Remembering Milton Berger, Originator of Coney Island's Palm Sunday Opener

Milton Berger Place

Sign for Milton Berger Place, on Surf Avenue and West 10th Street, in front of the Cyclone roller coaster. Photo: Coney Island History Project

Palm Sunday has been Coney Island’s official opening day for as far back as many of us can remember:  The egg cream christening of the Cyclone’s first car has been a Palm Sunday tradition since it was originated by Carol Hill Albert when the coaster was operated by Astroland Park’s Albert family. The Blessing of the Rides at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park was created in 1985 by Debbe Santiago, the late pastor of Coney Island’s Salt and Sea Mission, with park founder Denos D. Vourderis. How and when did Palm Sunday first become Coney Island’s official opening day?  

The Palm Sunday opener was conceived in 1956 by Milton Berger as a publicity campaign for his newest client, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. Berger’s plan was to establish “an early-season and official opening consciousness in the public’s mind,” according to a contemporaneous article in the Billboard, which then covered the amusement business. 

“With its myriad independent operators, the Island always had opened in fits and starts, never being in full swing till after Decoration Day. The 1956 season saw the public being informed thru pictures and stories that Coney Island was officially opening Palm Sunday. This plan necessitated a big cleanup campaign which came in for its share of publicity. Bill Olsen, ride tester for the city, became the center of newspaper and magazine articles as he made his pre-season rounds. Since then, the Transit Authority has seen fit to agree to modernize its Stillwell Avenue subway station, in keeping with the annual facelifting.”

This information came to light last year, when we were researching Mr. Berger’s place in Coney Island history after the street sign for “Milton Berger Place” at Surf Avenue and West 10th Street went missing. We reported the lost sign to the city’s Department of Transportation and spread the news via a blog post and social media. Though the name of Milton Berger is little known today, he was Coney Island's Broadway-style press agent for more than 50 years, working for Steeplechase Park, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce and finally Astroland Park.

According to the Archives of the Mayor’s Press Office in 1997, when Berger's street was co-named: “His efforts to keep the Coney Island area economically viable led to a variety of promotions and events, including producing fireworks displays, promoting marathon roller-coaster rides, offering parties for handicapped youngsters and helping to secure the landmark designation of the Cyclone Roller Coaster.” 

When he died at age 81, an obituary in the NY Times  was titled “Flamboyant Soul of Coney Island” and vividly describes his distinctive presence, methods of estimating crowd size, and his credo: "The great days of Coney Island are in the future. The island is constantly renewing itself."  

We dedicate this 62nd annual Palm Sunday opener to his memory. And we welcome back “Milton Berger Place.” The street sign was replaced in January, thanks to the DOT and the efforts of Brooklyn Paper reporter Julianne McShane and Coney Island Councilman Mark Treyger.

Among the honorary street signs you can see on the Coney Island History Project Walking Tour are Dewey Albert Place, also at Surf Avenue and West 10th, named for the founder of Astroland and in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Cyclone; Denos D. Vourderis Place at West 12th St, named for the founder of Denos Wonder Wheel Park; Ruby Jacobs Walk on the Boardwalk, named for the founder of Ruby’s Bar & Grill; and Gargiulo’s Way on West 15th Street, named to mark the 100th anniversary of Gargiulo’s Restaurant. --Tricia Vita

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