Astroland's Astrotower  Photos by Charles Denson

What's in a name? It depends. I've been asked my opinion about naming new Coney Island attractions after old ones, specifically the name "Astrotower," which is being co-opted by Luna Park to use on their newest ride. The other names in question are Luna Park, Thunderbolt, Steeplechase, and Feltmans. In theory it shouldn't matter, and if it were anywhere else but Coney Island, few people would care. These names, however, carry a lot of weight because of the dramatic way in which they met their demise.

The original Luna Park and original Feltmans were failed businesses when they ended their long runs. And there were reasons for their failures. They had outlived their glory days and, like other older attractions, failed to change with the times. Luna Park is a generic name that was used all over the world. Coney's original 1903 Luna was actually named "Thompson & Dundy's Luna Park." The founders were proud of their creation. I could never figure out why Zamperla didn't add their own name to the new park — it was as if they were embarrassed by it. Using a new name or adding a twist to the name would have been a step forward instead of a confusing step backward. The media and the public are often confused as to whether the old and new parks are the same.

In 2010 Zamperla USA President Valerio Ferrari told the New York Daily News that he decided on the Luna Park name after "devouring" my book, Coney Island Lost and Found. I didn't think reviving the name was the best idea, but in the end it didn't really matter, as Coney Island seemed to be moving forward. At the time, the Coney Island History Project put together an extensive, celebratory exhibit about Luna Park history and I wrote an op-ed piece in the Daily News about how beautiful and exciting it was to see the spectacular lighting on Luna's new entrance. I was no fan of Luna's corporate mindset but I was curious to see where it would go and we welcomed them.

Valerio was friendly and gave me free rein to document the park's construction, but that soon came to an end. When Luna Park tried to evict two historic businesses on the Boardwalk, I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and frankly expressed my displeasure. Valerio was pissed off and told me that I was "too loud." I had to remind him that I didn't work for Luna Park, and that to me it was personal, not business. These Boardwalk people were my friends and their livelihoods would be ruined. I realized that the city's plan for a single operator was in the works and that this was the beginning of a process to wipe the slate clean. I had little to do with Luna Park after that. Following a public outcry, the two businesses were allowed to stay and were given new leases.

As far as using the Feltmans name, the only thing I can say is that if you're actually making the greatest hot dog in the world, a new and delicious product, then why not put your own family name on it? Be proud of your accomplishment and write a new chapter! Publicity and competition with Nathans can only take one so far. 

There is an inherent problem with naming new attractions after old if you are not truly reviving the original but just copying the name. Renaming is a reductionist ploy that doesn't honor or pay tribute to something historic. Steeplechase, Thunderbolt, and Astrotower were all destroyed in horrible ways that are still traumatic to anyone who knew the real thing.

Fred Trump's sadistic demolition of the Steeplechase Pavilion, which included partygoers hurling bricks through the stained glass windows of the pavilion, is still a horrifying memory to those who loved the place.  It's kind of creepy to see the name tacked onto a ride that has no relation to the original. It makes no sense.

The Thunderbolt Roller Coaster was ordered demolished by Mayor Giuliani, who repeatedly lied about his involvement until forced to admit under oath in court that he personally and illegally gave the orders. It was a real abuse of power, and the demolition still brings up bad memories of the stubborn battle between owner Horace Bullard and the authoritarian mayor. I wrote the last-minute landmark application for the structure and remember the Landmarks Preservation Commission's refusal to even look at it. Whether you loved or hated the old ruin, it should not have been illegally demolished. The reproduced signage on the new coaster is a constant reminder of abuse of power in Coney Island.

The new "Thunderbolt" coaster uses the name and signage, but where's the old hotel below it? The old Thunderbolt was special: historic and eccentric, expressing the quirkiness of the real Coney Island. The new tubular coaster is a great attraction and people love it, but what does it have to do with the original? Nothing! Why not come up with a new name? Putting an old picture of the real T-Bolt in the ticket box is a nice touch, but it has no context and context is everything when it comes to history.

That brings us to the Astrotower. You don't have to be an old-timer to recall what happened to that landmark. The wounds are still fresh, and the city's condemnation and demolition of the tower was a Fourth of July fiasco that will go down in infamy. There is no need to detail the bizarre events that led up to the dramatic emergency dissection of the beloved Astroland icon, but it should be obvious that using its name for another attraction is kind of tone deaf and antagonizes those who feel that it's inappropriate. The general public may not care because, after all, they come to Coney for fun, not to dwell on the past or politics. Many think it's not a big deal. I told Luna that using the Astrotower name was not a good idea and that I was not the only one who felt that way. Carol Hill Albert, whose late husband built the original tower, was not too happy about it either. There are other creative ways to pay homage to attractions from the past.

Sometimes it's better to leave something alone. You can dig up a corpse but it's impossible to bring it back to life. It's called grave robbing and just makes a mess. There's a good reason that you don't see many new cruise ships named "Titanic."

Childs Restaurant, B&B Carousell, Cyclone, and Parachute Jump all represent real history as well as the future, and Zamperla controls three of these landmarks. Isn't that enough? Luna Park has given the public a slick and exciting ride showroom with a beautiful gate. The old Luna was about exotic fantasy architecture and "weird whimsy." The new one is more about business and efficiency.

A couple of months ago I was approached by the new management of Luna Park after Valerio Ferrari left the company, and invited to sit down with them to discuss history. We had a long, cordial meeting. I also spoke with their branding consultant and gave my unbiased opinion about Coney Island's future. It seems as if they're open to new ideas. I'm not big on corporate environment and feel much more comfortable and at home at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, with it's family dynamic and historic atmosphere — to me that's the authentic Coney Island that I grew up with.

Context is an important component to history, and learning about the past does not have to be academic. The Coney Island History Project's stated mission is not about nostalgia, which is longing for a past that never was. We're interested in what endures and why, and how it will work in the future. I hope that the Boardwalk leases will be renewed. I hope that the old businesses that have endured will survive and work together to preserve Coney's heritage while moving into the future. That would be truly historic.

Charles Denson

UPDATE:

I was encouraged by the dialogue generated by my story about nostalgia. I'd like to add a simple example of a successful way to honor Coney Island History. That would be Coney Island USA's Mermaid Parade! This beloved annual rite harkens back to the old Coney Island Mardi Gras, a tradition that defined Coney Island for half a century before coming to an end in 1954.

When CIUSA revived the idea of a parade, a new name and theme were chosen and they created a magical event with roots in a long-gone Coney Island ritual. There was no recycling of a name from the past. The media recognizes the origins of the Mermaid Parade when reporting about it and this eliminates confusion or controversy. That's what's meant by context. Respect the past, but create something new and build on it. Use creativity and you will succeed.

So many old-timers who still remember the Mardi Gras have come to the History Project to share their vivid memories and to express their joy at seeing the spirit of the old event continue as the Mermaid Parade. This is amazing considering that the last Coney Mardi Gras parade last took place more than 60 years ago! 

posted May 2nd, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with history, Nostalgia, Coney Island,...

Estuary Day

You're invited to the 4th annual It's My Estuary Day on Saturday, May 5, from 8:00AM-3:00PM, a day of service, learning and celebration along Coney Island Creek in Kaiser Park! The free event will include underwater robotics, oyster monitoring, diving demonstrations, water chemistry techniques, seining, microscope viewing of plankton, displays by environmental organizations, host talks, coastal clean up, lunch and networking.

Featuring over 40 partner organizations, this annual community event is organized by the Cultural Research Divers, BMSEA (Brooklyn Marine STEM Education Alliance), and NYSMEA (NY State Marine Education Association), and hosted by Making Waves, a coalition of stewards caring for Coney Island Creek and Kaiser Park, of which the Coney Island History Project is a member.

It's My Estuary Day

Stop by the Coney Island History Project's table to learn about our free programs, including the new exhibit "Coney Island Creek and the Natural World," opening Memorial Day Weekend. Pick up a copy of the Coney Island CreekWalk at Calvert Vaux Park booklet produced by the History Project for Partnerships for Parks. We'll have bilingual interviewers in attendance to record your stories in English, Russian and Chinese about the neighborhood and the Creek for our Oral History Archive. Visitors may also take a self-guided walking tour by following the markers created by the Charles Denson of the Coney Island History Project for CreekWalk at Kaiser Park.

 

posted May 1st, 2018 in Events and tagged with

Coney Island Creek

The Coney Island History Project's special exhibition for the 2018 season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, is "Coney Island Creek and the Natural World." Coney Island is best known for its magnificent artifice, a manufactured reality and fantasy world that replaced the vibrant natural environment of sand dunes and salt marshes that existed before development began 200 years ago.

Very little of that environment has survived. The towering sand dunes were flattened, and the wetlands were filled in for development leaving the island vulnerable to storms. Even the island's world-famous beach is artificial, created with sand hydraulically pumped from offshore shoals. 19th century painters and photographers were able to capture images of a beautiful landscape that was about to be transformed forever as an isolated sandbar was transformed into the "World's Playground."

Ironically, the much-maligned estuary known as Coney Island Creek has become a key to understanding what was lost to development and what can be restored for future generations. The creek and its parks represent the true essence of Coney Island. Once a pristine salt marsh consisting of more than 3,000 acres of wetland habitat, Coney Island Creek was the original attraction at Coney Island, attracting anglers, hunters, writers, and artists to hotels along the creek's shoreline.

For the 2018 season we are planning a multi-media exhibit, curated by Charles Denson, called "Coney Island Creek and the Natural World" consisting of maps, photographs, posters, art, artifacts, oral history, and video. Among the rare treasures on display is Coney's "first admission ticket," the wooden 1823 sign from the Creek's Shell Road toll house advertising the rates for horse and rider and coaches. It is Coney Island's oldest surviving artifact and part of our permanent collection.

The exhibit describes the flora and fauna of the island's environment as well as recent environmental projects that are restoring habitat once lost to development and pollution. Through the lens of history, art, and ecology, we will explore Coney Island's transformation and why it's important not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The Coney Island History Project exhibition center is open free of charge on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day from 1:00PM-7:00PM. We're located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past. Visitors are invited to take free souvenir photos with the iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops and an original Steeplechase horse from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. The History Project is open year-round for our weekend walking tours and group visits, and for oral history interviews.

posted Apr 10th, 2018 in Events and tagged with Coney Island Creek, history, art,...

Coney Island Deno's Wonder Wheel Park

There's lots to do from spring through the beginning of summer in CONEY ISLAND!

Here's the Coney Island History Project's selected list of FREE upcoming events in the community:

April 12 - "Rise above the Tide" Community Imagination Workshop, Coney Island YWCA

April 16 - Chess Workshop, Coney Island Library (Mondays thru May 21)

April 21 - Family Day Block Party, Coney Island YWCA

April 21 - Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour in English and Mandarin, Coney Island History Project

April 23 - Senior Education Day, Coney Island Anti Violence Collaborative

May 5 - 4th Annual It's My Estuary Day, Kaiser Park

May 13 - Mother's Day Karaoke, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park

May 13 - Horseshoe Crab Monitoring, Kaiser Park (May 13-June 30)

May 26 - Coney Island Beach Re-opens for Swimming

May 26-28 - Exhibit Center Season Opener, Coney Island History Project

June 3 - Coney Island Reggae on the Boardwalk

June 9 - 8th Annual Pet Day & Costume Contest, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park

June 16 - 36th Annual Mermaid Parade, Coney Island USA

June 17 - Father's Day Karaoke, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park

June 22 - Coney Island's First Fireworks Show of 2018 (Fridays thru August 31)

June 22 - Fireworks Friday Karaoke, Deno's Wonder Wheel Park (Fridays thru August 31)

For Coney news, events, conversation, photos and special features like "On This Day in History,"

follow the Coney Island History Project on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Coney Island History Project

posted Apr 10th, 2018 in Events and tagged with Coney Island, community events, free events,...

Smoke Signal

Charles Denson's essay "The Curious Coney Island Artwork of Casola and Millard," excerpted below, appears in the new issue of Smoke Signal, with lettering by David Leutert, published by Desert Island Comics. The Coney Island themed-magazine is available free in their store, at 540 Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn, or via mail order. The Coney Island History Project will be distributing free copies at our exhibit center this summer. 

A century ago, dozens of artisans, banner painters, wood-carvers, and sign painters competed for business in Coney Island. Unfortunately, few of their creations have survived except in private collections and museums.

The works of two of Coney Island's mysterious and eccentric artists are now on display at the Coney Island History Project. Dan Casola and Larry Millard are not names known to the general public, but their beautifully bizarre artwork has delighted and frightened Coney Island visitors for decades.

DAN CASOLA

Dan Casola's sideshow banners command astronomical prices from collectors if you can find one. Less known are Casola's sculptural works and painted signs. Casola created the iconic Spook-A-Rama Cyclops from Denos Wonder Wheel Park, a work of art that recently toured the country as part of a traveling Coney Island art exhibit that ended at the Brooklyn Museum. For three decades the horned monster, with its rotating glowing eye, stood guard over Coney Island's Bowery.

Italian immigrant Dan Casola was a self-taught artist with a twisted sense of humor. His stylized billboards, signage, wax figures, fire-breathing dragons, and animated mechanical figures were fixtures across Coney Island. He worked out of storefront studios on Surf Avenue and later from his home on Stillwell Avenue. His largest canvas was the Spook-A-Rama dark ride. During the 1950s, at the height of the monster movie craze, he covered the ride's block-long facade with dozens of humorous hand-painted signs and animated figures including the iconic Cyclops.

Casola had an eye for the ladies and ran several burlesque "Girlie Shows" on the Bowery during the 1940s. His daughter, Patricia, recalls his artwork being heavy on the "boobs and butts." She also remembers growing up in a house full of "glass eyeballs, plaster heads, and boxes of hair" that he used for his animated creations. Her mother's lingerie would disappear and later turn up on spook house figures. "He had this very interesting side to him," she says. Indeed.

LARRY MILLARD

The mural-covered interior of the Playland Arcade on Surf Avenue delighted patrons for many decades, yet few knew the story behind the whimsical artwork covering every inch of the establishment. Playland closed in 1983, and the building stood empty until it was demolished in 2013. Fifteen years ago the Coney Island History Project began an ambitious project to document and preserve the rapidly deteriorating cartoon murals and to tell the story of the artist who created them. It became an uphill battle against vandals, thieves, and Hurricane Sandy, but finally the story can be told.

In the winter of 1957 a mysterious artist named Larry Millard showed up at the Playland Arcade looking for work. The 45-year-old Millard claimed to have been a cartoonist for the New York Daily News and offered his services as a sign painter. Playland owner Alex Elowitz hired him to paint several Skeeball signs. His lettering was stylish and perfect, and he soon expanded his work to include cartoon characters and humorous narratives. Millard worked tirelessly through the summer of 1958, painting larger and more colorful murals on every inch of wall space.

Millard was a heavy drinker who followed a daily routine. He arrived early in the morning unshaven and smelling of alcohol, suffering from the shakes. After he purchased a bottle of Thunderbird wine at the liquor store next to Mama Kirsch's restaurant, his hands would become steady enough to draw.

Stanley Fox, whose brother Alex owned the arcade, described Millard as “artsy looking,” with dark hair and a mustache, always wearing a fedora and usually accompanied by his girlfriend, an African-American woman named Eunice. Millard would arrive daily with sketches to be approved by Elowitz. “My brother paid him by the day, maybe $25. Larry lived somewhere in Coney Island, although no one was sure where.”

Millard’s later work consisted of complex cartoons illustrated with puns and jokes: busty, leggy women with hapless boyfriends. Many of his murals were in the cartoon style of Lil’ Abner creator Al Capp. The public loved his work, and he continued painting Playland until every wall was filled. After finishing up at Playland, he began painting outdoor signs around Coney Island and more murals at Stauch’s Baths and the B&B Carousel.

Millard disappeared from Coney Island in 1960 and was never seen again. He left his mark on Coney Island, works that served as petroglyphs: deceivingly simple yet undecipherable and opaque. Beneath the inherent humor in his pieces, it’s possible that most of his sketches were actually self-portraits telling his life story: the tale of a tortured soul, a gambler who had bad luck with women. --Charles Denson

posted Apr 9th, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with Dan Casola, Larry Millard, Coney Island,...

Coney Island History Project Immigrant Heritage Walking Tour

On Saturday, April 21, learn about the contributions of immigrants to the history and development of "The Playground of the World" on our Immigrant Heritage Tour of Coney Island (康尼岛移民遗产之旅) conducted in English (12:00 PM) and (Mandarin 3:00 PM). The Coney Island History Project is offering this special walking tour as part of Immigrant Heritage Week 2018.  Tickets are free of charge for the 1-1/2 hour, wheelchair accessible tour but must be reserved online as each tour is limited to 40 participants. Advance ticketing is available via our online reservation page on Eventbrite. If you have a question, please email events@coneyislandhistory.org.

Among the stops on the walking tour and the stories of struggle, success and achievement are Nathan's Famous, founded in 1916 by Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker; Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, where the landmark 1920 Wonder Wheel was purchased by Greek immigrant Denos D. Vourderis as a wedding ring for his wife; and the B&B Carousell, created in 1919 by German and Russian immigrants and now Coney's last hand-carved wooden carousel.

Coordinated by the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, Immigrant Heritage Week is an annual citywide program of events celebrating the history, traditions and contributions of New York City's diverse immigrant communities. This year's IHW is scheduled for April 16-22 in recognition of April 17, 1907, the date when more immigrants entered the U.S. through Ellis Island than any other date in history. The theme for Immigrant Heritage Week 2018 is "A City of Immigrants: United in Action." Click here to download a pdf brochure of events from the city's website.

"Coney Island has traditionally been a place where immigrants who wanted to start a business could start small and work their way up," says Charles Denson, director of the Coney Island History Project. "A person of small means with no experience or capital could lease a stall on the Bowery and open a game concession with nothing more than a few baseballs and milk bottles. Coney was also the place where immigrant families could escape steaming tenements, get fresh air, bathe in the ocean and assimilate with people of all nationalities. It's where they finally found true freedom and became Americans."

The walking tour will also highlight businesses operated by immigrants from Hong Kong, Jamaica, Mexico, Turkey and Ukraine who have recorded their stories for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive. The Immigrant Heritage Tour will be led by Tricia Vita and Sylvia Ching Man Wong, who facilitate and record oral histories for the Coney Island History Project. 

The Coney Island History Project, founded in 2004, is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that aims to increase awareness of Coney Island's legendary and colorful past and to encourage appreciation of the Coney Island neighborhood of today. Our mission is to record, archive and share oral history interviews; provide access to historical artifacts and documentary material through educational exhibits, events and a website; and honor community leaders and amusement pioneers through our Coney Island Hall of Fame.

This program is supported, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and New York City Councilman Mark Treyger, and our members and contributors.

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

posted Mar 13th, 2018 in History and tagged with Palm Sunday, Milton Berger, Coney Island,...

Coney Island History Project

The Coney Island History Project is located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. Photo: Jim McDonnell

You're invited to visit the Coney Island History Project's exhibition center on Coney's traditional Opening Day, Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past. Take a free souvenir photo with the iconic Cyclops head from Deno's Spook-A-Rama dark ride and an original Steeplechase horse from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Among the treasures on display is Coney Island's oldest surviving artifact: The 1823 wooden Toll House Sign dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to go over Coney Island Creek to "the island" was 5 cents!

This Sunday only, as a special added attraction, visitors are invited to look through an antique arcade machine called a Cail-O-Scope and experience stereoview 3-D images of early 1900's Coney Island. The machine is set for 25 cents. Special thanks to arcade restorer Bob Yorburg, who is bringing this treasure filled with rare, unusual Coney Island images from his collection to the History Project for opening day festivities. The Coney Island History Project will be open 1:00PM-6:00PM. Admission is free of charge.

2018 marks the 14th anniversary of the Coney Island History Project and our seventh season at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. Since our inception in 2004 with a portable recording booth on the Boardwalk, followed by the opening of the Coney Island Hall of Fame in 2005, and the inaugural season of our exhibition center under the Cyclone at Astroland Park in 2007 and moving to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park in 2011, we have proudly offered "Free Admission for One and All!" at our exhibits and special events.

Opening Day festivities start at 10:45AM on the Boardwalk with the 34th Annual Blessing of the Rides at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. The late Pastor Debbe Santiago of Coney Island's Salt and Sea Mission originated the event with Denos D. Vourderis, who invited children from the Mission to enjoy free rides and Easter baskets, a tradition that continues today. 

Deacon Toyin Fakumoju of the Mission will lead the Blessing this year and the NYC Fire Department Ceremonial Unit will present the colors and sing the National Anthem. A ribbon cutting ceremony hosted by park owners Dennis and Steve Vourderis will be followed by free rides on the Wonder Wheel for the first 98 guests in celebration of the Wheel's 98th year.  

At Luna Park, the first 100 on line at the Cyclone roller coaster will ride the roller coaster for free and egg cream samples will be given out. Coney Island's 1920 Wonder Wheel and the 1927 Cyclone are official New York City landmarks.

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, to establish “an early-season and official opening consciousness in the public’s mind.” 

Located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel, just a few steps off the Boardwalk, the Coney Island History Project is open free of charge on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day from 1:00-7:00PM. We will also be open on Easter Sunday, April 1st, from 1:00-6:00PM. The Coney Island History Project is open year round for private group visits and our weekend walking tours as well as by appointment to record interviews with people who have memories of Coney Island for our Oral History Archive.

posted Mar 13th, 2018 in News and tagged with Coney Island, Opening Day, Blessing of the Rides,...

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Among the additions to the Coney Island History Project's online Oral History Archive are the following interviews recorded by Amanda Deutch, Charles Denson, Kaara Baptiste, Mark Markov, Samira Tazari, and Xiaoyan Li. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story, sign up here. Interviews may be recorded in English, as well as Chinese, Russian, Spanish, and other languages.

Stephen Gaffney is an artist who restored the beloved vintage signs and painted new ones for Paul's Daughter, the oldest operator on the Coney Island Boardwalk. He talks about how he "memorializes the goings on of the store" with some of his signage, such as Paul's call to customers "Hey! Get It, Get It!"

Naum Barash recounts his 50 years of winter swimming in Ukraine and Brooklyn. A native of Chernovtsy in Ukraine, he is a member of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club. This interview was conducted and recorded in Russian, and includes a Russian transcript and an English translation.

Gladys Sandman and Lucille daCosta, née Salvia, share girlhood memories of growing up on Coney Island's West 5th Street in the 1950s and early '60s before their home was demolished to make way for Warbasse Houses.

Sam Moses, 66, tells stories of his boyhood apprenticeship at a Brooklyn sign shop and his dreams of painting in Coney Island. In 1998, he moved to Sea Gate and started working out of a sign shop in a trailer behind Nathan's. The front of Denny's Ice Cream on Surf Avenue was one of his masterpieces.

Anthony Wang, a resident of senior housing in Coney Island, was born in Shanghai, survived the Cultural Revolution, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1992. This interview was conducted and recorded in Mandarin, and includes a Chinese transcript and an English translation.

Gloria Nicholson was born in Coney Island in 1940 and grew up in a rooming house that her mother managed on the Bowery. She reminisces about the unusual attractions and cast of characters who populated her childhood including Ned Tilyou, Tirza's Wine Baths, Shatzkins Knishes, the Shark Lady, and fortune-telling myna birds.

Jeffrey L. Wilson shares memories of growing up in Coney Island, where his family moved to O'Dwyer Gardens from Flatbush in 1986. Now an editor at PC Magazine, he writes about video games and other tech subjects, and talks about his formative years as a regular at Faber's Fascination arcade.

Deena Metzger is a writer, poet and healer who was born in Brighton Beach in 1936, moved to Sea Gate when she was three, and went to school in Coney Island. "The land, the water, the sea were formative characters in my life," she says. "When I was young I believed that one learned to write by walking."

Michael Cooper and Hyeyoung Kim are a lyricist and composer who began working collaboratively in 2005. They talk about researching and writing Luna Park, a musical which chronicles the partnership of Fred Thompson and Skip Dundy, creators of Coney Island's first Luna Park.

Ida Rosenblum Gambrell, 94, recalls her childhood summers in Coney Island at her aunt's home on Surf Avenue and West 24th Street, where one of the rooms was rented to summer boarders, and getting separated from her family during the chaos of the Luna Park fire of 1932.

posted Mar 12th, 2018 in News and tagged with oral history, Archive, Interviews,...

Black History Month Coney Island History Project

Before Black History Month ends this week, take a moment and listen online to these interviews from the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive featuring historic figures and community leaders.  

David Head, a retired NYC Transit worker and former chairman of the Black History Committee for TWU Local 100, tells the story of African-American inventor Granville T. Woods (1856-1910).  "I came across a courageous pioneer who pressed on with his dreams during a very difficult historical period of race relations," he says. "As I began to look deeper into the life of this man, I became truly amazed by his achievements." Among Woods' many electrical patents was one for the world's first electric roller coaster, which was located in Coney Island a century ago. Head was instrumental in having a street across from Coney's Stillwell Avenue Subway Terminal renamed "Granville T. Woods Way."

Historian Eric K. Washington rediscovers African American artist E.J. Perry, who was called "America's most famous silhouette cutter" by The Billboard in the early 20th century. Perry had a concession at Coney Island's Luna Park, where it was said "he is there with a nice spiel and and he cuts your picture with the scissors in a minute." The silhouettist also worked at Coney Island's Dreamland, the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.  "I think he's still an enigma, but bit by bit he's getting clearer," says Washington. "I think a bigger story or a popular story could easily come out of this man's life."

When Ronald Stewart recorded this interview in 2007, he had lived in Coney Island for exactly half a century. He has worked as the director of a youth program and a parole officer, owned a local bookstore and barber shop, and is a community activist.  When he was a boy, his family was forced out of their bungalow home by Fred Trump's "urban removal" to build Trump Village. He recounts his childhood and the various places he has lived in Coney, including Mermaid Houses, O'Dwyer Houses, West 33rd Street, and his current home, one of the houses built by Astella Development.

Mathylde Frontus grew up in Coney Island as the eldest child of Haitian immigrant parents and is currently an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia School of Social Work.  In 2004, she founded Urban Neighborhood Services (UNS), a small multi-service agency on Mermaid Avenue that offers services in the areas of housing, employment, legal referral, financial literacy, counseling, and youth leadership. In addition to her work as UNS’s executive director through 2016, Frontus is also the founder and outgoing chair of the Coney Island Anti-Violence Collaborative – a coalition of stakeholders working to reduce gun violence in the Coney Island community.

Shirley Aikens has called Coney Island her home for nearly 40 years and is president of the Carey Gardens Tenants Association and a member of Community Board 13 and the NYPD's 60th Precinct Community Council. Aikens recounts moving to Carey Gardens with her one-year-old daughter in the 1970s, her first impressions of Coney Island, and how it has changed over the years. For ten years she worked at Astroland Park, where she enjoyed her jobs as a water race game operator and boardwalk arcade manager.  Aikens talks about the need for jobs for teens under 18 and a parking garage in the amusement area to alleviate summer traffic

Alfie Davis has lived in Coney Island for nearly 40 years and is the Tenant Association Leader of the Sea Rise I complex in Coney Island's West End. Part I of her family's story illuminates an incredible chapter of African-American history. Originally from South Carolina and Florida, the family migrated north to New York City in the 1930s and lived together on West 108th Street and later in Queens. When Davis first moved to Coney Island in 1980, her friends on Brooklyn's Pacific Street said "Are you going to live on top of a roller coaster?" because "nobody knew that there was anything developed in Coney island except the amusement park."

Economic development specialist Georganna Deas is a Coney Island resident and advocate who has lived in the Gravesend Houses on Kaiser Park for forty years.  After moving here in 1977, she worked with Coney Island Pride and then with Astella Development. Deas recalls advocating for a one-fare zone and against the privatization of Coney Island Hospital. Among the transformations she has seen are fires blighting the neighborhood, Astella building over 1,000 houses on the vacant lots, and the rezoning plan of the Coney Island Development Corporation.