Coney Island Blog - History

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

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.

If you have fond memories of the batting cages on Stillwell Avenue, the International Speedway Go-Karts, the Jumbo Jet Roller Coaster, the Dragon's Cave on the Bowery, or the 1970s revived Steeplechase Park located on the site of the original, then you've had a taste of Norman Kaufman's Coney Island vision. He was known for his amusements, but his epic battle with Fred Trump was legendary.

Norman Kaufman, who passed away last November, was born in Coney Island and remained a force there for eighty years. His family operated the famous Mayflower photo studio and souvenir stand on Surf Avenue during the 1930s. "I began working in a darkroom at the age of eleven," Norman said, "developing photos for twenty cents an hour before automatic picture machines were invented." The photo studio's main prop was an old wooden rowboat named the "Mayflower" that enabled generations of immigrants to have their picture taken arriving in America as "Pilgrims."

During the 1940s, the Kaufman family operated the infamous World War II "atrocity show" in the Lido Hotel on Surf Avenue in partnership with Messmore and Damon, who manufactured the show's animated figures. When the attraction closed in the 1960s, Norman reclaimed many of the show's figures and used them in the family's bizarre spook house, the Dragon's Cave.

Norman and his brother, Sporty, had transformed their "Fun in the Dark" dark ride into a Bowery landmark whose entrance was topped with an animated smoke-belching dragon that swiveled above the crowds waiting in line. Norman had a hand in many Coney Island businesses. He managed the Log Flume ride in Astroland Park and later opened a slot-car raceway in a Surf Avenue storefront.

The fire-breathing Dragon at the Dragon's Cave. © Charles Denson, 1971

Norman Kaufman's frustrating battle with developer Fred Trump during his attempt to resurrect Steeplechase Park was a major chapter in my book, Coney Island Lost and Found and is worth repeating. In 1967, just after Trump's bulldozers finished leveling the historic park, Norman leased half of the vacant site for $20,000 a year to build a parking lot. Trump didn't realize, however, that Norman was a dreamer with ambitious plans. Norman began adding rides and concessions to his parking lot until he had pieced together an odd little amusement park that he named "Steeplechase."

"I was a little stupid or naive," he told me in 1999, "I thought that I could build up the new Steeplechase into a powerhouse that the city couldn't take away. I was thinking that I could stop whatever plans the city had for the Steeplechase site. Rather than have them come up with something, I figured I could build this amusement park into something that the city would be proud of and leave intact."

From the New York Post, June 26,1975

Norman and his partner, Irving Vichinsky, had trouble with landlord Fred Trump right from the start. The Steeplechase site was below grade and had to be leveled for parking. Trump's lease required Norman to spread ash on the parking lot surface, and Norman found a way to get the ash for free. Dewey High School was under construction on a site near the Coney Island transit yards that had once been used as a dumping ground for ash from steam locomotives. The builders needed a place to dispose of the excavated material, and Norman provided one for free: Steeplechase Park.

"Trump thought that we made a fortune by letting them dump the ash on his property," Norman told me. "He counted the trucks coming in and thought we were putting something over on him. But I never made a dime from it." Trump accused Norman of taking advantage of him, threatened to terminate the Steeplechase lease, and placed a sign over the park's entrance that read: "closed by order of the landlord."

Trump then came to the site with a pail and a shovel and began taking samples of the ash. "He put it in his car," Norman recalled, "and said to me, 'I'm gonna have this tested, Kaufman. You don't have ash here.' It was a pressure play. At times Trump would park his Cadillac in front of my entrance, so I said, 'You're blocking me off, Trump.' He'd say, 'I know what's going on here, Kaufman. You got no lease. You have to get out now. He was shoveling and yelling, 'You got no lease.' Whether you were big or small, that's the way he did business. It was always at your own level."

The harassment escalated when Norman began to install rides in the parking lot. "Trump didn't like the idea that I was bringing in rides rather than parking. He was getting a percentage and thought we'd make more money with parking than by taking up space with amusement equipment." Norman came in one morning to find his big parking sign knocked down, so he put it back up. The next day, he discovered a mound of debris blocking the entrance so he called a builder friend to clear it away. A few days later, a heavy chain appeared across the entrance, but Norman had it cut down. "Trump came back," Norman told me, "and said, 'Hey Kaufman, you got my chain. Give me back my chain.' He wanted us out."

Norman took out a restraining order against Trump and also went to the Sixtieth Precinct to file an enforcement complaint against the developer. Trump couldn't understand why Norman wasn't intimidated by him and seemed to enjoy the confrontations. "He couldn't figure out how I operated," Norman said. "He thought I was connected, but I wasn't connected to anybody. Trump wanted to put the pressure on us to get an increase in rent. He was a tough guy but we figured out a way to get to him. He had a tremendous memory and would remember everything that ever took place from the time you started with him. He'd rattle it right through and he would just keep going and never stop talking. You never had a chance to get a word in. What Irving and I did was distract him and then I could tell him my thoughts. As one of us distracted him, the other would jab away with our point. It worked."

By drawing people down the Bowery past Sixteenth Street, just as the original Steeplechase Park had done, the park kept the west end of Coney's amusement area alive. Many people dismissed Norman's park because they compared it with the original Steeplechase Park. The unfair comparisons bothered Norman: "We had fourteen kiddie rides and twenty-six majors and spectaculars. A major is a standard ride. A spectacular is something that's unusual. There were quite a number of spectaculars, like the Jumbo Jet, the Italian Skooter rides, and a German swing ride. We were the first ones to have this new equipment, and it was better than average. These were newer rides that Coney Island didn't have for many, many years."

The midway at Kaufman's Steeplechase, circa 1970. © Charles Denson

By 1968, the park was attracting large crowds. Trump was happy because he was getting a percentage, so he extended Kaufman's lease. Then, much to Norman's surprise, Trump offered him a job. "He liked that I got ahead and won," Norman said. "Trump don't like anybody winning but him. But I knew he was just being cute with his offer."

After failing to obtain a zoning change to build high-rise housing, Trump sold the Steeplechase site to the city in 1969 for $4 million, clearing a $1.5 million profit. The city was legally required to continue Norman's lease for $20,000 a year, the same deal he had with Trump

In 1972 Norman learned that the Steeplechase horse race, the namesake ride that the Tilyous had sold to Pirate's World Park in Dana, Florida, was up for sale. Norman bought the ride and sent twelve workers to Florida to number the tracks, horses, and various other pieces, and then trucked them back to Coney Island for a future reassembly on the original site. He stored the ride in shipping containers while he made plans to rebuild it. The horses made the papers in 1975 when they were stolen but later found in Pennsylvania and returned. The ride was never reassembled, but one of the original Steeplechase horses is now on display at the Coney Island History Project, courtesy of Norman Kaufman.

The pressure to evict Norman's amusement park intensified in 1974 when the city tried to raise his yearly rent from $20,000 to $158,446. It was during this dark period that Fred Trump began calling to offer his support. "He called me up and said, 'Listen, Kaufman, it's good to be in the papers. Don't worry about it. It's good that they know ya.'"

Norman finally realized that his plans were hopeless and closed his Steeplechase Park in 1981, when the city paid him $750,000 to leave the site. In 1983, Steeplechase was developed into public open space. A year later, the site became a city park, the first "special events" park in the city's history. The Brooklyn Cyclones ball park (now MCU Park) was later built on the site. In 2009, the city rezoned the entire MCU Park parking lot and most of the surrounding area for high-rise housing, fulfilling Fred Trump's dream of reducing Coney Island's amusement zone.

Norman's next amusement project, operated with his son, Kenny, was located on Stillwell Avenue and the Bowery after Stauch's Baths, the Bobsled, and the Tornado Roller Coaster were demolished. The Jumbo Jet Coaster, batting cages, and Go-Karts became some of Coney Island's most popular attractions in an age when the amusement area was shrinking. His last attraction was a Mini Golf Course that he constructed in 2002 a few years before the city began rezoning the area, forcing the eventual closure of all his attractions.

Norman Kaufman will be sorely missed. He was a big fan of the Coney Island History Project and lent us many artifacts for our exhibit center. As Coney Island loses its identity and slides into a corporate entity, it's important to remember independent impresarios like Norman Kaufman, "the Buddha of the Midway," a generous man with imagination who was not afraid to do battle with the powers that be.

– Charles Denson

Norman Kaufman and his son Kenny in front of their Jumbo Jet Roller Coaster, 1999. Photo © Charles Denson

posted Jan 6th, 2018 in By Charles Denson and tagged with

Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way

Photo © Coney Island History Project, September 24, 2016

The People’s Playground is dotted with street signs honoring people whose contributions have made Coney Island history.  Last September, the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenue was officially co-named Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Nathan’s Famous.  The distinctive green and white street sign is among the sights we point out on our Coney Island History Project Walking Tour. Over the weekend, we noticed it was missing. The bracket and bolts that attached it to the pole remains, but the sign appears to have been stolen.

Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way

Photo © Coney Island History Project,  September 15, 2017

Also missing is the sign for Milton Berger Place on Surf Avenue between West 8th and West 10th Streets. Berger was a press agent for Steeplechase Park, the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce and Astroland, where his former office window overlooked one of  the signs. A second sign was across the street in front of the Cyclone Roller Coaster. The corner was also co-named Dewey Albert Place for the founder of Astroland and in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Cyclone.

Milton Berger Place

Photo © Coney Island History Project, November 16, 2014

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.”

Surf Avenue and West 10th Street

Photo © Coney Island History Project,  September 15, 2017

The Coney Island History Project has reported the missing signs to the Department of Transportation, which replied that it takes 14 days to respond to this type of complaint.

Among the honorary street signs you can see on the Coney Island History Project Walking Tour are 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.  According to New York City Council’s street co-naming legislation, proposed honorees must be either individuals who are deceased or New Yorkers of significant importance to New York City.

Update: The Nathan and Ida Handwerker sign was replaced in October 2017, and the Milton Berger sign was replaced in January 2018.

Milton Berger Place

Photo © Coney Island History Project, November 16, 2014

posted Sep 18th, 2017 in History and tagged with Nathan Handwerker, Ida Handwerker, Milton Berger,...

Celebrate Historic Coney Island!

7th ANNUAL HISTORY DAY at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and The Coney Island History Project

FREE EVENTS ALL DAY! 12:00PM – 5:00PM. Enjoy Music, Entertainment, Art & History!

Saturday, August 5th

Coney Island History Day

Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, 3059 West 12th St (Denos D. Vourderis Place)

-Dress in 1920’s garb for a FREE ride on the landmark 1920 Wonder Wheel! From 12-5PM.

-The Coney Island History Project has designed History Plaques for 17 classic rides and attractions in Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park. Visitors may pick up a free copy of the brochure “History Tour of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park” and sign up for a Self-Guided Walking Tour of the numbered history plaques at each site. Brochures will be available on History Day at Deno’s Wonder Wheel, the “Say Boo” Photo Booth across from Spook-A-Rama and the “Say Cheese” Photo Booth next to the Tilt-A-Whirl from 12PM and at the Coney Island History Project from 1PM.

Deno's Carousel

-Two Guided Walking Tours of the history plaques at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park will be led by the Coney Island History Project.  Tours are at 12PM and 3PM and are free but space is limited. Register for the tours on Coney Island History Project’s Eventbrite page.

 -Walk inside the 1960s Astroland Rocket and see a movie! The Rocket returned to Coney Island in 2014 and found a new home beside the Wonder Wheel. From 12-5PM.

History Day

Dreamland Plaza, West 12th Street adjacent to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park

-Opening Ceremony on the Dreamland Plaza Stage followed by Free Entertainment. From 2-5PM

-Singer/songwriter Jen Houston writes quirky melodic alt-country tunes with a whimsical retro sound. Her Coney Island song “No One Here But Us Bones," which she performed inside Spook-A-Rama for a music video, won first prize at the 2015 Coney Island Film Festival

-DJ Dan Kingman will take you on a nostalgia trip with music from the 1920s through the 1980s and lead singalongs.

-Special Surprise Guests!

- A display of Coney Island History Project banners and kiosks emblazoned with Coney Hall of Fame honorees including George C. Tilyou, founder of Steeplechase Park; Dr. Martin Couney, who saved the lives of thousands of premature infants at his Coney Island baby incubator exhibit; Marcus C. Illions, developer of the Coney Island style of carousel carving; and Lady Deborah Moody, who in 1645 founded the town of Gravesend, which included Coney Island, becoming the first woman to found a colony in the new world.

Spookarama Cyclops

West 12th Street Entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park

-Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park is currently home to art and signage by Dan Casola (Spook-A-Rama), Greg Lamarche (Coney Island lettering between Kiddie Park and Wheel), The Wizard (Carousel, Sky Fighter, Ticketbooths), Tommy Holiday (Signage) and the late Barbara Listenik (Pony Carts, Thunderbolt). Meet Brooklyn  artists --sign painter Tommy Holiday, artist and muralist Danielle Mastrion and 9-year-old Lola the Illustrator -- at their newly painted walls featuring the Wonder Wheel, Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, and the Skull from Stop the Zombies! They will be joined by legendary artist and Sea Gate resident Sam Moses, who did the elaborate lettering on Danielle and Tommy's mural. Sam has been painting since the 1970s and did great signs like the frozen letters on Denny’s Ice Cream Shop. From 1PM-4PM.

-Enjoy a Children’s Playground in the People’s Playground! Free Balloons, Games, Bubble Machine, Storytime and Stilt Walker. From 1PM-4PM.

Childs medallion at Coney Island History Project

Coney Island History Project, West 12th St next to the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel

- FREE Admission! View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and film, and the special exhibit “Neptune Revisited: Terra Cotta Relics from the Childs Building, Last of Coney Island's Boardwalk Palaces" at the Coney Island History Project exhibition center. A selection of original polychrome pieces from the Childs Restaurant Building is on display along with archival photographs, ephemera, and an illustrated timeline of the history of the building and its restoration. From 12-7PM.

-Take free souvenir photos with an original Steeplechase horse, from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name, and the iconic Cyclops head from Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Spook-A-Rama, Coney Island's oldest dark ride. See Coney Island’s oldest surviving artifact, the 1823 Toll House sign dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to “the Island” was 5 cents! From 1-7PM.

For updates on History Day and other Coney news, follow the Coney Island History Project on Facebook, Instagram and twitter. Follow Deno's Wonder Wheel Park on Facebook, Instagram and twitter.

Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project

3059 West 12th Street, Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY 11224

D, F, N or Q train to Stillwell Terminal

Phone: 347-702-8553 (Coney Island History Project)

Phone: 718-372-2592 (Deno's Wonder Wheel Park)

http://www.coneyislandhistory.org

http://www.denoswonderwheel.com

Terra Cotta Relics from the Childs Building

The Coney Island History Project's special exhibition for the 2017 season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, is "Neptune Revisited: Terra Cotta Relics from the Childs Building, Last of Coney Island's Boardwalk Palaces." A selection of original polychrome pieces from the Childs Restaurant Building will be on display along with archival photographs, ephemera, and an illustrated timeline of the history of the building and its restoration.

Childs Restaurant Building on the Coney Island Boardwalk has a remarkable history that spans nearly a century. Completed in 1924, and originally the flagship location for the Childs Restaurant chain, the building has served as a candy factory, a book warehouse, and a roller rink. The fireproof building also acted as a firebreak during the disastrous fire of 1932, stopping the flames and saving the amusement area from destruction. Childs survived years of isolation at the westernmost fringe of Coney Island's amusement zone as everything else around it closed down and was demolished.

The landmark building's colorful, nautical-themed terra-cotta façade, marble columns, and multi-arched entranceway, have charmed and mystified Boardwalk visitors for nearly a century. One of the most striking images on the building is a medallion of King Neptune with gold crown and trident, rising from the sea, dripping with seaweed, and gazing out as if serving as guardian of the Boardwalk. The Childs Building, now connected to the adjacent Ford Amphitheater, recently underwent a magnificent, multi-million dollar restoration and has once again reopened as a restaurant. Last May, prior to the opening of the Amphitheater, Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson made a short film about the building's history and future, which may be viewed here.

The building's restoration included replication and replacement of the beautiful but seriously damaged terra-cotta decorations that covered the facade. Hundreds of replications were lovingly hand-painted and hand finished by the Boston Valley Terra-Cotta Company in Buffalo, New York. Visitors to the Coney Island History Project can now get an up-close view of many of the original polychrome terra-cotta pieces that were removed, including the King Neptune medallion and a medallion showing an image of the Boardwalk and building that was hidden away for decades on an interior wall of the restaurant.

Childs Building Medallion at Coney Island History Project

Original Terra cotta medallion showing an image of the Childs Building from an interior wall of the restaurant is on view in the Coney Island History Project exhibit. The medallion is 48 inches in diameter. Photo by Charles Denson

 The Coney Island History Project exhibition center is open free of charge on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day. 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 Coney Island's only original Steeplechase horse, from the legendary ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Among the rare treasures on display is Coney Island's oldest surviving artifact from the dawn of the "World's Playground." The 1823 Toll House sign dates back to the days when the toll for a horse and rider to "the Island" was 5 cents!

posted May 18th, 2017 in Events and tagged with Childs Building, Childs Restaurant, Terra Cotta,...

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at the Coney Island History Project

When the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops left Coney Island in 2014 for a national tour of art museums as part of the NEH-funded Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art exhibit "Coney Island Visions of an American Dreamland," the identity of the artist who created this fabulous piece of folk art remained unknown. Until now. 

The Cyclops - or "Cy" as we affectionately call him - has returned home to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and beginning Memorial Day Weekend will be on display at the Coney Island History Project along with documentation of the artist who created the iconic sculpture and its mesmerizing moving eye nearly 60 years ago. 

Thanks to the reminiscences of a former neighbor, who recalled the artist building the figure in his yard, the Coney Island History Project has learned that he was Dan Casola (1902-1990), a Coney Islander known to us by reputation as a highly regarded painter of sideshow banners. Less well known is that he made mechanized props and painted signs for a number of Coney Island attractions including the 1950's dark ride Spook-A-Rama, created wax figures for Lillie Santangelo's World in Wax Musee, and painted the mural over the bar at Club Atlantis on the Boardwalk. Born in Italy, Dan Casola's family emigrated to New York when he was a child. He lived and worked in Coney Island until the late 1970s when he retired to Arizona. 

Interviews with Dan Casola's daughter Patricia Casola and son Wesley Casola recorded by Charles Denson for the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive provide details of their father's life as a freelance artist. Patricia Casola describes him as a tinkerer and a self-taught man who told her, "I learned by doing this," when she asked where he got his skill and inspiration. Says Wesley Casola, who recalls his father creating the Cyclops from plywood, chicken wire and sheets of celastic, "it'd be nice for him to get some credit for it."

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at the Coney Island History Project

Thousands of visitors have taken souvenir photos, videos and selfies with the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at the Coney Island History Project. The Cyclops eye moves back and forth and glows red at night. Photo: Coney Island History Project

The artist had a penchant for maintaining multiple studios, including two in the family's home on Stillwell Avenue and a secret studio behind Spook-A-Rama, where they brought him dinner. Boxes full of glass eyeballs for the taking and free rides were some of the perks of being Danny's kids. The artist's appropriation of household items such as his wife's black brassiere and his children's wind-up toys for his spooky creations was legend. The interviews are available for online listening on the Coney Island History Project's website.

The circa 1955 Spook-A-Rama, located in Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, is Coney Island's oldest operating dark ride. In September 2011, the Cyclops, a Coney Island legend that had originally sat atop the roof of Spook-A-Rama but had not been seen for decades, came out of retirement to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the Coney Island History Project. After being stabilized it became the centerpiece of our induction ceremony and a popular attraction at the History Project exhibition center from 2012 through 2014. 

As part of the traveling exhibit "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland," the Cyclops traveled for the past two years in the company of artwork by some of America's most distinguished artists to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, San Diego Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum and San Antonio Museum of Art. 

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at Brooklyn Museum

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops on view in "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland" at the Brooklyn Museum in 2016 with Charles Denson's photo of Cyclops atop Spook-A-Rama as a backdrop and Arnold Mesches' painting "Anomie 2001: Coney" featuring the Cyclops. Photo: Brooklyn Museum 

"The sculpture is unique, one-of-a-kind, a throwback to the hand-made craftsmanship and creativity that made Coney the center of the amusement universe," said Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. 

The Spook-A-Rama Cyclops will be on view at the Coney Island History Project exhibition center located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, just a few steps off the Boardwalk. The History Project is open Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day from 1-7pm. Admission is free of charge. 

posted May 15th, 2017 in History and tagged with Spook-A-Rama, Cyclops, Artist Unknown,...

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Among the additions to the Coney Island History Project's online Oral History Archive in 2017 are the following interviews recorded by Amanda Deutch, Charles Denson, Kaara Baptiste, Leslee Dean, Mark Markov, and Samira Tazari. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story, sign up here.

Steve Larkin has vivid anecdotes about working for Bob Myers, "The Chairman of the Boardwalk," at a Coney Island beach chair and umbrella rental company in the 1970s. Getting working papers when he turned 14 and working his way up from "schlepping chairs" to being a cashier was a rite of passage. 

Charles Robert Feltman, great-grandson of Feltmans Restaurant founder and hot dog inventor Charles Feltman, tells the family history, describes what Coney Island was like in the 1940s, and reveals why the family is no longer in the hot dog business.

Grace Lo has been a homeowner and community activist in Coney Island's West End since 1989. "At that time we were immigrants who took a chance to live in what people said was not a good neighborhood," Lo explains. "We wanted to make the community better."

Harold J. Kramer and Linda Kramer Evans share their family history and childhood memories of visiting their Great-Aunt Molly and Great-Uncle George. The couple owned and operated Coney Island's Thunderbolt and lived in the house under the roller coaster which was later immortalized in Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall. 

Brooklyn resident Ronald Wimberly is a storyteller, cartoonist and designer whose graphic novel Prince of Cats is partly set in Coney Island. His retelling of Romeo and Juliet mixes comics, hip-hop and Shakespearian poetry, which he describes as "a take on '80s New York as if it were five years after The Warriors." 

Gravesend native Donna Bianco became a police officer at age 22 and was assigned to Coney Island in the 1980s and '90s, when the neighborhood was crime-ridden and scarred with abandoned buildings. Bianco, whose mother enjoyed Coney Island in its heyday, says she learned to love her beat and its sense of history. 

Barry Yanowitz grew up in Trump Village in Coney Island where he could see the Cyclone and hear the screams of riders from his window. In the early 2000's, an interest in history drew him to photography as a way to document the changes he saw in Coney Island and the rest of New York City. He talks about being a street photographer and his favorite photographs of Coney Island.

Dionne Brown grew up in Surfside Houses, has lived in Coney Island all her life, and works here as Assemblymember Pamela Harris's Deputy Chief of Staff. Writing as D.L. Jordan, she is the author of Living Life Like It's Golden, which describes the epiphany she reached when she turned 40. The book's subtitle is "The Latter Years of My Life Shall Be the BEST Years of My Life!"

Eliot Wofse, who grew up in Luna Park Houses, shares memories of the amusement area as his boyhood playground. He reflects on his philosophy of running amusement games, which he did for a living from the 1960s through the early '80s and again in the late 2000s, and the unsustainable cost of private proprietors like himself doing business in the new, corporatized Coney Island.

Susan Hochtman Creatura recalls living in Coney Island Houses when it was new and her Jewish immigrant grandparents, who lived nearby. Her parents marveled that this New York City housing complex for working class people was located right on the beach. "They talked about how Coney Island was a paradise," she says. "They had so much fun here, they didn't feel poor." 

Yoga and meditation teacher Chia-Ti Chiu has been teaching Yoga on the Beach in Coney Island since 2014.The idea for the donation-based classes on the beach off West 19th Street originated with Coney Island's Lola Star. "Having our view be the ocean, I often refer to it," says Chia-Ti. "How can you live a life as expansive as the horizon?" 

Al Burgo, who grew up in Gravesend Houses in Coney Island's West End in the 1960s, tells stories of street games and streetwise hijinks. Burgo's first job as a boy was shining shoes on the Boardwalk, an experience that he made into the 2013 film Shoe Shine Chicken. As a teen he had a thriving business selling knishes on the beach.

posted Apr 10th, 2017 in History and tagged with oral history, Oral History Archive, Coney Island,...

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Visit the Coney Island History Project's Oral History Archive to listen online to audio interviews with Coney Island residents, business owners, and visitors - both past and present. Among the additions to our online archive in 2016 are the following interviews recorded in English, Spanish and Russian. Please listen, share, and if you or someone you know would like to record a story, sign up here.

Artist Johanna Gargiulo Sherman shares vivid memories of growing up in Coney Island, where her family lived on Mermaid Avenue above the Carolina Restaurant. Her father Joe "Carolina" Gargiulo led a musical trio and was one of the partners in this popular Italian restaurant from 1947 through the 1980s. 

Ecuadorian-born Julio Sauce is a Gravesend resident who has been running in the Coney Island 5K, Brooklyn Half Marathon and New York Marathon since 1998 and is among the fastest local runners in his age category. The interview was recorded in Spanish and includes Spanish and English transcripts.

Shirley Aikens, president of the Carey Gardens Tenants Association and a member of Community Board 13, recounts moving to Carey Gardens with her one-year-old daughter in the 1970s, her first impressions of Coney Island, and how the community has changed over the years.

Antoinette Balzano, a granddaughter of Anthony "Totonno" Pero, the founder of Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitana, tells her family's story. Pizzas have been made in the same way at the Neptune Avenue restaurant since 1924.

Cultural Research Divers' founder Gene Ritter is a Coney Island native, environmental advocate, commercial diver and educator who grew up on West 16th Street. He shares his knowledge of oceans, estuaries, and Coney Island Creek.

Alfie Davis, who has lived in Coney Island for nearly 40 years and is the Tenant Association Leader of the Sea Rise I complex in Coney's West End, tells the story of three generations of her family.

Coney Island History Project Oral History Archive

Coney Island resident Derrick Batts opened Coney Island Hook and Bait Shop on West 24th Street off Mermaid Avenue in May. He recounts learning about life from fishing and gardening, both of which he was introduced to as a boy by older members of the community, and passing on that knowledge to young people.

Candi Rafael, whose family operates games on Coney Island's Bowery, grew up here and started helping out as an eight-year-old. Now 22, she demonstrates the spiel that she uses to call people in to play the games and describes what it's like to work in Coney Island. 

On her first day back in Coney Island since 1959, Kathy Duke O'Melia shares memories of joyful summers spent with her family at a bungalow colony located on West 31st Street near Coney Island Creek. 

Commendatore Aldo Mancusi, the founder of the Enrico Caruso Museum of America, recalls visiting Coney Island in the 1930s and '40s and growing up in Brooklyn in an Italian family.

Historian Eric K. Washington delves into the life of E.J. Perry, an African-American silhouette artist who worked in the early 20th century at 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."

Coney Island resident Zinovy Pritsker emigrated from Leningrad to Southern Brooklyn in 1978. His jazz big band, founded 20 years ago, consists of 18 Russian musicians and singers plus a few Americans. The interview was recorded in Russian and includes Russian and English transcripts.

posted Dec 27th, 2016 in History and tagged with oral history, Oral History Archive, Interviews,...