Coney Island Blog - Video Posts

Trailer Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland

Official Trailer: Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008

On Saturday, February 28th, Charles Denson will present a slide talk on the Coney Island History Project's mission and origins as part of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art's Coney Island Symposium: An Intersection of Art and Identity. The exhibit Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, which opened on January 31st at the Wadsworth, features more than 140 paintings, drawings, photographs, prints, posters, architectural artifacts, carousel animals, ephemera and film clips. The symposium begins with a keynote address by Exhibition Curator and Chief Curator Robin Jaffee Frank, followed by a series of panel discussions and special presentations.

Charles Denson has been a consultant and a member of the exhibit's project team for the past six years and has contributed numerous ephemera and prints from his personal archive, as well as writing a chapter for the exhibit's catalog. He also recorded descriptions of artwork for the show's audio tour. Selections from the Coney Island History Project's vast archive of oral history recordings were used in the "Step Right Up!" interactive listening station that accompanies the show.

"Robin Jaffee Frank first contacted me in 2009, during the show's earliest planning stage," Denson said. "At our first group meeting at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2010, Robin revealed her ambitious plan for a show that explored Coney Island in a way that had never been attempted before. Her Coney Island theme included artifacts, prints, film, sheet music, and the best examples of modern art as well as the classical paintings that depict the earliest years of Coney Island, a subject that I had always found fascinating. I am extremely honored to be a part of this exhibition."

Charles Denson and Robin Jaffee Frank

Charles Denson and Robin Jaffee Frank, 2012

Among the artifacts in the Wadsworth exhibit is the 1955 Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which was a popular attraction at the Coney Island History Project's exhibit center for the past two years. According to a review of the Wadsworth show in the Hartford Courant, "The five-foot-tall wall-mounted sculpture, loaned to the exhibit by the family who runs Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, is installed at the entrance to the exhibit galleries, flanked by two creepy paintings by Arnold Mesches, in which Cy presides over sinister-looking amusement parks."

The Coney Island exhibit is on view in Hartford through May 31, 2015 before traveling to the San Diego Museum of Art, July 11, 2015 - October 13, 2015; Brooklyn Museum, November 20, 2015 - March 13, 2016; and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, May 11, 2016 - September 11, 2016.

Cyclops Wadsworth Athenuem

Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's Stacy Vourderis visiting the park's Spook-A-Rama Cyclops, which is part of the Coney Island exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT

posted Feb 23rd, 2015 in Events and tagged with art, Charles Denson, Coney Island,...

After closing his Mermaid Avenue market in 2009, Jimmy Prince, now 82, remains active and was profiled in New York Magazine’s “My Day.” In the summer, he volunteers at the Coney Island History Project exhibit center, where his longtime customers are delighted to see him again.

“Prince of Mermaid Avenue,” a film about Jimmy Prince by History Project Executive Director Charles Denson, is now available for viewing on his Coneyologist channel on YouTube. The film won Best Documentary at the 2009 Coney Island Film Festival. This 60-minute feature is based on more than 60 hours of raw footage shot over a three-year period.

Jimmy Prince was the last link to what Mermaid Avenue meant to Coney Island in the “good old days.” The Avenue was once a bustling street of family-run mom-and-pop stores. Each block had bakeries, luncheonettes, five-and-dimes, clothing and shoe stores, furniture stores, delis, and butchers. It was a tight-knit community.

The city’s urban renewal plan of the 1960s called for the demolition of the entire West End, including Mermaid Avenue, and few businesses survived the development onslaught. Jimmy Prince transformed his Major Meat Market into the soul of an earlier era, a cordial oasis of tradition and hope, a throwback to what Coney Island was and what many dreamed it could be again one day. Prince worked at Major’s for sixty years, seven days a week, twelve hours a day, and formed a unique relationship with a community that hungered for respect.

When he finally faced retirement,the decsion to close the store dragged on for over a year. He dreaded making a formal announcement about the store’s closing, but his friends could sense it was coming. His loyal customers expressed their love for him and their fear for a future without him. This film documents Jimmy’s decision to retire and the painful process of leaving the Coney Island community that he loved and supported for so many years.

Jimmy Prince Coney Island History Project

Jimmy Prince poses for photo with visitors from Spain on a recent Coney Island History Project Walking Tour. The Prince of Mermaid Avenue, who had just come from a walk to and from Sea Gate and a bite to eat at Tom's, stopped to regale the group with Coney Island stories

"Coney Island Creek: An Uncertain Future," a film by Charles Denson, was recently screened at Coney Island Library and is now up on Denson's Coneyologist channel on YouTube. Featuring interviews with stakeholders including local residents, ecologists, anglers, birders, divers, park volunteers, teachers, and the Brooklyn Parks Commissioner. The 18 minute video is part of a longer documentary film project currently underway.

"I grew up near Coney Island Creek and began photographing it in the 60's when the waterway was at its lowest point, polluted and neglected, but I always knew there was something special about the creek and that it would survive," Denson says in the film's introduction. Today, the future of Coney Island Creek is uncertain. Will it be an asset or a liability? The city is currently funding a feasibility study to decide whether to dam up the creek by building a tidal barrier with culverts, a move that would most likely turn the waterway into a toxic cesspool and do little to prevent flooding. Will Coney Island Creek become a restored wetland that prevents flooding or will it become a hazard to the community? Informed community input is vital.

posted Nov 25th, 2014 in Film and tagged with Charles Denson, Coney Island Creek, creek,...

Coney Island Dune

Remember the dunes that were created by the US Army Corps of Engineers on West 15th Street after Sandy? "Coney Island Dune: Leaving Sandy Behind" by Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson is a lyrical look at the temporary sand dunes. The sand was cleaned and then returned to the beach by the Parks Department after having been collected from the streets where it had been swept by the storm. You can see the film on Denson's Coneyologist channel on YouTube. Also on view are "Requiem for the Astrotower," "Woody Guthrie's 100th Birthday, Celebrated at Coney Island" and "Secrets of the Universe," a short that premiered at the 2010 Coney Island Film Festival.

posted Sep 24th, 2013 in Film and tagged with beach, Charles Denson, Coney Island,...

Astrotower_Charles Denson

Coney Island’s Astrotower was much more than an amusement ride. It served as a symbol of hope. To those of us living in Coney Island in the early 1960s, the tower represented the future of Coney Island, a sign that the neighborhood would survive the city’s urban renewal schemes.

At that time, most of the neighborhood was slated for demolition, and former amusement sites were being converted to housing. Venerable Steeplechase Park closed down the same year that the tower went up. The Albert family took a huge personal risk when they built Astroland and the Astrotower. When the tower was completed in 1964, Coney Island had a bright new landmark proclaiming that the amusement zone would not be wiped away.

The tower was never a thrill ride. It provided an overview, an aerial perspective on Coney Island. The Astrotower was not an ornate or baroque tower like the ones at Dreamland and the old Luna. It was a utilitarian structure, much like Coney’s first tall attraction, the 300-foot Iron Tower, built in the 1870s to resemble a giant oil rig. The Astrotower had idiosyncrasies: it liked to sing and dance, to sway in the wind as the cables hummed a mournful tune. This proved to be its undoing.

Back in the 1970s, when the iconic Parachute Jump was a rusting abandoned relic, there were constant calls for its demolition. But it survived its critics and is now restored as the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn. The Astrotower would not be so lucky.

When the Coney Island History Project exhibit center opened below the Cyclone in 2007, I got to know the Astrotower’s longtime caretaker, Frank Pugliesi. On Sunday mornings I’d accompany him to the top while he did the weekly maintenance. Frank was an elevator mechanic, and he kept the tower in top shape. The motor room atop the tower looked like new, always clean and freshly painted in bright colors.

Toward the end, some saw the Astrotower as a relic, a leftover that did not belong in the “new” Coney Island. But the truth is that there might not have been a Coney Island for the latest regime to “rescue” if not for the enormous personal investment made by the Albert family in the early 1960s. The tower was a lasting reminder of the optimism that investment represented.

There was a recent plan to decorate the tower with pinwheels and lights, in sync with the new lighting on the Parachute Jump. It would have been beautifully repurposed. But it was not to be, and the Astrotower joins Coney’s towers of the past, a page in history. The tower went out in a dramatic fashion on the Fourth of July weekend 2013 in a fog of hysteria, false rumors, and conflicting reports. It was condemned and cut into pieces and unceremoniously hauled off to a junkyard. Was Hurricane Sandy to blame, or the removal of the observation car and counterweights that always kept it balanced? Or was the tower just trying to escape, its mission accomplished?

The Astrotower cannot be replaced, but another symbol of optimism is waiting in the wings. Now is the time to bring back the Astroland Rocket! --- Charles Denson

posted Jul 25th, 2013 in News and tagged with Albert family, Astroland, Astrotower,...

The Coney Island History Project, destroyed by Superstorm Sandy, reopens on March 24th to record the oral histories of the storm!

posted Mar 18th, 2013 in News and tagged with
posted Jul 31st, 2011 in News and tagged with

 

Coney Island and Astroland tells the story of Coney Island's evolution by exploring its changing architectural streetscape through never before seen images from the Astroland Archive, the Coney Island History Project Archive, and his personal collection. The book is part of Arcadia's Images of America series and was released on June 13.

 

Signed copies of Coney Island and Astroland (128 pages, $21.99) will be available for purchase at the Coney Island History Project exhibition center and via our website. On Saturday, June 25, Charles Denson will be at the Coney Island History Project for a book signing event. The event is scheduled for 2 - 5 pm at our exhibition center at 3059 West 12th Street, just off the Boardwalk.

posted Jun 16th, 2011 in News and tagged with