Coney Island Blog - By Charles Denson

The Grashorn Building in the 1880s.

The historic Grashorn Building, Coney Island's oldest structure, has been given a death sentence by real estate speculator Joe Sitt of Thor Equities, and demolition of the vacant structure has begun.  The NYC Department of Buildings approved an application for demolition of the entire structure on January 23, 2019. The Grashorn is just the latest in a series of amusement landmarks destroyed by the self-proclaimed "savior" of Coney Island who bought up large chunks of the amusement area more than a decade ago.

Thor made no effort to renovate the building and left it to rot since purchasing it for nearly $2 million a decade ago. Save Coney Island, a preservation group opposing the city's rezoning plan, had proposed a renovation project in 2010, but Thor wasn't interested. Other than the squatters who periodically broke into the building, the only "tenant" was a TV crew who briefly used the ground floor to re-create the Susquehanna Hat Store for the HBO series "Bored to Death." During the filming of "Men in Black 3," the film's production crew used part of the building's gutted interior as its headquarters.

Despite making a $90 million profit flipping Coney Island property during the city's 2009 rezoning of the amusement zone, Thor Equities has recently run into financial problems. Sitt lost ownership of some of his Manhattan properties and has reportedly defaulted on bank loans. In 2018 he put his combined 21 Coney Island properties up for sale, abandoning his scheme to build a shopping mall and hotel complex in the amusement zone.

The Grashorn Building, with its mansard roof, cast-iron cresting, and fish-scale shingles, was built by hardware store owner Henry Grashorn in the early 1880s and is the last surviving structure from that era. It is believed that the contractor was John Y. McKane, the carpenter who became political boss of Gravesend and Coney Island only to wind up in Sing-Sing prison, convicted of corruption.

For more than 60 years, Henry Grashorn's hardware store met the unusual needs of amusement operators by carrying everything needed to operate or repair the rides of Coney Island. The two floors above the store served as a hotel. The building had several owners after Grashorn retired. The last owner before Sitt was the late Wally Roberts, who operated an arcade on the ground floor. Although the building's facade was heavily altered over the years, it still retained its original shape and was easily identifiable. The hotel rooms on the upper floors were perfectly preserved. The Grashorn now joins Thor's other victims, including the Henderson Theater and Coney Island Bank Building, which Sitt ordered demolished in 2010 despite local efforts to preserve them.

The vacant Grashorn Building after Thor Equities bought the property.

The Grashorn Building was the last surviving structure from the earliest days of Coney Island.

The two upper floors in the Grashorn Building were once a hotel.

Architectural rendering released by Save Coney Island in 2010. What could have been. . .   

The Grashorn Building in 1969 still had Henry Grashorn's brass signage.

Susquehanna Hat Store in the Grashorn Building, a set for the HBO series, "Bored to Death" in 2011. Photo © Charles Denson.

 

posted Mar 4th, 2019 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Development, demolition, Grashorn Building,...

Congratulations to NYC Council Member Mark Treyger, Borough President Eric Adams, and NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson for funding the repair and restoration of the deteriorating Ocean Parkway bicycle path, the oldest bike path in the country. According to Streetsblog, the Parks Department will begin fixing the bike path on Ocean Parkway this spring, thanks to a $1-million allocation from Treyger, and $500,000 each from the Borough President and the City Council.

Images from the Coney Island History Project archive show that from the 1890s to 1920s Coney Island was the most popular destination for an army of cyclists who traveled five miles down the Ocean Parkway Cycle Path to Coney Island from Prospect Park. A rustic wood pavilion located at the intersection of Surf Avenue and Ocean Parkway served as an end-of-ride meeting place, and nearby bicycle storage facilities provided parking for riders heading to the beach. Many cyclists had photos taken with their bicycles as a souvenir of their journey to Coney Island. Our print and tintype collection contains countless images documenting these early days of bicycling at the shore.

Women's bicycle club poses for a souvenir photo at Coney Island, 1897.

Cyclists line up at the beachfront pavilion at Ocean Parkway and Surf Avenue, 1890s

Joe's Bicycle Checking and Storage stand on Surf Avenue at West 5th Street.

A cyclist relaxes at Brighton Beach after a ride down Ocean Parkway.

Posing with their rides at Coney Island, 1916.

Sheet music, 1896

 

 

 

 

posted Feb 15th, 2019 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Ocean Parkway, bike path, bicycling,...

A piece of Coney Island transit history unexpectedly reappeared recently when Surf Avenue's old trolley tracks were unearthed and removed during street construction in front of MCU Park. The tracks had been paved over decades ago after trolley car service was discontinued and replaced by buses in 1946.

Trolley tracks reappeared on Surf Avenue and West 17th Street  Photo by Charles Denson

Surf Avenue trolley service began in the 1890s, serving the amusement zone and West End before taking a curve up West 36th Street. There it connected with the Railroad Avenue "Toonerville" trolley line that ran between Mermaid and Surf Avenues and then through Sea Gate to Norton's Point. The rusting tracks brought to light during the excavation were stacked up next to the decaying trolley poles that still line Surf from West 8th Street to West 21st Street, reviving memories of a once popular transit system that died off after World War II.

Coney Island was literally the end of the line for many of Brooklyn's trolley routes. A trolley barn and terminal were located on West 5th Street, across the street from Seaside Park, and Norton's point served as the last stop on the Railroad Avenue line that once connected to the ferry. For many years there was also a spur that terminated inside Steeplechase park at West 17th Street.

Resurrection of streetcar service has been in the news lately with Mayor de Blasio's ambitious plan for a $2.7 billion BQX line, and developer John Catsimatidis's much-hyped but delusional plan to construct a Surf Avenue "trolley" (in reality a jitney bus) connecting his West End high-rises to the Stillwell Avenue subway terminal. Catsimatidis's plan has probably been derailed by the city's recent proposal for a conveniently located ferry terminal a few blocks away.

Whenever a shovel is placed in the sands of Coney Island, a piece of history is uncovered. Many visitors to the History Project have recorded their memories of traveling to Coney Island by nickel trolley when they were young. They say it was a romantic and unforgettable means of arriving at the seashore. These trolley car memories provide nostalgic links to a picturesque form of urban transportation: clanging bells and screeching wheels, rattan seats and rattling floorboards, the rising scent of salt air drifting through open windows as one approached Coney Island while sailing aboard the clunky but beautiful one-eyed machines that once prowled the streets of Brooklyn.

The lumbering buses that replaced the trolleys will never have the same mystique.

– Charles Denson

Trolley car on Surf Avenue at West 12th Street

Closeup of the Surf Avenue rails

Trolley car parked at West 36th Street and Railroad Avenue. The curved track connected to Surf Avenue.

 

 

 

 

 

posted Feb 9th, 2019 in By Charles Denson and tagged with trolleys, trolley service, trolley route,...

GONE FOREVER: Beautiful nautical-themed details of the old theater were lost to neglect and vandalism.

Three months ago I was contacted by Eduard Yadgarov of Pye Properties, new owners of the old Shore Theater building, regarding the company's plans for the structure and a possible collaboration with the Coney Island History Project. During our meeting at the sleek new company offices on West 8th Street, I was shown plans for the renovations and new attractions that include a hotel and rooftop restaurant.

We discussed historic preservation of the ornate interior details that I documented a decade ago. I was then told the bad news: Almost all of the beautiful plaster decorations, the mermaids and ships that had once embellished the mezzanine and other areas, had been destroyed by vandalism and water leaks during the time that the building had been occupied by squatters prior to Pye's purchase of the building. Horace Bullard's heirs had let the building rot, and the roof had been leaking for years.

On October 5 Yadgarov and his father gave me a tour of the theater's interior. After donning hard hats, we used flashlights to work our way through the ruins of the once elegant theater. The damage was extensive. In the years following Horace Bullard's death, the vacant building had been stripped of its window frames and almost anything else of value. Water damage had destabilized the theater's decorative interior and exterior brick walls to a point that seemed beyond repair. Only a few historic items remained, and Yadgarov assured me that those relics will be preserved and included in the new construction.

In 2010 I testified in favor of landmarking the building and also gave a presentation at the Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing that showed the building's interior, hoping that it could be saved. I had always imagined that the theater could somehow be preserved much as the old Harvey Theater at BAM had been renovated and restored while leaving most of the original details.  But after the tour, which was extremely hazardous as plaster was still collapsing around us, I realized that this was a hopeless situation. The ceiling of the mezzanine with its mermaids and ships and ocean motifs was gone, leaving only piles of damp debris. No trace of the artwork remains.

The only surviving remnants are the beautiful marble columns, ornate railings, and the mosaic water fountain, which Pye Properties has promised to retain, restore and place in the new hotel's lobby. The theater's ceiling and enormous dome, which I had once seen re-wired and lit up by former caretaker Andy Badalementi 10 years ago, has suffered serious water damage. I doubt that it can be salvaged. This was a sad tour, but afterwards I complimented Yadgarov on the company's ambitious efforts to renovate and repurpose the landmark structure. Not many developers would take on such a seemingly impossible and expensive task. Although a restored theater would have been a great project, it no longer seems feasible. It will be wonderful to have the landmarked building open to the public once again, filled with new amenities and attractions for Coney Island.

– Charles Denson

SAVED: The mosaic fountain on the theater's mezzanine will be preserved and restored.

SAVED: The ornate railings on the balcony steps will be salvaged and repurposed.

2006: The theater's marble columns have survived and will be restored and placed in the hotel's lobby but the plaster ceiling artwork is gone forever.

The lobby ceiling, decorated with nautical creatures and sporting unusual lighting fixtures, is intact and will be restored by Pye Properties.

posted Jan 22nd, 2019 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Shore Theater, Coney Island, Landmark,...

Gene Ritter

We're sad to learn that our friend Gene Ritter, a Coney Island native, environmental advocate, commercial diver, and educator, passed away on November 19 at the age of 59. Gene battled his illness for so long and with such a vengeance that it's hard to believe that he's left us. He fought bravely, and it didn't seem possible that he could ever lose the battle.

My last phone conversation with Gene took place a few days before he died. We were trying to work out an issue concerning Coney Island Creek. Both of us had strong differences of opinion but were seeking the same goal. After a while I changed the subject and told him that I'd just seen the documentary about the successful Thailand cave rescue of the trapped students, and I asked him, as an experienced professional diver, what he thought about how the rescuers were able to put aside their differences and pull off the most unbelievable rescue in history. He told me that his kind of diving was different but he'd faced similar conditions.

I was using the story as a metaphor for how we could cooperate, but Gene shot right past it and got to the point. "If you panic, you die," he said. Bottom line. He said that when you're facing hopeless conditions, disorientated, with zero visibility, you can still find your way out as long as you don't panic. Gene never panicked. He was always focused on achieving his mission, no matter who or what stood in the way.

In 2016, I recorded a wide-ranging conversation with Gene for the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive. He talked about growing up in Coney Island and night diving as a teen, Mark V diving in Kaiser Park, and the thrill of finding historic artifacts including the Dreamland Bell, the pilings of Dreamland Pier and live shells from World War II in Gravesend Bay. You can listen to the interview in our online archive.

Gene didn't have a lot of time to waste. He accomplished so much in his life and achieved great success as an environmental advocate and educator. Everyone who crossed his path was impressed with his passion and his drive for what he believed in. Those who participated in Gene's Coney Island Creek events became enlightened and encouraged. His work with Cultural Research Divers, NYSMEA, Making Waves, and STEM programs brought a new awareness to thousands of students and community members. I am honored to have worked with him on so many projects over the years. He will be missed. 

—  Charles Denson

A wake will be held on November 23 from 2:00-4:00PM and 7:00-9:30PM at McCourt & Trudden Funeral Home, 385 Main Street, Farmingdale, NY. The funeral Mass will be on Saturday, November 24 at 10:45AM, at St. Kilian Roman Catholic Church, 485 Conklin Street, Farmingdale. 

Gene Ritter

Gene Ritter

Gene Ritter

 

posted Nov 21st, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Gene Ritter, In Memoriam, obituary,...

The Surf Avenue Gate in the 1890s.

Coney Island recently lost one of its most historic landmarks when the Surf Avenue entrance to Sea Gate, with its gracefully sweeping wooden archway, was unceremoniously demolished to make way for a new streamlined gateway.

The eclectic wood-shingled Victorian, with its exquisite arches and domed towers, was built in 1897 as the grand entrance to a new community that sprang up at Norton's Point at the western tip of Coney Island. In 2012 the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy caused irreparable damage to the structure, forcing the relocation of the offices of the Sea Gate Association and the Sea Gate Police Department, which had occupied the building for more than a century.

Over the decades, the gateway suffered unfortunate alterations that resulted in the loss of the towers, wooden shingles, and other distinguishing features of the original design. The archway, however, remained intact until September 2018 when it was brought to the ground and crushed by an excavator.

When I was growing up in Coney Island Houses, my bedroom window faced the old gateway down at the end of Surf Avenue, and I remember the illuminated archway and Coney Island lighthouse behind it serving as reassuring nightlights against the black sky and the ocean beyond. In 1999 I was permitted to climb inside the arch (then used by the Sea Gate Association for storage, and accessible through a small trapdoor) to view the intricate maze of wooden trusses that supported the span. It's a shame that the building could not be saved and restored as this kind of architecture will never again be seen in Coney Island.

—  Charles Denson

The Gate circa 1900.  © Charles Denson Archive

The  altered Gate, 2002 Photo by Charles Denson

The Gate is now a fence, October 1, 2018 Photo by Charles Denson

The Gate suffered severe damage in Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Charles Denson, Oct 2012

The new streamlined gate will include historic references to the old structure. Photo by Charles Denson

 

posted Nov 13th, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

Yellow Submarine Coney Island History Project

Coney Island Creek's Yellow Submarine Quester I. Photo © Charles Denson

What can we learn about New York City and its waterfront from its boats? Stefan D-W of the Waterfront Alliance's Waterwire is inviting those across the maritime world and beyond-historians, planners, artists, business people, scientists- to share their perspectives on NYC History in 10 Boats. Below is the sixth installment, with Charles Denson, reprinted from Waterwire, with additional photos from the Coney Island History Project's Collection.

Iolas

Ferry service to Coney Island began in the summer of 1845 when the steamboat Iolas left the Battery at 7am and arrived at the western tip of the island about an hour later. The little ferry made four trips a day to the dune-covered sand bar that would soon become “The Playground of the World.”

Shamrock

Coney Island’s little-known connection to the America’s Cup was centered at the island’s Atlantic Yacht Club at the mouth of Coney Island Creek where, in 1899, Sir Thomas Lipton’s Irish racing yacht Shamrock was berthed while competing in the world-famous event being held in New York Harbor. The Shamrock was defeated in all three races by the New York Yacht Club’s defender, Columbia.

Shamrock

Saranac

The wreck of the three-masted wooden schooner Saranac became a popular “ghost ship” attraction after it ran aground and was abandoned alongside the Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island around 1907. Steeplechase owner George C. Tilyou decided not to remove the wreck and instead decorated the ship’s masts and rigging with colorful flags, advertising it as a monument to the last days of proud sailing ships.

Flying Dutchman

During the early days of Prohibition, Coney Island Creek was a main landing point for rumrunners. Many yachts built at the Wheeler Shipyard were modified into rumrunners that could outrun police boats and revenue cutters patrolling offshore. In September 1923, a 40-foot modified cruiser named Flying Dutchman partook in a dramatic, three-mile gun battle with police before beaching at Coney Island Creek. One of the Dutchman’s crew was shot by police, four others were arrested, and the boozy contents of the boat was taken to police headquarters at the Battery.

Noah’s Ark

The whimsical vessel was actually a nautical-themed funhouse on the Boardwalk in front of Steeplechase Park during the 1920s and 1930s. After entering through the gaping mouth of a blue whale, visitors navigated a maze that led to encounters with captain “Noah” and his animal pairs while the entire attraction rocked back and forth.

Noah's Ark

Hemingway’s Pilar

Ernest Hemingway’s famous 38-foot deep-sea fishing boat, the Pilar, was built on Coney Island Creek at the Wheeler Shipyard in 1934. Hemmingway’s fishing adventures on the Pilar became the inspiration for his novels The Old Man and the Sea, and Islands in the Stream. The boat is now on display at Finca Vigia, the Hemingway Museum in Havana, Cuba.

Gold Star Mother

Gold Star Mother was a Staten Island ferryboat, one of three with feminine names launched in 1937. The name came from the “Gold Star” honor and flag awarded to mothers of soldiers killed in battle during World War I. The ferry, one of the first to be fueled with oil rather than coal, was in service for several decades before being retired and transformed into a floating methadone clinic. The vessel was towed to Coney Island Creek where it was eventually dismantled for scrap in 1975.

Wheeler Patrol Boats

The Wheeler Shipyard on Coney Island Creek built and launched 230 patrol boats used by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. The 83-foot wooden craft served in all theaters of war, and many are still in use today as private fishing boats.

Coney Island Creek’s Yellow Submarine

Quester I is a homemade submarine, built on Coney Island Creek in 1970 by Jerry Bianco, a Brooklyn Navy Yard welder. Bianco hoped to raise the Andrea Doria, an ocean liner that sank in the Atlantic in 1956. After taking the sub on several successful test runs in Gravesend Bay, Bianco was unable to raise the funds to continue his salvage project and the sub was abandoned. It broke loose of its moorings in a storm and now lies as a famous wreck at the mouth of Coney Island Creek.

New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret is a 45-foot marine skimmer that began operation in 1997 as part of a citywide floatables containment program. The vessel appears after heavy rainfall to skim up tons of Coney Island trash washed into the creek’s sewer outfalls during summer storms.

Egret

posted May 22nd, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with boats, Coney Island, Coney Island Creek,...

Astroland's Astrotower  Photos by Charles Denson

What's in a name? It depends. I've been asked my opinion about naming new Coney Island attractions after old ones, specifically the name "Astrotower," which is being co-opted by Luna Park to use on their newest ride. The other names in question are Luna Park, Thunderbolt, Steeplechase, and Feltmans. In theory it shouldn't matter, and if it were anywhere else but Coney Island, few people would care. These names, however, carry a lot of weight because of the dramatic way in which they met their demise.

The original Luna Park and original Feltmans were failed businesses when they ended their long runs. And there were reasons for their failures. They had outlived their glory days and, like other older attractions, failed to change with the times. Luna Park is a generic name that was used all over the world. Coney's original 1903 Luna was actually named "Thompson & Dundy's Luna Park." The founders were proud of their creation. I could never figure out why Zamperla didn't add their own name to the new park — it was as if they were embarrassed by it. Using a new name or adding a twist to the name would have been a step forward instead of a confusing step backward. The media and the public are often confused as to whether the old and new parks are the same.

In 2010 Zamperla USA President Valerio Ferrari told the New York Daily News that he decided on the Luna Park name after "devouring" my book, Coney Island Lost and Found. I didn't think reviving the name was the best idea, but in the end it didn't really matter, as Coney Island seemed to be moving forward. At the time, the Coney Island History Project put together an extensive, celebratory exhibit about Luna Park history and I wrote an op-ed piece in the Daily News about how beautiful and exciting it was to see the spectacular lighting on Luna's new entrance. I was no fan of Luna's corporate mindset but I was curious to see where it would go and we welcomed them.

Valerio was friendly and gave me free rein to document the park's construction, but that soon came to an end. When Luna Park tried to evict two historic businesses on the Boardwalk, I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and frankly expressed my displeasure. Valerio was pissed off and told me that I was "too loud." I had to remind him that I didn't work for Luna Park, and that to me it was personal, not business. These Boardwalk people were my friends and their livelihoods would be ruined. I realized that the city's plan for a single operator was in the works and that this was the beginning of a process to wipe the slate clean. I had little to do with Luna Park after that. Following a public outcry, the two businesses were allowed to stay and were given new leases.

As far as using the Feltmans name, the only thing I can say is that if you're actually making the greatest hot dog in the world, a new and delicious product, then why not put your own family name on it? Be proud of your accomplishment and write a new chapter! Publicity and competition with Nathans can only take one so far. 

There is an inherent problem with naming new attractions after old if you are not truly reviving the original but just copying the name. Renaming is a reductionist ploy that doesn't honor or pay tribute to something historic. Steeplechase, Thunderbolt, and Astrotower were all destroyed in horrible ways that are still traumatic to anyone who knew the real thing.

Fred Trump's sadistic demolition of the Steeplechase Pavilion, which included partygoers hurling bricks through the stained glass windows of the pavilion, is still a horrifying memory to those who loved the place.  It's kind of creepy to see the name tacked onto a ride that has no relation to the original. It makes no sense.

The Thunderbolt Roller Coaster was ordered demolished by Mayor Giuliani, who repeatedly lied about his involvement until forced to admit under oath in court that he personally and illegally gave the orders. It was a real abuse of power, and the demolition still brings up bad memories of the stubborn battle between owner Horace Bullard and the authoritarian mayor. I wrote the last-minute landmark application for the structure and remember the Landmarks Preservation Commission's refusal to even look at it. Whether you loved or hated the old ruin, it should not have been illegally demolished. The reproduced signage on the new coaster is a constant reminder of abuse of power in Coney Island.

The new "Thunderbolt" coaster uses the name and signage, but where's the old hotel below it? The old Thunderbolt was special: historic and eccentric, expressing the quirkiness of the real Coney Island. The new tubular coaster is a great attraction and people love it, but what does it have to do with the original? Nothing! Why not come up with a new name? Putting an old picture of the real T-Bolt in the ticket box is a nice touch, but it has no context and context is everything when it comes to history.

That brings us to the Astrotower. You don't have to be an old-timer to recall what happened to that landmark. The wounds are still fresh, and the city's condemnation and demolition of the tower was a Fourth of July fiasco that will go down in infamy. There is no need to detail the bizarre events that led up to the dramatic emergency dissection of the beloved Astroland icon, but it should be obvious that using its name for another attraction is kind of tone deaf and antagonizes those who feel that it's inappropriate. The general public may not care because, after all, they come to Coney for fun, not to dwell on the past or politics. Many think it's not a big deal. I told Luna that using the Astrotower name was not a good idea and that I was not the only one who felt that way. Carol Hill Albert, whose late husband built the original tower, was not too happy about it either. There are other creative ways to pay homage to attractions from the past.

Sometimes it's better to leave something alone. You can dig up a corpse but it's impossible to bring it back to life. It's called grave robbing and just makes a mess. There's a good reason that you don't see many new cruise ships named "Titanic."

Childs Restaurant, B&B Carousell, Cyclone, and Parachute Jump all represent real history as well as the future, and Zamperla controls three of these landmarks. Isn't that enough? Luna Park has given the public a slick and exciting ride showroom with a beautiful gate. The old Luna was about exotic fantasy architecture and "weird whimsy." The new one is more about business and efficiency.

A couple of months ago I was approached by the new management of Luna Park after Valerio Ferrari left the company, and invited to sit down with them to discuss history. We had a long, cordial meeting. I also spoke with their branding consultant and gave my unbiased opinion about Coney Island's future. It seems as if they're open to new ideas. I'm not big on corporate environment and feel much more comfortable and at home at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, with it's family dynamic and historic atmosphere — to me that's the authentic Coney Island that I grew up with.

Context is an important component to history, and learning about the past does not have to be academic. The Coney Island History Project's stated mission is not about nostalgia, which is longing for a past that never was. We're interested in what endures and why, and how it will work in the future. I hope that the Boardwalk leases will be renewed. I hope that the old businesses that have endured will survive and work together to preserve Coney's heritage while moving into the future. That would be truly historic.

Charles Denson

UPDATE:

I was encouraged by the dialogue generated by my story about nostalgia. I'd like to add a simple example of a successful way to honor Coney Island History. That would be Coney Island USA's Mermaid Parade! This beloved annual rite harkens back to the old Coney Island Mardi Gras, a tradition that defined Coney Island for half a century before coming to an end in 1954.

When CIUSA revived the idea of a parade, a new name and theme were chosen and they created a magical event with roots in a long-gone Coney Island ritual. There was no recycling of a name from the past. The media recognizes the origins of the Mermaid Parade when reporting about it and this eliminates confusion or controversy. That's what's meant by context. Respect the past, but create something new and build on it. Use creativity and you will succeed.

So many old-timers who still remember the Mardi Gras have come to the History Project to share their vivid memories and to express their joy at seeing the spirit of the old event continue as the Mermaid Parade. This is amazing considering that the last Coney Mardi Gras parade last took place more than 60 years ago! 

posted May 2nd, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with history, Nostalgia, Coney Island,...

Smoke Signal

Charles Denson's essay "The Curious Coney Island Artwork of Casola and Millard," excerpted below, appears in the new issue of Smoke Signal, with lettering by David Leutert, published by Desert Island Comics. The Coney Island themed-magazine is available free in their store, at 540 Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn, or via mail order. The Coney Island History Project will be distributing free copies at our exhibit center this summer. 

A century ago, dozens of artisans, banner painters, wood-carvers, and sign painters competed for business in Coney Island. Unfortunately, few of their creations have survived except in private collections and museums.

The works of two of Coney Island's mysterious and eccentric artists are now on display at the Coney Island History Project. Dan Casola and Larry Millard are not names known to the general public, but their beautifully bizarre artwork has delighted and frightened Coney Island visitors for decades.

DAN CASOLA

Dan Casola's sideshow banners command astronomical prices from collectors if you can find one. Less known are Casola's sculptural works and painted signs. Casola created the iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops from Denos Wonder Wheel Park, a work of art that recently toured the country as part of a traveling Coney Island art exhibit that ended at the Brooklyn Museum. For three decades the horned monster, with its rotating glowing eye, stood guard over Coney Island's Bowery.

Italian immigrant Dan Casola was a self-taught artist with a twisted sense of humor. His stylized billboards, signage, wax figures, fire-breathing dragons, and animated mechanical figures were fixtures across Coney Island. He worked out of storefront studios on Surf Avenue and later from his home on Stillwell Avenue. His largest canvas was the Spook-A-Rama dark ride. During the 1950s, at the height of the monster movie craze, he covered the ride's block-long facade with dozens of humorous hand-painted signs and animated figures including the iconic Cyclops.

Casola had an eye for the ladies and ran several burlesque "Girlie Shows" on the Bowery during the 1940s. His daughter, Patricia, recalls his artwork being heavy on the "boobs and butts." She also remembers growing up in a house full of "glass eyeballs, plaster heads, and boxes of hair" that he used for his animated creations. Her mother's lingerie would disappear and later turn up on spook house figures. "He had this very interesting side to him," she says. Indeed.

LARRY MILLARD

The mural-covered interior of the Playland Arcade on Surf Avenue delighted patrons for many decades, yet few knew the story behind the whimsical artwork covering every inch of the establishment. Playland closed in 1983, and the building stood empty until it was demolished in 2013. Fifteen years ago the Coney Island History Project began an ambitious project to document and preserve the rapidly deteriorating cartoon murals and to tell the story of the artist who created them. It became an uphill battle against vandals, thieves, and Hurricane Sandy, but finally the story can be told.

In the winter of 1957 a mysterious artist named Larry Millard showed up at the Playland Arcade looking for work. The 45-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 several Skeeball signs. His lettering was stylish and perfect, and he soon expanded his work to include cartoon characters and humorous narratives. Millard worked tirelessly through the summer of 1958, painting larger and more colorful murals on every inch of wall space.

Millard was a heavy drinker who followed a daily routine. He arrived early in the morning unshaven and smelling of alcohol, suffering from the shakes. After he purchased a bottle of Thunderbird wine at the liquor store next to Mama Kirsch's restaurant, his hands would become steady enough to draw.

Stanley Fox, whose brother Alex owned the arcade, 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 later work consisted of complex cartoons 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. After finishing up at Playland, he began painting outdoor signs around Coney Island and more murals at Stauch’s Baths and the B&B Carousel.

Millard disappeared from Coney Island in 1960 and was never seen again. He left his mark on Coney Island, works that served as petroglyphs: deceivingly simple yet undecipherable and opaque. Beneath the inherent humor in his pieces, it’s possible that most of his sketches were actually self-portraits telling his life story: the tale of a tortured soul, a gambler who had bad luck with women. --Charles Denson

posted Apr 9th, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Dan Casola, Larry Millard, Coney Island,...

If you have fond memories of the batting cages on Stillwell Avenue, the International Speedway Go-Karts, the Jumbo Jet Roller Coaster, the Dragon's Cave on the Bowery, or the 1970s revived Steeplechase Park located on the site of the original, then you've had a taste of Norman Kaufman's Coney Island vision. He was known for his amusements, but his epic battle with Fred Trump was legendary.

Norman Kaufman, who passed away last November, was born in Coney Island and remained a force there for eighty years. His family operated the famous Mayflower photo studio and souvenir stand on Surf Avenue during the 1930s. "I began working in a darkroom at the age of eleven," Norman said, "developing photos for twenty cents an hour before automatic picture machines were invented." The photo studio's main prop was an old wooden rowboat named the "Mayflower" that enabled generations of immigrants to have their picture taken arriving in America as "Pilgrims."

During the 1940s, the Kaufman family operated the infamous World War II "atrocity show" in the Lido Hotel on Surf Avenue in partnership with Messmore and Damon, who manufactured the show's animated figures. When the attraction closed in the 1960s, Norman reclaimed many of the show's figures and used them in the family's bizarre spook house, the Dragon's Cave.

Norman and his brother, Sporty, had transformed their "Fun in the Dark" dark ride into a Bowery landmark whose entrance was topped with an animated smoke-belching dragon that swiveled above the crowds waiting in line. Norman had a hand in many Coney Island businesses. He managed the Log Flume ride in Astroland Park and later opened a slot-car raceway in a Surf Avenue storefront.

The fire-breathing Dragon at the Dragon's Cave. © Charles Denson, 1971

Norman Kaufman's frustrating battle with developer Fred Trump during his attempt to resurrect Steeplechase Park was a major chapter in my book, Coney Island Lost and Found and is worth repeating. In 1967, just after Trump's bulldozers finished leveling the historic park, Norman leased half of the vacant site for $20,000 a year to build a parking lot. Trump didn't realize, however, that Norman was a dreamer with ambitious plans. Norman began adding rides and concessions to his parking lot until he had pieced together an odd little amusement park that he named "Steeplechase."

"I was a little stupid or naive," he told me in 1999, "I thought that I could build up the new Steeplechase into a powerhouse that the city couldn't take away. I was thinking that I could stop whatever plans the city had for the Steeplechase site. Rather than have them come up with something, I figured I could build this amusement park into something that the city would be proud of and leave intact."

From the New York Post, June 26,1975

Norman and his partner, Irving Vichinsky, had trouble with landlord Fred Trump right from the start. The Steeplechase site was below grade and had to be leveled for parking. Trump's lease required Norman to spread ash on the parking lot surface, and Norman found a way to get the ash for free. Dewey High School was under construction on a site near the Coney Island transit yards that had once been used as a dumping ground for ash from steam locomotives. The builders needed a place to dispose of the excavated material, and Norman provided one for free: Steeplechase Park.

"Trump thought that we made a fortune by letting them dump the ash on his property," Norman told me. "He counted the trucks coming in and thought we were putting something over on him. But I never made a dime from it." Trump accused Norman of taking advantage of him, threatened to terminate the Steeplechase lease, and placed a sign over the park's entrance that read: "closed by order of the landlord."

Trump then came to the site with a pail and a shovel and began taking samples of the ash. "He put it in his car," Norman recalled, "and said to me, 'I'm gonna have this tested, Kaufman. You don't have ash here.' It was a pressure play. At times Trump would park his Cadillac in front of my entrance, so I said, 'You're blocking me off, Trump.' He'd say, 'I know what's going on here, Kaufman. You got no lease. You have to get out now. He was shoveling and yelling, 'You got no lease.' Whether you were big or small, that's the way he did business. It was always at your own level."

The harassment escalated when Norman began to install rides in the parking lot. "Trump didn't like the idea that I was bringing in rides rather than parking. He was getting a percentage and thought we'd make more money with parking than by taking up space with amusement equipment." Norman came in one morning to find his big parking sign knocked down, so he put it back up. The next day, he discovered a mound of debris blocking the entrance so he called a builder friend to clear it away. A few days later, a heavy chain appeared across the entrance, but Norman had it cut down. "Trump came back," Norman told me, "and said, 'Hey Kaufman, you got my chain. Give me back my chain.' He wanted us out."

Norman took out a restraining order against Trump and also went to the Sixtieth Precinct to file an enforcement complaint against the developer. Trump couldn't understand why Norman wasn't intimidated by him and seemed to enjoy the confrontations. "He couldn't figure out how I operated," Norman said. "He thought I was connected, but I wasn't connected to anybody. Trump wanted to put the pressure on us to get an increase in rent. He was a tough guy but we figured out a way to get to him. He had a tremendous memory and would remember everything that ever took place from the time you started with him. He'd rattle it right through and he would just keep going and never stop talking. You never had a chance to get a word in. What Irving and I did was distract him and then I could tell him my thoughts. As one of us distracted him, the other would jab away with our point. It worked."

By drawing people down the Bowery past Sixteenth Street, just as the original Steeplechase Park had done, the park kept the west end of Coney's amusement area alive. Many people dismissed Norman's park because they compared it with the original Steeplechase Park. The unfair comparisons bothered Norman: "We had fourteen kiddie rides and twenty-six majors and spectaculars. A major is a standard ride. A spectacular is something that's unusual. There were quite a number of spectaculars, like the Jumbo Jet, the Italian Skooter rides, and a German swing ride. We were the first ones to have this new equipment, and it was better than average. These were newer rides that Coney Island didn't have for many, many years."

The midway at Kaufman's Steeplechase, circa 1970. © Charles Denson

By 1968, the park was attracting large crowds. Trump was happy because he was getting a percentage, so he extended Kaufman's lease. Then, much to Norman's surprise, Trump offered him a job. "He liked that I got ahead and won," Norman said. "Trump don't like anybody winning but him. But I knew he was just being cute with his offer."

After failing to obtain a zoning change to build high-rise housing, Trump sold the Steeplechase site to the city in 1969 for $4 million, clearing a $1.5 million profit. The city was legally required to continue Norman's lease for $20,000 a year, the same deal he had with Trump

In 1972 Norman learned that the Steeplechase horse race, the namesake ride that the Tilyous had sold to Pirate's World Park in Dana, Florida, was up for sale. Norman bought the ride and sent twelve workers to Florida to number the tracks, horses, and various other pieces, and then trucked them back to Coney Island for a future reassembly on the original site. He stored the ride in shipping containers while he made plans to rebuild it. The horses made the papers in 1975 when they were stolen but later found in Pennsylvania and returned. The ride was never reassembled, but one of the original Steeplechase horses is now on display at the Coney Island History Project, courtesy of Norman Kaufman.

The pressure to evict Norman's amusement park intensified in 1974 when the city tried to raise his yearly rent from $20,000 to $158,446. It was during this dark period that Fred Trump began calling to offer his support. "He called me up and said, 'Listen, Kaufman, it's good to be in the papers. Don't worry about it. It's good that they know ya.'"

Norman finally realized that his plans were hopeless and closed his Steeplechase Park in 1981, when the city paid him $750,000 to leave the site. In 1983, Steeplechase was developed into public open space. A year later, the site became a city park, the first "special events" park in the city's history. The Brooklyn Cyclones ball park (now MCU Park) was later built on the site. In 2009, the city rezoned the entire MCU Park parking lot and most of the surrounding area for high-rise housing, fulfilling Fred Trump's dream of reducing Coney Island's amusement zone.

Norman's next amusement project, operated with his son, Kenny, was located on Stillwell Avenue and the Bowery after Stauch's Baths, the Bobsled, and the Tornado Roller Coaster were demolished. The Jumbo Jet Coaster, batting cages, and Go-Karts became some of Coney Island's most popular attractions in an age when the amusement area was shrinking. His last attraction was a Mini Golf Course that he constructed in 2002 a few years before the city began rezoning the area, forcing the eventual closure of all his attractions.

Norman Kaufman will be sorely missed. He was a big fan of the Coney Island History Project and lent us many artifacts for our exhibit center. As Coney Island loses its identity and slides into a corporate entity, it's important to remember independent impresarios like Norman Kaufman, "the Buddha of the Midway," a generous man with imagination who was not afraid to do battle with the powers that be.

– Charles Denson

Norman Kaufman and his son Kenny in front of their Jumbo Jet Roller Coaster, 1999. Photo © Charles Denson

posted Jan 6th, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with