Dennis Corines, Paul Georgoulakos, Gerry Menditto, and Charles Denson, 2010.

Gerry Menditto, "Mr. Cyclone," never rode on the coaster that he operated for nearly 35 years. "I don't like drops," he said.  He diagnosed problems by sound, listening to the vibrations made by motors, belts, lift chains, bearings, and wooden supports, and he and his crew repaired or replaced anything that didn't sound right. Gerry became operations manager of the Cyclone roller coaster in 1975 after Astroland Park acquired the lease and he worked there until the park closed in 2008. The coaster was in poor shape when he took over and he began a complete restoration of the ride. His Cyclone crew was made up of Coney Island folks, more than a few being Gerry's childhood friends, people he could trust to keep the landmark ride operating safely. His calm, soft-spoken manner was at odds with the commotion and deafening screams encountered during 14-hour shifts on the Cyclone's platform. He earned the love and respect of those who worked for him.

The Coney Island History Project Exhibit Center and recording studio were located underneath the Cyclone for a number of years, and the sounds of the coaster can be heard in the background of many oral histories. Our office window looked out onto the main hill and loading platform where we could see Gerry at his wooden booth keeping an eye on the crowds lined up in the maze, waiting their turn to board the cars. We had a ringside seat at one of the best shows in Coney Island. 

Gerry retired soon after Astroland closed, but could not stand to be away from Coney Island. A few years ago he took a job managing the Gargiulo's parking lot, which gave him an opportunity to be back among his old friends and colleagues. It was always a joy to stop and a visit with him before work on summer mornings. He was back where it all began.

After a short hospital stay, Gerry Menditto passed away from COVID complications on January 5th 2022. His family is planning a memorial later this spring.

- Charles Denson


Gerry and the Cyclone crew in 1998.


Gerry and Astroland owner Carol Albert at Gargiulo's Restaurant, 2008.

 


Gerry keeping an eye on things at the Cyclone.

 


Gerry and the Cyclone crew, 2007.

 


At work in the Cyclone shop.

 


Gerry greeting admirers at the Cyclone on opening day.


Gerry working the tracks on the Cyclone, circa 1976.

posted Jan 8th, 2022 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

Abiodun Bello copyright AJ Bernstein Photos 2021

Wash away 2021 and dive into the New Year at the Coney Island Polar Bear Club's 119th Annual New Year's Day Plunge! "You are reborn when you come here," says Abiodun "Abi" Bello of the health benefits of cold water swimming in his oral history recorded by the Coney Island History Project in 2015.

Polar Bear Club president Dennis Thomas talks about the New Year's Day Plunge over the decades in his 2019 oral history. "It's been going on as long as anybody knows and it used to be just kind of an informal gathering of the Polar Bear Club itself. Then more people from the public," says Dennis, who began swimming with the Bears in the 1970s. "When I first started, if there were a hundred people there, we'd say, wow, this was huge. It's a bucket list thing. People want to do it once in their life and New Year's Day is a great day to do that."

There is no fee to participate but all funds raised help support local non-profits offering environmental, educational, and cultural programming including the New York Aquarium, the Coney Island History Project, Coney Island USA, Coney Island YMCA, and more.

This week the Polar Bear Club released updated safety guidelines for the event: "Our registration will open at 10am. From 11am until 2pm, we will open one large area of the beach with lifeguards. Once you pick up your wristband, you are welcome to plunge at your leisure between 11am and 2pm. We ask that all participants and spectators please practice social distancing guidelines and to wear masks (except when plunging)."

"Please do not plunge without signing a waiver and getting a wristband – parks enforcement can issue you a $150 ticket for not doing so. Spectators will be allowed in the plunge area. It is our hope that we will be able to return to our normal giant party in 2023 but in the meanwhile, let’s have the best time washing away 2021."

Visit http://polarbearclub.org to register in advance for the New Year's Day Plunge or make a donation.

Photo Credit: Abiodun Bello by AJ Bernstein Photos, 2021
 

Coney Island Stories

We’re thrilled to announce the Coney Island History Project has been awarded funding of $8,915 from Humanities New York to produce a second season of our popular podcast, Coney Island Stories.

HNY “SHARP” (Sustaining the Humanities Through the American Rescue Plan) Grants provide funds for humanities projects that serve audiences throughout New York and are made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities via the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

Season Two of our podcast will feature sequential episodes about growing up in Coney Island with oral history clips from our archive. The first episode, "Growing Up in the 1930s," is scheduled to debut in March 2022 and will be followed by monthly episodes for each decade through the 2000s.

The oral history narrators in this podcast series describe growing up during the Depression and World War II, urban renewal (a narrator whose family was evicted calls it “urban removal”), the residential development of middle-income co-ops and public housing, and the decline of the amusement area and its eventual revival. Across the generations, their commonalities include the beach, the boardwalk, and jobs in the amusement area.

"We’re extremely grateful for the support we’ve received enabling us to record, preserve, and make available so many voices and narratives that tell the fascinating story of Coney Island,” said Executive Director Charles Denson. "Coney Island has an incredibly complex history, and diverse first person accounts provide an irreplaceable resource for the future.”

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer applauded the HNY Sharp Action Grants, which were awarded to 43 New York cultural nonprofits. “As Majority Leader, I was proud to champion and pass the American Rescue Plan, which provides this funding for New York’s cultural nonprofits affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic did not extinguish our thirst for cultural education and this critical funding will strengthen New York’s rich cultural and local history for some time to come.”

The first season of Coney Island Stories launched in December 2020 as the History Project pivoted from in-person activities to virtual programming during the pandemic. Among the 11 episodes in Season One are “A Century of Bathhouses,” “Beach Days,” “Legendary Roller Coasters,” and “Mermaid Avenue.” Listen and subscribe via your favorite podcast app or the podcast page on the Coney Island History Project's website. 

posted Dec 27th, 2021 and tagged with podcast, oral history, Humanities New York,...

Happy Holidays


Happy New Year from the Coney Island History Project! Stay safe and well this holiday season. Many thanks for your support in 2021, whether you became a member or contributor, shared your story for our archives, visited our exhibition center or outdoor exhibits, attended a Zoom event, listened to our podcast or oral histories, or engaged with us on social media. We’re all in this together!

During the pandemic we initiated new programs and presentations including Mermaid Avenue, Then and Now and Coney History Show and Tell via Zoom (soon to be released in video form). New recording technology developed during the last two years enabled us to improve the quality of virtual recording after we temporarily suspended in-person interviews at our exhibit center. I was once again able to teach environmental history at the City Parks Foundation’s Coastal Classroom on Coney Island Creek at Kaiser Park. The last class was held in July, shortly before construction of the ferry dock began. Our down time has been productive as we plan and curate next season’s exciting indoor and outdoor exhibits.

We're especially grateful to the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York City Council, Council Member Mark Treyger, and Humanities New York for funding our programs during this second challenging year of the pandemic.

Special thanks to Carol Albert for her ongoing support of our mission. Carol co-founded the Coney Island History Project with Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, the creator of Astroland Park. We also thank the Vourderis family, operators of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, for providing us a home, and for their interest in preserving Coney Island's history.

Your donation or membership today will help support our 501(c)(3) nonprofit's free exhibits, oral history archive, and community programming as we enter our 18th year. Through December 31, 2021, donors may deduct up to $300 in charitable contributions whether or not you itemize your 2021 tax return.
We’re counting the days until we meet again in Coney Island for the 2022 season! 

Charles Denson 
Executive Director

Coney Island History Project

More than 400 oral histories are available for listening in the Coney Island History Project’s online archive. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story remotely via phone or Zoom, sign up here. We record interviews in English, Russian, Chinese, and other languages with people who have lived or worked in Coney Island and adjacent neighborhoods or have a special connection to these places. Among the 2021 additions to our archive are the following interviews recorded by Mary Conlon, Charles Denson, Julia Kanin, Shavon Meyers, and Tricia Vita.

Nasim Almuntaser is a 2021 Brooklyn College graduate who grew up working in his Yemeni-American family's bodega in Brighton Beach. The history and education major plans to become a history teacher. He describes the special relationship and sense of community that a bodega owner has with store patrons and shares his experiences during the pandemic and the Bodega Strike of 2017.

Tara Altebrando shares memories of getting engaged on the Wonder Wheel in 2004. She talks about how iconic places in Coney Island inspired and provided a backdrop for her 2011 novel Dreamland Social Club. During the pandemic, Tara and her husband Nick began adapting the novel into a stage musical with her 13-year old daughter singing the part of the main character.

Filmmaker Joyce Chopra grew up in Coney Island and Sea Gate in the 1930s and ‘40s. Her grandparents owned Kalina's Baths. Chopra describes how she got the acting bug at Lincoln High School while performing in a play with Lou Gossett Jr. She went on to direct groundbreaking documentaries and feature films including Joyce at 34 (1972) and Smooth Talk (1985, Grand Jury Prize, Sundance Film Festival).

Lolita Divilova lives in Coney Island, where she is active in the community as a member of Community Board 13 and the board of Brightwater Towers Condominium. A native of Baku, Azerbaijan and a former Moscow resident, Lolita and her family immigrated to New York in 1993, settling on Ocean Parkway, where many people from Baku then lived. They bought an apartment at Brightwater Towers in 2012.

Flatbush native Alan Fine shares memories of summers spent at Washington Baths Annex with his family as a boy in the 1950s. "I knew everybody," he says of the popular bathhouse, which was on the boardwalk next to the Childs Restaurant . It was there he first met his wife of 53 years, Helene, when they were children.  When the Annex was demolished in 1973, Alan went back looking for the slab of concrete on which he’d carved their initials in a heart.                 

Sea Gate resident Ellina Graypel is a singer-songwriter who grew up in Belarus. Performing and composing in both English and Russian, she also translates American songs into Russian, and Russian and Belarusian songs into English for American audiences. In 2021, Ellina was honored with the Women of Distinction Award by the New York State Assembly and Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus.

When Reverend Cliff Herring married a couple on Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster in 2007, the NY Daily News called him “the Roller Coaster Reverend” and “a card carrying member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts.” He talks about the essentials of a roller coaster wedding, why the Cyclone is the epitome of a roller coaster, and a mock wedding on the Cyclone in 2002 for the ride's 75th anniversary.

Raised in Bay Ridge, Natalie Johnson has memories of going to Ravenhall Baths in the 1950's and '60s until it closed after a 1963 fire. She recalls her family’s roomy walk-in locker, which was equipped with a mirror, seating, shelves and hooks where they left their swimsuits overnight. On the way home, they went on the rides at Steeplechase Park. "It was a wonderful way of life," she says.

Jen Kepler is an educator at New York Aquarium and a passionate observer of Brooklyn wildlife. The Brooklyn native recalls aspiring to work at the Aquarium ever since her childhood visits to see the beluga whales and the Aquatheater Show.  Jen says she found her calling "teaching people about what I love” and vividly describes species of ducks, gulls, and birds one can see on Coney Island Beach and at Steeplechase Pier.

David Louie tells what it was like to grow up and live in Coney Island in the 1950s through the '70s. His family owned Wah Mee, a popular Chinese restaurant on Mermaid Avenue. David's father emigrated from China in the 1920s and owned and operated several restaurants in New York. The family lost the Mermaid Avenue home and restaurant they owned during the city's urban ronslaught of the 1970s.

Zohra Saed is a poet, editor, and translator who was born in Afghanistan and immigrated to Brooklyn with her family as a child in the 1980s. She grew up in the Uzbek-Turkestani community on Ocean Avenue in Sheepshead Bay and roamed Neptune Avenue in Brighton Beach. Zohra reads two of her poems, "Brooklyn" and "Neptune Avenue," which vividly evoke scenes of her childhood.

Cuzzo Sosay is a musician and producer of gangster hip hop, soul music, inspirational music, and R & B who visited the Coney Island History Project this past summer. As a boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1980s, his parents took him to Coney Island and he recalls the Hell Hole and Himalaya rides. He talks about Coney Island as musical inspiration, meditating on the beach and winter swimming.

Tony Williams and his family moved from Harlem to Coney Island when he was 13 and lived here from 1966 until the late '70s. He describes working at various rides in the amusement area as well as playing the harmonica on the Boardwalk for tips and with Bread and Puppet Theater. Tony reflects on the white flight that began in the late 1960s and the Coney Island of today.

posted Dec 23rd, 2021 in News and tagged with oral history, Oral History Archive, Oral History Project,...

Shore Theater


The Coney Island History Project is pleased to continue our series of outdoor exhibits with a display of banner art on the gates of the Shore Theater. Formerly known as the Loew's Coney Island, the building is located at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues across from Stillwell Terminal and Nathan’s Famous.

The banners on display include a collaboration with PS 90, The Magnet School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness, which is located up the block from the History Project on West 12th Street. Our Hall of Fame banner honoring the Shore Theater and a banner celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Wonder Wheel are also on display. In the summer of 2021, the PS 90 banners were on view at City of Water Day in Kaiser Park and installed at PS 90 and Maimonides Park. The art pictured on the colorful 14 foot by 3 foot banner and the smaller banners was created by the school’s students under the guidance of Ms. Luz Morales.

"The student artists were asked to illustrate the natural world vs. the built world surrounding Coney Island Creek,” said Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project. “We decided to use the traditional Coney Island banner medium to display the incredible artwork that the students produced for this project. The banners will be used to initiate a dialogue about the ecology of Coney Island. We’ve enjoyed a years-long partnership with PS 90, and enjoy lending support to our neighbor’s program of environmental studies and community wellness. These young students are the environmental stewards of the future."

Shore Theater

“The Magnet School for Environmental Studies and Community Wellness is committed to learning about climate change and the role our community can play to combat it,” said Greta Hawkins, the school’s principal. “Expressing our appreciation of the natural wonders of our oceans through art is part and parcel of our studies at the school. We have a partnership with Mr. Denson and are grateful to the important work of the Coney Island History Project. The banner is representative of our longstanding collaboration with CIHP, and it is our students' way of connecting the natural environment with their Coney Island community. Aren't they amazing?"

Thank you to Edouard Yadgarov of Pye Properties for his interest in the school project and permission to display the banners at the Shore. Pye Properties purchased the long vacant building and received approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission for their plan to restore and develop it into a hotel and spa. The seven-story, neo-Renaissance style theater and vaudeville house and adjacent 14-story office building opened in 1925 and operated for half a century. Both structures had been closed and sealed up for decades. The theater's facade was granted landmark status in 2010 and inducted into the History Project's Coney Island Hall of Fame in the architecture category.

Shore Theater
 

posted Dec 13th, 2021 in Events and tagged with Outdoor Exhibition, Banner Art, Shore Theater,...

Oral History Archive

Hello! Share and preserve your Coney Island memories by recording an oral history interview over the phone or via Zoom. We are also recording interviews, both in English and other languages, with people who live, work, or grew up in adjacent neighborhoods of Southern Brooklyn. Sign up or listen to some of the more than 400 interviews in the Coney Island History Project online archive.

Giving Tuesday

Become a member of the Coney Island History Project on Giving Tuesday! Your tax-deductible contributions support our free programming including our exhibit center, podcast and oral history archive. 

To join online, choose a category and receive a thank you gift visit our Membership and Support page. We're grateful to all of our members, funders, and friends for your continued enthusiasm and support, and proud of all that the Coney Island History Project has accomplished this year and during the past 17 years.

posted Nov 30th, 2021 in News and tagged with Giving Tuesday, Coney Island History Project, Membership,...

Astrotower

Happy Hanukkah from the Coney Island History Project! The Star of David illuminated Astroland's Astrotower during Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, until the park closed in 2008. Next year, 2022 will be the 60th anniversary of the 1962 opening of Astroland! If you worked at the park or were a visitor and have Astro stories to share, we'd love to record your oral history for our archive. Audio interviews are conducted via phone or Zoom. You may schedule and interview here

posted Nov 28th, 2021 in News and tagged with Star of David, Astrotower, Astroland,...

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving from good old and new Coney Island and the Coney Island History Project! 

posted Nov 25th, 2021 in News and tagged with Thanksgiving, Happy Thanksgiving, Coney Island,...