The mysterious Childs Restaurant Building, with its nautical-themed terra cotta decorations, has fascinated Coney Island visitors for years. Charles Denson's film illustrates the structure's history and future. The Boardwalk landmark will reopen in summer 2016 as the Coney Island Amphitheater.
The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops has proven to be the most popular piece in the Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland show at the Brooklyn Museum. Endless photographs and comments about "Cy" have been posted online by art-lovers and Coney-lovers who've visited the show. When we loaned the Cyclops we hoped that people would realize that it was part of an operating amusement at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. It's the only object in the Coney Island show that is actually from a currently operating amusement, although the signage at the show fails to mention that fact. Spook-A-Rama was completely rebuilt and restored after being seriously damaged by Hurricane Sandy and opens for the season on March 20.
The Cyclops is an extremely fragile work of art that had to be carefully and skillfully packed for the four-city tour of the Coney Island show. The best art packers did an excellent job. It took nearly an entire day for the Artex craftsmen to build the massive crate for its road trip. After the Brooklyn Museum show closes on March 13th, the Cyclops travels to San Antonio, Texas where the tour ends in September. We look forward to our Cyclops centerpiece returning to the Coney Island History Project and Wonder Wheel Park in 2017!
The Cyclops in front of Charles Denson's 1970s Spook-A-Rama photograph at the Brooklyn Museum.
Pastor Debbe Santiago of the Salt and Sea Mission passed away on February 4th and will be missed by all who knew her. "Debbe Santiago was a saint who helped the helpless, fed the hungry, protected at-risk children, and ministered to the downtrodden of Coney Island," said Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. "A while back we discussed making a film about the Salt and Sea Mission and I began filming in 2011. Hurricane Sandy, the Mission's relocation, and Pastor Debbe's illness put the project on hold. These are some clips from a sermon at the mission."
Services will be held on February 11th from 12:00pm- 5:00pm, followed by a funeral at 5:00pm at the Salt and Sea Mission at 2417 Stillwell Avenue.. There will be a memorial service at MCU Park at 6:00pm.
On the eve of the third anniversary of Hurricane Sandy: "10/29: Sandy and Gorecki's Symphony of Sorrows, No. 3," a film by Charles Denson shot in Sea Gate during and after the storm. Some of this footage appeared in his Sandy documentary, "The Storm."
The Coney Island History Project's director rode out out Sandy in Sea Gate, where his apartment and car were destroyed by the storm surge. "I thought, 'nobody's filming this. I've got to record this,'" Denson said in an interview in the Brooklyn Paper in 2013/. "I realized, it's very different when you actually experience something and put your life on the line to record something," Denson said.
Coney Island City Councilman and former history teacher Mark Treyger spoke fervently about the history of America's First Playground at the 5th Annual History Day at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and State Senator Diane Savino also spoke about Coney Island's history and its future at the opening ceremony.
Dancers from Brooklyn Swings danced the Charleston in honor of the Wonder Wheel, which is celebrating its 95th anniversary this season, and the Bop, in tribute to the 1955 spook-A-Rama dark ride.
We were honored to have Commendatore Aldo Mancusi, founder of the Enrico Caruso Museum, and his wife Lisa join us for History Day. Visitors who hand-cranked a tune on this Hofbauer street organ from the museum received a souvenir certificate commemorating the 95th anniversary of the Wonder Wheel.
You're invited to preview the Coney Island History Project's exhibition center season on Coney's Opening Day. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past and preview selections from upcoming exhibits. Among the new additions for Opening Day is "Skully," a Giant Skull which came from the Coney Island Hysterical Society's Spookhouse, formerly the Dragon's Cave dark ride, and later found a home at Spook-A-Rama, thanks to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Vourderis family. Like the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which was previously on display at the History Project, the Skull's eye sockets light up, and will soon move again with a little electrical work.
Dark ride veteran 'Skully' poses for his first souvenir photo at our exhibit center with Steve Vourderis, Denos Vourderis and Charles Denson. Take a selfie with him on Opening Day!
Located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, the Coney Island History Project will be open on Palm Sunday, March 29th, and again on Easter Sunday, April 5th, from 1:00PM till 6:00PM. Our regular exhibition season is from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. New hours will be from 1:00PM till 7:00PM. Admission is free of charge.
Our first special exhibit of the season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, will be "Coney Island Stereoviews: Seeing Double at the Seashore, 1860-1920." Stereoview photography of Coney Island began in the 1860s, providing the earliest documentation of the resort. This exhibit features original stereoview photo cards, antique stereo viewers, and enlargements of some of the oldest photographic images of Coney Island.
Join our unique walking tours based on History Project director Charles Denson's award-winning book Coney Island: Lost and Found, the interviews from CIHP's Oral History Archive, and other primary sources. Tours and group visits to the exhibit center are given year-round. Visit our online reservation site to see the walking tour schedule and purchase advance tickets online or book a group tour.
Palm Sunday is the official season opener for Coney Island's rides and attractions. The Opening Day celebration starts at 10:30AM on the Boardwalk with the annual tradition of the Blessing of the Rides at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park by Pastor Debbie Santiago of Coney Island's Salt and Sea Mission. Built in 1920 by the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company, Deno's Wonder Wheel is celebrating its 95th season with a free ride on Opening Day for the first 95 riders. At the 1927 Cyclone, where the first 100 people on line ride for free, the annual Egg Cream Christening of the roller coaster's front car is at 12 noon. The Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone are official New York City Landmarks.
At the Coney Island History Project, visitors are invited to take a FREE souvenir photo with "Skully" or our original Steeplechase horse from the ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Hope to see you at this year's festivities!
Official Trailer: Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008
On Saturday, February 28th, Charles Denson will present a slide talk on the Coney Island History Project's mission and origins as part of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's Coney Island Symposium: An Intersection of Art and Identity. The exhibit Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, which opened on January 31st at the Wadsworth, features more than 140 paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, posters, architectural artifacts, carousel animals, ephemera and film clips. The symposium begins with a keynote address by Exhibition Curator and Chief Curator Robin Jaffee Frank, followed by a series of panel discussions and special presentations.
Charles Denson has been a consultant and a member of the exhibit's project team for the past six years and has contributed numerous ephemera and prints from his personal archive, as well as writing a chapter for the exhibit's catalog. He also recorded descriptions of artwork for the show's audio tour. Selections from the Coney Island History Project's vast archive of oral history recordings were used in the "Step Right Up!" interactive listening station that accompanies the show.
"Robin Jaffee Frank first contacted me in 2009, during the show's earliest planning stage," Denson said. "At our first group meeting at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2010, Robin revealed her ambitious plan for a show that explored Coney Island in a way that had never been attempted before. Her Coney Island theme included artifacts, prints, film, sheet music, and the best examples of modern art as well as the classical paintings that depict the earliest years of Coney Island, a subject that I had always found fascinating. I am extremely honored to be a part of this exhibition."
Charles Denson and Robin Jaffee Frank, 2012
Among the artifacts in the Wadsworth exhibit is the 1955 Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which was a popular attraction at the Coney Island History Project's exhibit center for the past two years. According to a review of the Wadsworth show in the Hartford Courant, "The five-foot-tall wall-mounted sculpture, loaned to the exhibit by the family who runs Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, is installed at the entrance to the exhibit galleries, flanked by two creepy paintings by Arnold Mesches, in which Cy presides over sinister-looking amusement parks."
The Coney Island exhibit is on view in Hartford through May 31, 2015 before traveling to the San Diego Museum of Art, July 11, 2015 - October 13, 2015; Brooklyn Museum, November 20, 2015 - March 13, 2016; and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, May 11, 2016 - September 11, 2016.
Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Stacy Vourderis visiting the park's Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which is part of the Coney Island exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT
After closing his Mermaid Avenue market in 2009, Jimmy Prince, now 82, remains active and was profiled in New York Magazine’s “My Day.” In the summer, he volunteers at the Coney Island History Project exhibit center, where his longtime customers are delighted to see him again.
“Prince of Mermaid Avenue,” a film about Jimmy Prince by History Project Executive Director Charles Denson, is now available for viewing on his Coneyologist channel on YouTube. The film won Best Documentary at the 2009 Coney Island Film Festival. This 60-minute feature is based on more than 60 hours of raw footage shot over a three-year period.
Jimmy Prince was the last link to what Mermaid Avenue meant to Coney Island in the “good old days.” The Avenue was once a bustling street of family-run mom-and-pop stores. Each block had bakeries, luncheonettes, five-and-dimes, clothing and shoe stores, furniture stores, delis, and butchers. It was a tight-knit community.
The city’s urban renewal plan of the 1960s called for the demolition of the entire West End, including Mermaid Avenue, and few businesses survived the development onslaught. Jimmy Prince transformed his Major Meat Market into the soul of an earlier era, a cordial oasis of tradition and hope, a throwback to what Coney Island was and what many dreamed it could be again one day. Prince worked at Major’s for sixty years, seven days a week, twelve hours a day, and formed a unique relationship with a community that hungered for respect.
When he finally faced retirement,the decsion to close the store dragged on for over a year. He dreaded making a formal announcement about the store’s closing, but his friends could sense it was coming. His loyal customers expressed their love for him and their fear for a future without him. This film documents Jimmy’s decision to retire and the painful process of leaving the Coney Island community that he loved and supported for so many years.
Jimmy Prince poses for photo with visitors from Spain on a recent Coney Island History Project Walking Tour. The Prince of Mermaid Avenue, who had just come from a walk to and from Sea Gate and a bite to eat at Tom's, stopped to regale the group with Coney Island stories
"Coney Island Creek: An Uncertain Future," a film by Charles Denson, was recently screened at Coney Island Library and is now up on Denson's Coneyologist channel on YouTube. Featuring interviews with stakeholders including local residents, ecologists, anglers, birders, divers, park volunteers, teachers, and the Brooklyn Parks Commissioner. The 18 minute video is part of a longer documentary film project currently underway.
"I grew up near Coney Island Creek and began photographing it in the 60's when the waterway was at its lowest point, polluted and neglected, but I always knew there was something special about the creek and that it would survive," Denson says in the film's introduction. Today, the future of Coney Island Creek is uncertain. Will it be an asset or a liability? The city is currently funding a feasibility study to decide whether to dam up the creek by building a tidal barrier with culverts, a move that would most likely turn the waterway into a toxic cesspool and do little to prevent flooding. Will Coney Island Creek become a restored wetland that prevents flooding or will it become a hazard to the community? Informed community input is vital.
Remember the dunes that were created by the US Army Corps of Engineers on West 15th Street after Sandy? "Coney Island Dune: Leaving Sandy Behind" by Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson is a lyrical look at the temporary sand dunes. The sand was cleaned and then returned to the beach by the Parks Department after having been collected from the streets where it had been swept by the storm. You can see the film on Denson's Coneyologist channel on YouTube. Also on view are "Requiem for the Astrotower," "Woody Guthrie's 100th Birthday, Celebrated at Coney Island" and "Secrets of the Universe," a short that premiered at the 2010 Coney Island Film Festival.