As we near the end of 2023, the Coney Island History Project pays tribute to five Brooklynites that we lost this year who recorded their stories for our oral history archive: Eliot Wofse, Michael Onorato, Ralph Perfetto, Santos Torres, and Sofya Lobova. Their stories captivated, inspired and informed us and they will never be forgotten.
“Well, in the early sixties, my brothers worked for different people in Coney Island and I would visit them. I was a little kid. And how I started was, my brothers worked in the balloon game and I would go into the back of the balloon game and blow up the balloons. There was no machines in those days to blow up the balloons. I spent the whole day blowing up the balloons and I got good money cause in those days, you're lucky if you got paid 50 cents an hour, I was getting paid almost $2.00 an hour. So they were paying me to blow up these balloons in the back of the house, because at my age, which was about eight years old at the time, you couldn't be in front of the house.” – Eliot Wofse
Eliot Wofse grew up in Luna Park Houses across the street from the amusement area and by the time he was a teenager he had learned how to run any game. He recalls the 1960s through the mid- '70s, when he made good money, and the "scary times,” the late 1970s and early '80s, when "the City forgot about Coney Island." After a long hiatus, Wofse returned to Coney and successfully operated the fishbowl game in 2010 and 2011. In his oral history, he reflects on his philosophy of running amusement games and interacting with customers, and the unsustainable cost of private proprietors like himself doing business in the new, corporatized Coney Island.
“Once I got a little older that I could come down to Coney Island by myself on the subway, I sometimes would stand out on the Parachute Jump's platform. And if someone came along that didn't have anybody, the ride attendant would sort of gimme a 'Hey, Mike! Mike, would you like to ride? Go up with the guy.' Oh yeah, sure, sure. You know? Yeah. And then of course sometimes when I went up on a date they'd stop the ride going up, you know, thinking that that was fun for me. Well, my father spotted that once or twice and he told them, 'Don't you ever do that again. Because no one's gonna understand that he's the boss's son. You're giving him a time to kiss the girl. You know what I mean?' He said, 'That's not fun for me, the manager. Send him up. He goes up and he comes down like anyone else.'”—Michael Onorato
Michael Onorato was the son of James Onorato, who was the general manager of Steeplechase Park from 1928 to 1964, when it closed. He remembers the park in vivid detail and describes growing up there. In his oral history, he gives a start-to-finish account of going on the Parachute Jump and the Steeplechase ride including details long forgotten by most visitors about how the staff operated the rides.
“I was born at 2711 West 16th Street. I was delivered by a midwife in a house owned by my maternal grandparents. In fact, it's the house that my mother was born in 22 years to the day before me. And the family story has it, that my mother was in labor. She had her oldest sister with her, who was a nurse in World War I so was familiar with how to take care of her. And my mother had an urge for a Nathan's hot dog. So she said to my father Frank, I feel like having a hot dog. My father said I'll go get it. But on the way to Nathan's, he got involved in a card game. He had a friend who was the father of Lou Salica, the three-time bantamweight champ. Got involved in a card game. And when my aunt finally ran up to him and said, the midwife just delivered you a nice son, he ran up and got the hot dog. At that point my mother wasn't really interested in the hot dog. Basically, so that was my start.” – Ralph Perfetto
In his oral history, Ralph Perfetto describes the diversity of West 16th Street in Coney Island, where he grew up. He talks about the various jobs he had as a young man --picking vegetables at local farms where the Coney Island train yards are located now and tending to the horses at the local stable. In the 1970s, Perfetto led the fight to save Coney Island’s Italian neighborhood from urban renewal, including the house where he was born. He went on to become the area’s Democratic District Leader. In recent years, he found a second career, as an actor named Raffaelo Perfetto, in the movie The Irishman and The Good Wife.
“I help everybody in the community, whenever they need any vegetable, I give it to them. I don't sell nothing. I give it to them. Eggs. I give them to the community. I give them everything I grow here, I give it, you know, I give it away. All the neighbors, everybody comes they have a pantry. Santos, can I get some red peppers? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Santo,s can I get some duck eggs? Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Take your eggs. Yeah. Yeah. Santos, can I get some collard greens? Can I get the cabbage? Can I get the okra? I give it away. Yeah. I just share with the community. That's what I do here. I share with everybody.” – Santos Torres
Santos Torres lived in Coney Island since 1973, playing music on the Boardwalk and tending the Santos White Community Garden. Located on Mermaid Avenue, the garden was founded in 1995 and is part of the City's GreenThumb network of community gardens. In his oral history, Torres says that he named it Santos White because everything was painted white. He kept roosters, chickens and ducks, and grew a variety of vegetables, sharing the eggs and produce with his neighbors. Torres recalled learning to garden from watching his father as a young boy in Puerto Rico. Picturesque statues dot the garden, which was rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy and was the gardener's "home away from home."
“We went straight to Brooklyn. Then we got an apartment in Coney Island on Surf Avenue. My husband and I promptly went to Haber House Senior Center. Well, they said, “You need to help us." I, of course, loved being helpful with all my heart. That's how I grew up and that's how my parents raised me. There were many events held for the veterans. People wanted to talk, they wanted to talk about their fate. So, I held a series of these evenings when they talked about emigration, when they talked about the Holocaust, or where they had been. Those who were in the concentration camps brought the things that they saved. The mother of the head of the Haber House was in a German camp. And she brought a knitted shawl made of goat down, which she had preserved in the camp. Every person poured out their soul and these evenings became a habit.” – Sofya Lobova
Sofya Lobova was born in Kyiv in 1935 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1995. In her oral history, Lobova vividly describes her childhood memories of having to evacuate during World War II and her career working in Kyiv's Department of Culture. In Brooklyn, she became one of the leaders of the Russian-speaking community in Coney Island. Lobova was a longtime resident of NYCHA's Haber Houses and was the president of its senior center for many years.
Photo Credits: Charles Denson (Perfetto), Julia Kanin (Lobova), Dan Pisark (Onorato), Fran Bass Serlin (Wofse), Samira Tazari (Torres)