours are 12 noon to 6 PM on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. In the spring, we're open for oral history interviews (by appointment), walking tours (by advance reservation) and special events (TBA). For additional info, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Coney Island History Project's multi-year mission to save and document the unusual murals inside the Playland Building ended successfully today with the removal of several of Larry Millard's iconic artworks and the remaining letters from the Bowery entrance's neon sign hours before demolition. The building has been vacant since Playland Arcade closed in 1981. All of the murals were carefully documented over a period of five years. Previously saved murals were displayed at our exhibit center last year. CIHP Director Charles Denson worked with Gateway Demolition to remove several of the murals just before demolition. Our previous efforts at preservation were hampered by trespassers, vandals, black mold, the untimely death of Playland's caretaker, Andy Badalamenti, as well as Superstorm Sandy. The Coney Island History Project will have an exhibit this season.