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.

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.

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.

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 Jun 30th, 2014 in By Charles Denson and tagged with 1215 Surf Avenue, cafeteria, Charles Denson,...

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
posted Jun 4th, 2014 in News and tagged with Astroland, Astroland Rocket, Carol Hill Albert,...
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
posted May 19th, 2014 in Events and tagged with Charles Denson, Coney Island, Coney Island History Project,...
The corner with Rita's Italian Ices in 2014

Corner of West 15th St and Surf Avenue with Rita's Italian Ices, 2014

Coney Island fell victim to devastating urban renewal projects in the 1950s and 1960s. More than a thousand viable apartment buildings, homes, and businesses were condemned and demolished by the city during this terrible period. A few buildings were fortunate to escape the urban renewal onslaught. Some can be found in the West End, and a few are located in the amusement zone.

Most of the surviving structures in the amusement area are hidden behind altered facades, having been repurposed dozens of times during the last century. The fascinating histories of these structures are not known to the public or even to the buildings’ owners. I’ve created this survey of these buildings to show how the structures were transformed through the decades. This will be the first in a series.

The Capitol Hotel Coney Island

The Capitol Hotel and Korbel Bakery, West 15th Street and Surf Avenue circa 1899

We begin with two buildings located at Surf Avenue on West 15th Street. The three-story frame building on the corner, erected in the 1890s, was once the Capitol Hotel. Hand-lettered signs in the oldest photo point to the hotel’s horse stables on West 15th Street and list the hotel restaurant’s specialties: “Clams, Oysters, Chops and Roast Game.” Next to the signs is an advertisement for Steeplechase Park. The smaller two-story building to the right is Korbel’s Bakery. The bakery building was later raised and a third story added.

Capitol Building

The Capitol and bakery buildings in 1921

In the 1920s photo, the Capitol has changed its name to Villa Penza, and the bakery has become the Parkway Bakery and Restaurant. Over the years the Capitol building has been occupied by a variety of tenants including the Draft Board and the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. During the last two decades, the corner was home to an old-style Coney Island “social club” that recently relocated up the block to make way for Rita’s Italian Ices, a new business that opened in April 2014. Both buildings have undergone enormous changes during the last century, losing their covered wooden porches, shutters, and clapboard and shingle exteriors. Luckily, the buildings are viable and can still be identified by their existing rooftop cornices.

Capitol Hotel

The Capitol Hotel and Korbel Bakery circa 1899 (left). The Capitol building in 2003 (right)

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 May 2nd, 2014 in By Charles Denson and tagged with adaptive reuse, architecture, Capitol Hotel,...
The Face of Steeplechase

You're invited to preview the Coney Island History Project's exhibition center season on Coney Island's Opening Day. 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the Coney Island History Project! Ten years ago our oral history project began with a portable recording booth and proved to be so popular that we later expanded to a permanent location. Stop by our exhibit center to view historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past and preview selections from upcoming exhibits.

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, April 13th, and again on Easter Sunday, April 20th, from 1:00PM till 6:00PM. Our regular exhibition season is from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 12 noon. Admission is free of charge.

Palm Sunday is the official season opener for Coney Island's rides and attractions. The Opening Day celebration starts at 11AM with the annual tradition of the Blessing of the Rides at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park by Pastor Debbe Santiago of Coney Island's Salt and Sea Mission, and is followed by the Egg Cream Christening of the Cyclone's front car at 12 noon. Our special guest at the Coney Island History Project will be the legendary Cyclops from Deno's Spook-A-Rama dark ride. Visitors are invited to take a FREE souvenir photo with the Cyclops or an original Steeplechase horse from the ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Hope to see you at the festivities!

Under the Wonder Wheel on West 12th Street


Our first special exhibit of the season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, will be "The Face of Steeplechase: The Evolution of an Icon," in honor of the 50th anniversary of the closing of Steeplechase Park (1897-1964) and the 100th anniversary of the death of Steeplechase creator George C. Tilyou (1862-1914).

Tilyou's "Funny Face" dates back to the early days of Steeplechase, where the famous visage appeared on signs, murals and ride tickets. Today in Coney Island, you can see variations of the Funny Face - on signs, beer labels, t-shirts, etc. "Tillie" is the New Jersey variation of Coney Island's Funny Face and was painted in the '50s at Asbury Park in homage to the Coney original! Coney Island West End 1974


By popular demand, one of the slide shows we'll have in our exhibit center this season will feature never-before-seen images of the West End from Charles Denson's archive and photos that he took in the 1970s. "The West End of Coney Island is a vibrant and resilient community that's survived many challenges over the last few decades," said Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. "I grew up there and documented the wave of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed our community and changed the lives of its residents. This slide show tells the story of the area going back to 1600s."

Titled "The History of Coney Island's West End and the Presence and Contributions of African Americans in Coney Island from the 1600s to the Present," the photos were shown for the first time in February at a Black History Month celebration and panel co-hosted by Mathylde Frontus of Urban Neighborhood Services and sponsored by U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, City Councilman Mark Treyger, State Senator Diane Savino, State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, Emblem Health and the Alliance for Coney Island.

Mangles Kiddie Whip Car Coney Island History Project


An exhibit on the work of Coney Island-based ride inventor and amusement manufacturer William F Mangels (1867-1958) will open in August. Mangels invented rides such as the Tickler and the Whip and built the mechanisms for countless roller coasters and carousels, including the B&B Carousell, which was brought back to Coney Island last year. Among the classic rides in Deno's Kiddie Park are a Mangels Pony Cart and Fire Engine. Mangels' former shop building on West Eighth Street is now an office of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Coney Island History Project at Archives Field Day

Archivists came together at the 92nd St Y for the first-ever Archives Field Day on March 22nd. The event was sponsored by the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York. Visitors were invited to solve a series of questions using primary sources from the National Archives, NY-Historical Society, Girl Scouts USA, Coney Island History Project and other organizations. This year's theme was Sports and Leisure.

Each puzzle solved earned visitors a stamp in their Archives Field Day Passport and a chance to win prizes, including ride passes for Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. For more photos, visit our flickr set. In 2008, the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York honored the Coney Island History Project with the ARTS Award for Innovative Use of Archives.