John Bonsignore: Man of the Year, 2005. John and Louise are honored for their work and dedication to the Italian-American community. Photo by Charles Denson
Coney Island is known for bright lights and one of the brightest was John Bonsignore, who passed away on March 20 at the age of 92. John represented Coney’s “old breed”: a talented engineer and inventor who could build or fix anything. He was best known for rebuilding and operating the Bobsled ride after his father brought it to Coney Island from the 1939–40 World’s Fair. John’s family also owned the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway, Coney Island’s biggest roller coaster, as well as Stauch’s Baths, the largest bathhouse on the Boardwalk. The Bonsignore family owned property and amusements from one end of the island to other.
In 2006, I wrote a book about the Bonsignore family called Wild Ride. The book was the culmination of a multi-year research project aided by the family’s records, and photo albums, as well as oral histories that I recorded at the time. Sometimes we worked in John’s oak paneled home office but mostly we talked during the lavish, multi-course family dinners prepared by his glamorous opera singer wife, Louise. I was always treated like family.
John and Louise on the Bobsled in the 1940s: The cover of Wild Ride!
At the Bonsignore home I heard incredible tales about the “Wizards of 8th Street,” the immigrant artisans of Coney Island’s amusement manufacturing district who created magic behind the scenes for nearly a century. West 8th Street was once home to woodcarvers, banner painters, machinists, blacksmiths, electricians, sculptors, and visionaries. Thanks to John, the culture and history of that era will not be forgotten.
John and Louise raised their family in a three-story brick building ensconced below the last turn of their Thompson Coaster on West 8th Street, a structure that had once been the offices of LaMarcus A. Thompson, inventor of the roller coaster. John was a large man whose gruff voice was tempered by his intelligence, kindness, and ironic sense of humor. His life played out in two acts. Late in life he enjoyed a successful career in business, but early in life he was a member of the Coney Island elite, the small brotherhood of skilled craftsmen who possessed unusual talents and were mostly invisible, working behind the scenes with a single-minded dedication to the task at hand. They were not the showmen or impresarios who sought the public’s attention. Without these craftsmen, Coney Island’s amusements could not have existed.
Within this fraternity John stood out from the rest. John Bonsignore was a talented man who possesed that rarest of qualities: the total respect of his peers. In all my years in Coney Island, I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about John Bonsignore. John lived up to the translation of the Bonsignore name: “a good man.” He was truly a good man who left the world a better place.
A veteran of World War Two, John Bonsignore was laid to rest at Greenwood Cemetery with full military honors. © Charles Denson