Coney Island Visions of an American Dreamland

We're thrilled that selections from the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive have been touring America since 2017 with NEH on the Road's Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland exhibit! The exhibition is now at Louisiana's Old State Capitol Museum in Baton Rouge thru October 20. The next stops are Hoyt Art Center in Pennsylvania and Manitowoc Public Library in Wisconsin before the tour concludes in March 2022 after having traveled to 18 communities in 14 states.

The NEH-funded exhibit, which first opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art and traveled to the Brooklyn Museum and San Diego Museum of Art, was adapted from its original format to make it available to smaller venues in communities large and small across the country. The traveling exhibition from NEH on the Road explores America's playground as a place and as an idea, examining its persistent presence in the American imagination.

Among the Coney Island History Project interviews featured in the exhibit are Beth Allen, who was an incubator baby in Dr. Martin Couney's sideshow in Luna Park; Joseph Albanese, who recalls a time when police didn't allow bathing suits on the boardwalk even though bathing suits were very modest; and Ron Rossi and Ronald Ruiz, who talk about their experiences riding the Parachute Jump, the Cyclone and Steeplechase Horse Race at Steeplechase Park. Clips from these interviews and several others are running on a loop at one of the listening stations in the exhibition.

NEH on the Road is a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities designed to create wider national access to the ideas, themes, and stories explored in major grant-funded NEH exhibitions. The program is funded by the NEH and run by Mid-America Arts Alliance, a non-profit regional arts organization located in Kansas City. 

posted Sep 26th, 2021 in Events and tagged with NEH On The Road, NEH, Coney Island,...

Steeplechase Park

Today in history, Steeplechase Park (1897-1964) closed forever.  Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson described the closing ceremony in the chapter titled "The Death of Steeplechase Park" of his book Coney Island: Lost and Found:

"Steeplechase Park closed at the end of the season on Septmeber 20, 1964. Marie Tilyou, Bill Nicholson, and Jimmy Onorato were together  at the traditional closing as the park's bells were slowly tolled once for every year of operation. The sound system played 'There's No Business Like Show Business' and then 'Auld Lang Syne.' Thousands of lights were switched off slowly, row after row, on each toll of the bell. As it turned out, the park went dark for the last time. Bill Nicholson left the closing ceremony with Tilyou and her friends and walked to the Clam Bar for drinks."

Marie Tilyou was the daughter of Steeplechase Park founder George C. Tilyou. Bill Nicholson was the executive secretary of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce and  Jimmy Onorato was the park's manager, and for a time, its president. 

Photo courtesy of Dan Pisark. 

posted Sep 20th, 2021 in History and tagged with photo of the day, Steeplechase Park, Coney Island,...

Visitors from Chile

This group of very enthusiastic visitors from Chile visited the Coney Island History Project exhibition center on Labor Day, our last day of the 2021 season. We typically ask people "where are you visiting from," and this year almost everyone said "here" or named a Brooklyn neighborhood or NYC borough. We love our fellow New Yorkers, but unlike past seasons, we met very few tourists from out-of-state and only a handful from other countries due to travel restrictions. It was exciting to welcome a group all the way from Chile on our last day!

Coney Island History Project

We're excited to share the news that the Alliance for Coney Island’s 2021 mural project is completed and our stretch of West 12th Street has been brightened and beautified. The Coney Island History Project's gates are among the 15 locations of the NYC Department of Small Business Services' funded project. 

Artist Danielle Mastrion’s amazing mural for the History Project features the legendary Elephant Hotel, which was on West 12th Street from 1885-1896, and the Wonder Wheel’s Thrills sign. Next door, artist Erin Mathewson emblazoned the gates of the Miss Coney Island, Skin the Wire and Feed the Clown attractions with murals of games and rides, including Deno’s Carousel and Phoenix Roller Coaster.

Visit allianceforconeyisland.org/murals to see all of the project's murals from 2020 and 2021 in Coney Island’s amusement district and on Mermaid Avenue. 

Photo Credit: Norman Blake

Murals West 12th Street Coney Island

posted Aug 26th, 2021 in News and tagged with mural, Murals, art,...

“Sign Painters and Artists,” the new episode of Coney Island Stories, has dropped! Listen and subscribe via Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Episode 10 shares the stories of Coney Island sign painters as well as artists and designers who’ve been inspired by Coney’s celebrated signage, all taken from the History Project’s Oral History Archive.

The Coney Island style of hand-painted signs was perfected more than a century ago by Wildman and Sons, a shop in the heart of the amusement manufacturing district just off Surf Avenue. Amusement signs were meant to stand out and be instantly readable from a distance on the chaotic streets of Coney Island. Some lettering was illustrative and comical, flowing along slanted or arching baselines that created motion. The wording could be expressionistic, but still adhered to the rule of being readable. And then there are the pictorial signs, the traditional Coney classics, like iconic images of hot buttered corn or mustard-covered hot dogs, signs that don't need text or explanation.

The oral histories in the podcast are with Coney Island sign painter Sam Moses; advertising professional and former sign painter John Rea; artist and School of Visual Arts instructor Stephen Gaffney; and watercolor artist Frederick Brosen. The interviews were conducted by Charles Denson, Samira Tazari, and Tricia Vita between 2010 and 2019. This episode was produced by Charles Denson, Ali Lemer and Tricia Vita. 

Listen to previous episodes about Coney Island's legendary roller coasters, beach, bathhouses, and restaurants and other businesses on Mermaid Avenue and in the amusement area via your fave podcast app or the podcast page on the Coney Island History Project's website.

Photo credits: Top right, Watercolor painting by Frederick Brosen, “Surf Avenue,” 2007.  Bottom right, Photo of Sam Moses painting at Deno's Wonder Wheel by Charles Denson, 2017. Bottom left, Photo of Paul’s Daughter by Stephen Gaffney, 2016.

posted Aug 25th, 2021 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, Coney Island Stories, podcast,...

Coney Island History Project West 12th Street

Visit the Coney Island History Project and our next door neighbors Deno's Wonder Wheel, the Phoenix roller coaster, Miss Coney Island and Skin the Wire. Our free exhibition center is open weekends and holidays thru Labor Day, 1-7PM. Plus we have a free outdoor exhibition of banners celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Wonder Wheel on view thru October inside Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park.

Photo Credit: Jim McDonnell

posted Aug 14th, 2021 and tagged with

Under the Boardwalk

#ThrowbackThursday: Umbrellas for rent and soda for sale under the Boardwalk at West 23rd Street and the Boardwalk. 1950s photo from the Coney Island History Project Collection.

Listen to the Beach Days episode of our Coney Island Stories podcast!

Jimmy McCullough

On National Carousel Day, we pay tribute to Jimmy McCullough (1929-2013), who learned the carousel business from his father and began his career working on Coney Island's Steeplechase and Stubbman carousels. Listen online to his oral history recorded by the Coney Island History Project in 2009.

Working in Coney Island was a family business going back generations for Jimmy, who was a descendent of both the Tilyou and the Stubbman families. He worked on a total of four carousels in Coney Island including the B&B Carousell, which he bought from his cousin Willy Bishoff. Jimmy and his family owned and operated numerous small amusement parks and carousels in Coney Island, including the historic carousels that are now in Prospect Park and Flushing Meadows Park. After McCullough's Kiddie Park was forced to close when its lease was not renewed by Thor Equities, 2013 became the first year since 1862 that there has not been a Tilyou descendant operating in Coney Island. 

Photo Credit: Charles Denson

posted Jul 25th, 2021 in History and tagged with Carousels, National Carousel Day, Jimmy McCullough,...

Wonder Wheel Banner Exhibit

Thanks to the Vourderis family, the Wonder Wheel, constructed in 1920, has continuously operated longer than any other amusement in Coney Island. The Wheel is much more than an amusement ride. It's a work of art and the ultimate survivor in an ephemeral world, a link to Coney's remarkable past. And its origins can be traced to the work of Leonardo da Vinci.

Two years ago the Coney Island History Project and the Vourderis family were planning major events for the Wonder Wheel's 100th anniversary, a milestone that no other Coney Island attraction had ever achieved. In late 2018, I began research for a book and an exhibit that would celebrate this momentous occasion, and found a publisher who could fast-track the book's release in time for the centennial.

At the time, very little was known about the origins of the Wheel, the man who designed it, and how it came to be. I began by tracking down the family of Charles Hermann, the idealistic steelworker and inventor of the Wheel whose quest for a perpetual motion machine led to his partnership with businessman Herman Garms. The two immigrant dreamers traveled to Coney Island and proposed their odd project to pioneer landowner William Ward. The unlikely partnership the three formed would finance and build the Wonder Wheel.

I was able to find and interview far-flung members of the Garms family as well as Charles Hermann's 95-year-old daughter, who provided a firsthand account of her father's work. All of the families provided archival material and stories for the book and planned to travel from all over the country to attend the 2020 celebration.

And then COVID hit and the planning came to a screeching halt. My book, Coney Island's Wonder Wheel Park, came out in August, but Coney Island’s amusements were closed by state executive order and all celebrations were postponed. Uncertainties continued into 2021 and we were left hanging, wondering if the Wonder Wheel story could be told.

Early this year we realized that an indoor exhibit would be prohibitive and decided to redesign the exhibit as a condensed outdoor display using traditional banners. Finally there's an exhibit that tells the remarkable story of the Wonder Wheel and the family that operates Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. The colorful history banners are located on the Wheel's walkway adjacent to the History Project, as well as below Deno's new Phoenix Roller Coaster on West 12th Street. It's a riveting story about families, immigrant initiative, love, and hard work. -- Charles Denson

Celebrating 101 years! See 'The Wonder Wheel and the Immigrant Dream,' the Coney Island History Project's free outdoor exhibition of banners on view from July through the end of October 2021 at Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. Admission to the park is free. Visit Deno's website for park hours.

Photo Credit: Coney Island History Project

Coney Island History Project Deno's Wonder Wheel Centennial

posted Jul 15th, 2021 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Wonder Wheel, Deno's Wonder Wheel, 100 years,...

City of Water Day Kaiser Park


Join us on Saturday, July 10, at Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park to celebrate City of Water Day! The Coney Island Beautification Project is hosting the event from 9AM - 2PM. Stop by the Coney Island History Project's table and say hello. This year's City of Water Day joins the Waterfront Alliance in highlighting a regionwide message of climate change, resiliency, sustainability, sea level rise and green jobs.

On Sunday, July 11, help beautify and preserve the environment by volunteering for the Coney Island Clean-up sponsored by Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus and the Coney Island Advisory Committee, Assembly District 46. The location of the clean-up is Coney Island Creek. For more info visit the event’s Eventbrite page.
 

posted Jul 1st, 2021 in Events and tagged with City of Water Day, Kaiser Park, Coney Island,...