The Face of Steeplechase, Coney Island History Project

The Coney Island History Project's first special exhibit of the season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, will be "The Face of Steeplechase Park: Gams, Garters, and Stockings!" A look behind the smiling face of Steeplechase Park features rare photographs and artwork from the park's opening to its demolition, 1897-1966.

Opening 50 years after the closure of Steeplechase Park and 100 years after the death of the park's founder, George C. Tilyou, the exhibit at the Coney Island History Project explores the underlying success of the park and the evolution and meaning of its idiosyncratic logo -- the "Steeplechase Funny Face."

Tilyou, an expert at crowd psychology, began his career as a young boy selling bottles of sand to visitors at his father's beachfront bathhouse and restaurant during the 1860s. Decades later, he created Steeplechase Park, Coney's most successful and long-lived amusement park.

The park's quirky trademark was the grinning "Funny Face," an enigmatic symbol of the park's underlying theme of merriment, hilarity, and, most importantly, sex. The much-imitated face underwent numerous revisions during the park's run. Sometimes it was a gleeful, maniacal visage; at other times, it appeared as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa. Was the face a mask for Tilyou or did it represent his true personality? This exhibit examines the many variations through the decades.

Highbrow and lowbrow culture existed simultaneously at Steeplechase. The 15-acre park was an enclosed wonderland composed of classical architecture and formal gardens tended by brightly uniformed employees. But underlying it was a theme of sex and titillation, a beguilingly Victorian version of sexuality and romance expressed by a leg or petticoat exposed by a tumble or a hidden jet of air. The experience was simultaneously innocent and kinky.

The Insanitorium Steeplechase Park, Coney Island History Project

Tilyou forced the visitor to be part of the show. His main attractions were designed to offer the public a combination of voyeurism and exhibitionism, to put them onstage and make them part of the act. The Insanitorium (originally called the Blow Hole Theater), the Barrel of Love, the Human Roulette Wheel, and the Bounding Billows were contraptions created to break down inhibitions by luring visitors into disorienting traps where anyone "could end up in an intimate arm-and-leg tangle with complete strangers."

Looking back, 50 years after the park closed, it's difficult to believe that something like the Blow Hole Theater, with its hallucinatory stage set, electric paddle-wielding clown, and skirt-lifting air grates, lasted as long as it did. Many of the park's attractions could not exist in today's litigious, politically correct culture. The only survivor of this bizarre period remains the iconic Funny Face, the symbol of an innocent and repressed world.

"The Face of Steeplechase" is curated by Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. The exhibit is on view from May 24 through September 1 (Labor Day), 2014. The Coney Island History Project's exhibition center is located under Deno's Wonder Wheel Park's iconic entrance sign at 3059 West 12th Street, just a few steps off the Boardwalk. View historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past and special exhibits. Our popular Steeplechase Horse from the ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name is on display along with Spook-A-Rama's Cyclops from Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, hand-painted figures from Astroland's Musik Express, a Mangels Fairy Whip Car made in Coney Island in the early 1900s, and vintage signs and game pieces.

The exhibit center is open Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day, from 12 noon till 6pm. Admission is free of charge.

The Face of Steeplechase, Coney Island History Project
posted May 19th, 2014 in Events and tagged with Charles Denson, Coney Island, Coney Island History Project,...
The corner with Rita's Italian Ices in 2014

Corner of West 15th St and Surf Avenue with Rita's Italian Ices, 2014

Coney Island fell victim to devastating urban renewal projects in the 1950s and 1960s. More than a thousand viable apartment buildings, homes, and businesses were condemned and demolished by the city during this terrible period. A few buildings were fortunate to escape the urban renewal onslaught. Some can be found in the West End, and a few are located in the amusement zone.

Most of the surviving structures in the amusement area are hidden behind altered facades, having been repurposed dozens of times during the last century. The fascinating histories of these structures are not known to the public or even to the buildings’ owners. I’ve created this survey of these buildings to show how the structures were transformed through the decades. This will be the first in a series.

The Capitol Hotel Coney Island

The Capitol Hotel and Korbel Bakery, West 15th Street and Surf Avenue circa 1899

We begin with two buildings located at Surf Avenue on West 15th Street. The three-story frame building on the corner, erected in the 1890s, was once the Capitol Hotel. Hand-lettered signs in the oldest photo point to the hotel’s horse stables on West 15th Street and list the hotel restaurant’s specialties: “Clams, Oysters, Chops and Roast Game.” Next to the signs is an advertisement for Steeplechase Park. The smaller two-story building to the right is Korbel’s Bakery. The bakery building was later raised and a third story added.

Capitol Building

The Capitol and bakery buildings in 1921

In the 1920s photo, the Capitol has changed its name to Villa Penza, and the bakery has become the Parkway Bakery and Restaurant. Over the years the Capitol building has been occupied by a variety of tenants including the Draft Board and the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. During the last two decades, the corner was home to an old-style Coney Island “social club” that recently relocated up the block to make way for Rita’s Italian Ices, a new business that opened in April 2014. Both buildings have undergone enormous changes during the last century, losing their covered wooden porches, shutters, and clapboard and shingle exteriors. Luckily, the buildings are viable and can still be identified by their existing rooftop cornices.

Capitol Hotel

The Capitol Hotel and Korbel Bakery circa 1899 (left). The Capitol building in 2003 (right)

This post is part of series titled "Then and Now: Finding Coney Island's Hidden Landmarks" by Charles Denson in the Director's Blog.

posted May 2nd, 2014 in By Charles Denson and tagged with adaptive reuse, architecture, Capitol Hotel,...
The Face of Steeplechase

You're invited to preview the Coney Island History Project's exhibition center season on Coney Island's Opening Day. 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the Coney Island History Project! Ten years ago our oral history project began with a portable recording booth and proved to be so popular that we later expanded to a permanent location. Stop by our exhibit center to view historic artifacts, photographs, maps, ephemera and films of Coney Island's colorful past and preview selections from upcoming exhibits.

Located on West 12th Street at the entrance to Deno's Wonder Wheel Park, the Coney Island History Project will be open on Palm Sunday, April 13th, and again on Easter Sunday, April 20th, from 1:00PM till 6:00PM. Our regular exhibition season is from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, from 12 noon. Admission is free of charge.

Palm Sunday is the official season opener for Coney Island's rides and attractions. The Opening Day celebration starts at 11AM with the annual tradition of the Blessing of the Rides at Deno's Wonder Wheel Park by Pastor Debbe Santiago of Coney Island's Salt and Sea Mission, and is followed by the Egg Cream Christening of the Cyclone's front car at 12 noon. Our special guest at the Coney Island History Project will be the legendary Cyclops from Deno's Spook-A-Rama dark ride. Visitors are invited to take a FREE souvenir photo with the Cyclops or an original Steeplechase horse from the ride that gave Steeplechase Park its name. Hope to see you at the festivities!

Under the Wonder Wheel on West 12th Street


Our first special exhibit of the season, opening on Memorial Day Weekend, will be "The Face of Steeplechase: The Evolution of an Icon," in honor of the 50th anniversary of the closing of Steeplechase Park (1897-1964) and the 100th anniversary of the death of Steeplechase creator George C. Tilyou (1862-1914).

Tilyou's "Funny Face" dates back to the early days of Steeplechase, where the famous visage appeared on signs, murals and ride tickets. Today in Coney Island, you can see variations of the Funny Face - on signs, beer labels, t-shirts, etc. "Tillie" is the New Jersey variation of Coney Island's Funny Face and was painted in the '50s at Asbury Park in homage to the Coney original! Coney Island West End 1974


By popular demand, one of the slide shows we'll have in our exhibit center this season will feature never-before-seen images of the West End from Charles Denson's archive and photos that he took in the 1970s. "The West End of Coney Island is a vibrant and resilient community that's survived many challenges over the last few decades," said Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. "I grew up there and documented the wave of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed our community and changed the lives of its residents. This slide show tells the story of the area going back to 1600s."

Titled "The History of Coney Island's West End and the Presence and Contributions of African Americans in Coney Island from the 1600s to the Present," the photos were shown for the first time in February at a Black History Month celebration and panel co-hosted by Mathylde Frontus of Urban Neighborhood Services and sponsored by U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, City Councilman Mark Treyger, State Senator Diane Savino, State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, Emblem Health and the Alliance for Coney Island.

Mangles Kiddie Whip Car Coney Island History Project


An exhibit on the work of Coney Island-based ride inventor and amusement manufacturer William F Mangels (1867-1958) will open in August. Mangels invented rides such as the Tickler and the Whip and built the mechanisms for countless roller coasters and carousels, including the B&B Carousell, which was brought back to Coney Island last year. Among the classic rides in Deno's Kiddie Park are a Mangels Pony Cart and Fire Engine. Mangels' former shop building on West Eighth Street is now an office of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Coney Island History Project at Archives Field Day

Archivists came together at the 92nd St Y for the first-ever Archives Field Day on March 22nd. The event was sponsored by the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York. Visitors were invited to solve a series of questions using primary sources from the National Archives, NY-Historical Society, Girl Scouts USA, Coney Island History Project and other organizations. This year's theme was Sports and Leisure.

Each puzzle solved earned visitors a stamp in their Archives Field Day Passport and a chance to win prizes, including ride passes for Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. For more photos, visit our flickr set. In 2008, the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York honored the Coney Island History Project with the ARTS Award for Innovative Use of Archives.

There was much to be thankful for in Coney Island during 2013: The B&B Carousell returned, Steeplechase Plaza opened, the storm-damaged pier was rebuilt, and the Parachute Jump was given a new lighting scheme. But the year also saw the demise of several historic structures. The Astrotower demolition received the most publicity as the tower was cut to pieces amid a cloud of mass hysteria. Nearly the entire amusement zone was closed down on the Fourth of July as the swaying tower met its demise. The demolition was unnecessary and left a huge hole in Coney’s skyline. The other structures we lost received little attention. West Eighth Street bore the brunt of the demolition. Until the 1960s West Eighth was a center of an amusement manufacturing, and until recently you could still see remnants of its industrial past. Now those remnants are being slowly erased.  

Eye Candy

First to disappear were the beautiful mosaic murals on the façade of the old Bonomo candy factory at the Neptune Avenue end of the street. The colorful triptych dated to the 1940s, and each stylized panel illustrated the story of candy manufacturing: raw materials, processing, and delicious finished products. When scaffolding went up around the building, I asked the workers what was happening. They claimed they were “cleaning the front.” A week later, the enormous murals were gone. The murals were located next door to the old William F. Mangels amusement factory, which now houses the Department of Motor Vehicles. We had tried for years without success to document the history of the murals, but the building’s owners were not helpful, and the artist was never identified.

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The Bonomo Murals

The Castle

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The KeySpan Building
Farther up the block, on Coney Island Creek, the sprawling brick headquarters of the old Brooklyn Union Gas Company was unceremoniously reduced to rubble this past fall as the site was cleared for a public storage facility. The 85-year-old Tudor revival building was an architectural gem, and there was nothing else like it in Coney Island. We will miss the decorative Flemish brickwork, copper-lined gable dormers, multicolored slate roof, buttresses, huge bay windows, tall chimneys, and massive wood front doors. The building’s fixtures and decorative elements were scavenged and carted off to a Manhattan antique store.  

Coney’s High Line

At the Surf Avenue end of West Eighth Street, the half-century-old steel arch pedestrian overpass known as the “Shark Bridge” was demolished after years of civic neglect. The bridge, spanning Surf Avenue, was built in 1956 to connect the West Eighth Street elevated station to the Aquarium and Boardwalk. Beach-goers, especially the elderly and families with children, used it to avoid the dangerous traffic on Surf Avenue. The bridge was controversial when Robert Moses erected it as an entrance to the Aquarium because some felt that its purpose was to bypass Coney’s attractions. There are no plans to replace the bridge, and visitors will now have to fight traffic to get to the beach.

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The Shark Bridge: Coney's High Line No more easy access

The Carolina Building

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Last fall, the 19th-century building on Mermaid Avenue that once housed Carolina Restaurant was bulldozed, to be replaced an apartment house. The Carolina closed a decade ago, and the building recently housed a Chinese restaurant that never reopened after suffering damage from Hurricane Sandy. The surrounding area was once the center of an Italian-American community that boasted numerous Italian restaurants. Gargiulo's is the last one standing. Coincidentally, an old billboard advertising the Carolina, located behind a gas station on Neptune Avenue and West 17th Street, was removed earlier in the year, also to make way for an apartment building.
posted Feb 14th, 2014 in By Charles Denson and tagged with
On the Beach, Coney Island. 1934

Coney Island residents and friends are cordially invited to celebrate Black History Month with us in Coney Island on February 17th. The Coney Island History Project and Urban Neighborhood Services are hosting a slideshow presentation by Charles Denson followed by a panel discussion with long-time community members. Titled "The History of Coney Island's West End and the Presence and Contributions of African Americans in Coney Island from the 1600s to the Present," the slideshow will feature never-before-seen images from Charles Denson's archive and photos that he took in the 1970s.

U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Coney Island's first African American Congressman, will be a special guest. The event is sponsored by City Councilman Mark Treyger, State Senator Diane Savino, State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, Emblem Health and the Alliance for Coney Island.

Dinner will be served after the presentation.

WHEN: Monday, February 17, 4-6PM

WHERE: PS 329, 2929 West 30th Street, Coney Island

Coney Island, West End 1974

"I am personally excited to work with Charles Denson to bring this very important event to the residents of Coney Island," said Mathylde Frontus, founder of Urban Neighborhood Services, a community-based non-profit founded in 2004 that offers supportive programming on topics such as health and wellness, academic achievement, and other relevant subjects. "African Americans have a long and rich history of contributing to the vibrancy and well-being of this peninsula and I believe that Charlie's slideshow combined with the first-hand accounts of long-time Coney Island residents will really elucidate this all the more."

"The West End of Coney Island is a vibrant and resilient community that's survived many challenges over the last few decades," said Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. "I grew up there and documented the wave of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed our community and changed the lives of its residents. This slide show will tell the story of the area going back to 1600s."

Black History Month, Coney Island

Please share this event flyer with your friends and neighbors. All are welcome to celebrate Black History Month with us in Coney Island on February 17th.

Black History Month, Coney Island
posted Feb 12th, 2014 in Events and tagged with Black History Month, Charles Denson, Coney Island,...
Coney Island History Project

2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the Coney Island History Project! Ten years ago our oral history project began with a portable recording booth located on the boardwalk. The colorful booth-on-wheels, dubbed the "Memory Booth," had an air-conditioned recording studio illuminated by a skylight. Wooden "wings" opened from the booth to display our mission statement and historic photographs. We parked our booth in front of the Aquarium's education center during the day and in front of Astroland at night. Our program proved to be so popular that we later expanded to a permanent location.

Memory Booth

Coney Island History Project Memory Booth, 2005

The History Project was founded by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert in honor of Dewey Albert, creator of Astroland Park, and opened its exhibit center below the Cyclone in 2007. In 2011 we moved to our current home beside the Wonder Wheel at the invitation of the Vourderis family, owners of Deno's Wonder Wheel Park. During the last decade we've recorded the oral histories of many departed Coney luminaries whose stories would have been lost forever. The voices of Jack Ward, Jimmy McCullough, Matt Kennedy, and Joe Rollino and others can be found in our archive.

Charles Denson and Carol Hill Albert

Carol Hill Albert and Charles Denson in the Memory Booth, 2005

The Coney Island Hall of Fame pays tribute to pioneers and visionaries whose creativity and ingenuity helped shape and define Coney Island over the past century and was inaugurated on West 10th Street opposite the Cyclone roller coaster in 2005. Our exhibits have included "Land Grab: A History of Coney Island Development," "Woody Guthrie's Coney Island Years," "The Astroland Archives Photography Exhibit," "Coney Island Icons," "Luna Park Revisited," "The Dreamland Fire Centennial," and "Coney Island Bathhouses: A Lost Culture." In 2012, we presented the first solo show by local photographer Abe Feinstein, who has been documenting his neighborhood for more than 50 years.

2013 saw our recovery from Hurricane Sandy and the opening of two new exhibits: "The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard" displayed several salvaged Millard murals as well as a full photo documentation of his work from the walls of the Playland building, which was demolished in February. We also celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Vourderis family's operation of the Wonder Wheel with a photographic history of the famous landmark.

The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard

"The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard" Exhibit, 2013

In August, the 3rd Annual History Day presented by Deno's Wonder Wheel Park and the Coney Island History Project was the inaugural event at the new Dreamland Plaza on West 12th Street. The free event included a Coney Island history trivia contest, an interactive magic show, and performances by organ grinders from the Automatic Musical Instrument Collectors Association (AMICA) and the Carousel Organ Association of America (COAA) as well as the opportunity for visitors to hand crank the organs.

History Day, Coney Island History Project

Prof. Phineas Feelgood's World of Magic at History Day, Dreamland Plaza, August 2013

History Project director Charles Denson's Sandy documentary "The Storm" premiered at the Coney Island Film Festival in September and was screened at the Brooklyn Art Council's Scene: Brooklyn Film Series commemorating the 1st anniversary of Sandy. In October, the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA) presented the Herman Melville Literary Award to Charles Denson for his contributions to marine education through the Coney Island History Project, his books and his preservation efforts for Coney Island Creek.

CreekWalk Coney Island Creek

A series of informational plaques designed and created by Charles Denson were installed on the creek side of Kaiser Park, 2012

The 2014 season promises to be our most exciting yet. In late December our proposal for the return of the Astroland Rocket was approved by the City and we're now planning an extensive exhibit about the rocket and space-themed Coney attractions of the past. Ownership of the historic Rocket will be transferred to the History Project and the Vourderis family will provide a permanent home for it in Deno's Wonder Wheel Park.

Astroland Rocket

Coney Island: The "Star Flyer" Rocket debuted in Astroland in 1962

From the balloons, blimps and biplanes of the early days of aviation to the Astroland-sponsored airshows by the Thunderbirds, Golden Knights and Blue Angels, flight demonstrations have drawn crowds to Coney Island.The Rocket exhibit will cover the history of flight-themed attractions in Coney Island, encompassing science, amusements, photos and films. Ever since Thompson and Dundy brought "A Trip to the Moon" to Steeplechase Park in 1902, space travel and aeronautics have been a fantasy theme in Coney's amusement parks. When the Star Flyer Rocket debuted in 1962 as the first ride in Coney's new space-age theme park, it was called the "Cape Canaveral Satellite Jet" (TIME), "The Spaceship Auditorium" (Billboard) and the "Cannonball Adderly Rocket" in anticipation of Adderly dedicating the rocket for Astroland's official opening on July 1, 1962. The rocket was rechristened the "Astroland Moon Rocket" in 1963.

PS 16 field trip

PS 16 Students Visit the Wonder Wheel on Field Trip to Coney Island History Project, May 2013

This year we hope to continue our school programs, bringing Coney Island history to local schools and giving educational tours. Last year we were invited to work with sixty students at PS 226 and an after-school program at PS 16. We produced a film based on their artwork and poetry. Our unique walking tours continue to be offered year-round, attracting current and former New York residents as well as visitors from across the country and around the world.

We are now revamping our web site and online oral history archive. While the new site is under construction, some pages will be intermittently unavailable. Please be patient during the redesign, once it is complete you will see many new features, including the Director's Blog.

souvenir photo Coney Island History Project

Visitors pose for souvenir photo with the Spook-A-Rama Cyclops at Coney Island History Project, August 2013

posted Jan 6th, 2014 in News and tagged with Astroland Rocket, Carol Hill Albert, Coney Island,...

The Coney Island History Project has answered the City's RFP and submitted a proposal to bring the Astroland Rocket back to Coney Island. If our proposal is accepted we will assume ownership of the Rocket and plan to move it to a location near our exhibit center in Deno's Wonder Wheel Park provided by the park's owners, Steve and Dennis Vourderis. History Project co-founder and Astroland owner Carol Albert has offered to pay the cost of moving the Rocket back to Coney Island.

If the rocket comes back to the location we have chosen, the restoration of the ride would be overseen by Steve Vourderis and it would become an educational exhibit designed by History Project director Charles Denson. Stacy and Steve Vourderis, who spearheaded the park's annual History Day, hope to make the Rocket the centerpiece of next year's celebration.

When Astroland was closing, the Albert family had long planned to preserve the Astroland Rocket by donating it to the Coney Island History Project, the not-for-profit organization they founded in 2004. CIHP director Charles Denson is the author of Coney Island and Astroland, which uses primary sources to tell the history of the park, and the curator of the CIHP exhibit "The Astroland Archives Photography Exhibit: Back to the Future.” Mr. Denson would have liked to keep the Rocket as an exhibit, but at the time the History Project’s exhibition center was under the Cyclone roller coaster and did not have parking space for a rocket.

Astroland Rocket

The Rocket was the first ride at Astroland and it defined the park’s space age theme when it opened in 1962. As one of the first of the “imaginary” space voyage simulators constructed during the Space Race, The attraction showed simulator films of “rocket rides” while the chassis “rocked” its viewers to outer space. The Ride, which has 26 seats, lasted about three minutes, the length of the film. Originally built as the “Star Flyer,” the Astroland Rocket later sat atop the boardwalk restaurant Gregory and Paul’s.

posted Nov 22nd, 2013 in News and tagged with Albert family, Astroland, Astroland Rocket,...
Coney Island Lois Wilson

In 1928, when John F. Kennedy was a young boy living with his family in the Bronx (the Riverdale section, not the South Bronx), his father, Joe, was forming RKO studios and producing a movie called "Coney Island. " The flick starred silent picture queen Lois Wilson and was directed by Ralph Ince.

Presented by Jopseh P. Kennedy

The motion picture industry had recently moved from Brooklyn (Vitagraph Studios in Midwood) to Hollywood and most of the Coney scenes were shot in Los Angeles. Promotion for the film described it as the story of " a young woman swept up in the romantic magic of America's favorite fun destination. . . "

Joseph P. Kennedy sold his movie studios in the early 1930s, went into the liquor business, and then into politics as President Roosevelt's ambassador to Great Britain. The rest is history.

Coney Island, silent film
posted Nov 20th, 2013 in Film and tagged with 1928, Coney Island, JFK,...