Coney Island Blog - History

August Wolfinger - Coney Island History Project

Art by August Wolfinger on the rounding boards of Coney Island's B&B Carousell. Photo © Coney Island History Project.

Today in history: Artist August Wolfinger, 'The Michelangelo of the Midway,' died on December 1,1950. His pastoral and patriotic scenes grace the rounding boards of Coney Island's historic B&B Carousell. From April through October, when the B&B is open, it's one of the stops on the Coney Island History Project Walking Tour. Although the amusement rides are now closed for the season, you can join our weekend tours year round.  After Labor Day through the fall and winter, tours start at 12:30 pm. A tour is confirmed when we have a minimum of 3 reservations. Advance purchase of tickets through our eventbrite page is required since tours are limited to 20 people.

Coney Island History Project Walking Tour at B&B Carousell

Coney Island History Project Walking Tour at B&B Carousell. Photo © Coney Island History Project.

 

posted Dec 1st, 2019 in History and tagged with B&B Carousell, August Wolfinger, history,...

Thunderbolt Roller Coaster Photo by Charles Denson

Today in Coney Island history, on November 17, 2000, the original Thunderbolt roller coaster, built in 1925 and in operation until 1982, was demolished by the City. Listen to the Coney Island History Project's oral history with Meg Feeley about a renegade ride on the Thunderbolt on a February night in the 1980s, a few years after the roller coaster had closed down.

In a pair of interviews recorded in 2016, cousins Linda Kramer Evans and Harold J. Kramer share childhood memories of visiting their great-aunt and great-uncle in Coney Island in the 1950's. Molly and George Moran owned and operated the Thunderbolt and lived in the house under the roller coaster, which was later immortalized in Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall. The kids loved it when the house shook as the coaster coursed overhead, recalls Evans.

posted Nov 17th, 2019 in History and tagged with Thunderbolt, Roller Coaster, demolition,...

Veterans Monument Coney Island History Project

Today, on Veterans Day, we honor and remember those who served. There are two important veterans monuments in Coney Island that few people know about. In Asser Levy Park (Seaside Park) at Surf Avenue and Ocean Parkway sits a stone monument with brass plaques made from the the USS Maine, the battleship that sank in Havana Harbor in 1898, contributing to the outbreak of the Spanish–American War. The plaque, with President Theodore Roosevelt’s image, commemorates an encampment of Spanish-American War veterans that took place at that site in Coney Island from July 6th to 9th, 1924. The plaque was erected that year by Edward Tilyou and the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. Across the street from the monument, at the base of a flagpole next to the Boardwalk, is a plaque honoring William J. Hennessy of 3010 West 1st Street in Coney Island, who was killed in action on October 9th, 1918 during World War I. These monuments are easily overlooked, but those who served and gave their lives a century ago should be honored on this day of remembrance. 

Veterans Monument Coney Island History Project

Veterans Monument Coney Island History Project

Veterans Monument Coney Island History Project

posted Nov 11th, 2019 in History and tagged with Veterans Day, Veterans Monuments, Coney Island,...

George C Tilyou Coney Island History Project

"If Paris is France, then Coney Island, between June and September, is the world." --George C Tilyou.

George C.  Tilyou, founder of Steeplechase Park and creator of Coney Island's Funny Face logo was born on this day, February 3rd, in 1862.

Tilyou was a master showman and amateur psychologist who understood how people wanted to be entertained. He realized that his customers were happy to play the fool to entertain others.

He  came with his parents to Coney Island in 1865 at the tender age of three. His father, Peter, opened a small wooden bathhouse and restaurant on the beach, and young George was soon selling bottles of souvenir sand to visitors. The family nearly lost everything when they challenged Coney's political boss, John McKane, in the 1880s. After McKane went to prison, the Tilyous' fortunes improved, and soon George owned a theater, a Ferris wheel, and other rides scattered along the beach.

Tilyou became Coney's biggest booster and a philanthropist who supported local orphanages, the Catholic church, children's hospitals, and other charities.

In 1897 Tilyou moved his rides into an enclosed park at West Sixteenth Street and Surf Avenue. Horse racing was the park's theme. The Steeplechase ride enabled ordinary people to experience the thrill of racing by riding mechanical horses along a steel track.

Read more about Tilyou on his page in the Coney Island History Project's Coney Island Hall of Fame.

posted Feb 3rd, 2019 in History and tagged with George C. Tilyou, Steeplechase Park, Funny Face,...

Ocean Parkway Coney Island History Project Collection

Photo: Ocean Parkway, 1920s. Coney Island History Project Collection.

Today, January 28, in 1975, Brooklyn's Ocean Parkway, the first road of its kind in the U.S., was designated a NYC Scenic Landmark by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux , who coined the word 'parkway,' Ocean Parkway goes from Prospect Park to Coney Island and established a new concept in road building. "It evolved from an idea expressed by Olmsted and Vaux in their 1866 preliminary report to the Park Commissioners of Brooklyn on their plans for Prospect Park. Under the section titled 'Suburban Connections,' they suggested that the shaded 'pleasure' drive on the western side of Prospect Park be extended from the park to the ocean. The road should be 'of a picturesque character...neither very straight nor very level, and should be bordered by a small belt of trees and shrubbery'" (from the LPC's designation report).

posted Jan 28th, 2019 in History and tagged with Today in History, OTDH, Coney Island,...

Yellow Submarine Coney Island History Project

Coney Island Creek's Yellow Submarine Quester I. Photo © Charles Denson

What can we learn about New York City and its waterfront from its boats? Stefan D-W of the Waterfront Alliance's Waterwire is inviting those across the maritime world and beyond-historians, planners, artists, business people, scientists- to share their perspectives on NYC History in 10 Boats. Below is the sixth installment, with Charles Denson, reprinted from Waterwire, with additional photos from the Coney Island History Project's Collection.

Iolas

Ferry service to Coney Island began in the summer of 1845 when the steamboat Iolas left the Battery at 7am and arrived at the western tip of the island about an hour later. The little ferry made four trips a day to the dune-covered sand bar that would soon become “The Playground of the World.”

Shamrock

Coney Island’s little-known connection to the America’s Cup was centered at the island’s Atlantic Yacht Club at the mouth of Coney Island Creek where, in 1899, Sir Thomas Lipton’s Irish racing yacht Shamrock was berthed while competing in the world-famous event being held in New York Harbor. The Shamrock was defeated in all three races by the New York Yacht Club’s defender, Columbia.

Shamrock

Saranac

The wreck of the three-masted wooden schooner Saranac became a popular “ghost ship” attraction after it ran aground and was abandoned alongside the Steeplechase Pier in Coney Island around 1907. Steeplechase owner George C. Tilyou decided not to remove the wreck and instead decorated the ship’s masts and rigging with colorful flags, advertising it as a monument to the last days of proud sailing ships.

Flying Dutchman

During the early days of Prohibition, Coney Island Creek was a main landing point for rumrunners. Many yachts built at the Wheeler Shipyard were modified into rumrunners that could outrun police boats and revenue cutters patrolling offshore. In September 1923, a 40-foot modified cruiser named Flying Dutchman partook in a dramatic, three-mile gun battle with police before beaching at Coney Island Creek. One of the Dutchman’s crew was shot by police, four others were arrested, and the boozy contents of the boat was taken to police headquarters at the Battery.

Noah’s Ark

The whimsical vessel was actually a nautical-themed funhouse on the Boardwalk in front of Steeplechase Park during the 1920s and 1930s. After entering through the gaping mouth of a blue whale, visitors navigated a maze that led to encounters with captain “Noah” and his animal pairs while the entire attraction rocked back and forth.

Noah's Ark

Hemingway’s Pilar

Ernest Hemingway’s famous 38-foot deep-sea fishing boat, the Pilar, was built on Coney Island Creek at the Wheeler Shipyard in 1934. Hemmingway’s fishing adventures on the Pilar became the inspiration for his novels The Old Man and the Sea, and Islands in the Stream. The boat is now on display at Finca Vigia, the Hemingway Museum in Havana, Cuba.

Gold Star Mother

Gold Star Mother was a Staten Island ferryboat, one of three with feminine names launched in 1937. The name came from the “Gold Star” honor and flag awarded to mothers of soldiers killed in battle during World War I. The ferry, one of the first to be fueled with oil rather than coal, was in service for several decades before being retired and transformed into a floating methadone clinic. The vessel was towed to Coney Island Creek where it was eventually dismantled for scrap in 1975.

Wheeler Patrol Boats

The Wheeler Shipyard on Coney Island Creek built and launched 230 patrol boats used by the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. The 83-foot wooden craft served in all theaters of war, and many are still in use today as private fishing boats.

Coney Island Creek’s Yellow Submarine

Quester I is a homemade submarine, built on Coney Island Creek in 1970 by Jerry Bianco, a Brooklyn Navy Yard welder. Bianco hoped to raise the Andrea Doria, an ocean liner that sank in the Atlantic in 1956. After taking the sub on several successful test runs in Gravesend Bay, Bianco was unable to raise the funds to continue his salvage project and the sub was abandoned. It broke loose of its moorings in a storm and now lies as a famous wreck at the mouth of Coney Island Creek.

New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret is a 45-foot marine skimmer that began operation in 1997 as part of a citywide floatables containment program. The vessel appears after heavy rainfall to skim up tons of Coney Island trash washed into the creek’s sewer outfalls during summer storms.

Egret

posted May 22nd, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with boats, Coney Island, Coney Island Creek,...

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,...

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,...

Black History Month Coney Island History Project

In celebration of Black History Month, take a moment and listen online to these interviews from the Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive featuring historic figures, authors, 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.