Tag Archives: Coney Island

The Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Revolution: The Story of the First Bikini

THE FIRST PODCAST In 1907, the professional swimmer Annette Kellerman was arrested on a Massachusetts beach for wearing a revealing bathing suit — a skin-tight black ensemble which covered most of her body.

Less than forty years later, in 1946, the owner of a Parisian lingerie shop named Louis Réard invented the bikini, perhaps the smallest amount of fabric to ever change the world, courtesy Micheline Bernardini, the young woman who debuted this scandalous outfit.

In this podcast, I’ll tell you what happened to change people’s perception of public decency in those forty years and explain how the bikini represents the best — and the worst — instincts of modern American culture.

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Images from the show:

The bizarre contraption known as the bathing machine:

Courtesy Messy Nessy Chic


The glorious Annette Kellerman in one of her swimming outfits

Courtesy Library of Congress


Women in Chicago being arrested for indecent exposure in 1922

Jean Harlow in a stylish bathing suit from the 1930s.


Coco Chanel, with the Duke of Westminster, most certainly honing her suntan.

The world’s most famous pin-up — Betty Grable in a bathing suit

The song from this episode was Grable singing “You’re My Little Pin-Up Girl”:

The Parisian fashion designer Louis Reard who brought the world the bikini


Reard with women wearing his invention:


Video of the bikini’s first appearance — as well as the smashing debut of the Parisian beauty Micheline Bernardini:


Bernardini with her bikini — and her match box!


Ladies in beautiful bikinis on Coney Island 1965:

(Dan Farrell/New York Daily News


That picture and this one (also courtesy New York Daily News) are part of a terrific layout of vintage bathing suits. Check it out.

The Wheel: Ferris’ Big Idea (Special Preview of The First Podcast)

This is a special preview for the new Bowery Boys spin-off podcast series The First: Stories of Inventions and their Consequences, brought to you by Bowery Boys host Greg Young.

01: The first Ferris Wheel was invented to become America’s Eiffel Tower, making its grand debut at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. The wheel’s inventor George Washington Gale Ferris was a clever and optimistic soul; he did everything in his power to ensure that his glorious mechanical ride would forever change the world.

That it did, but unfortunately, its inventor paid a horrible price.

FEATURING a visit the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island, one of the most famous wheels in the world, and a trip to one of Chicago’s newest marvels — the Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

And subscribe to The First here so that you don’t miss future episodes!

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01 THE WHEEL: FERRIS’ BIG IDEA (The First Special Preview)


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The star of the show — George Washington Gale Ferris:


… and the Ferris Wheel at the World’s Fair!



Courtesy Chicago History Museum
Courtesy Chicago History Museum

Some intriguing finds I made while researching at the Chicago History Museum and the National Archives:






The telegram from Luther Rice to George Washington Ferris that was read on the show:


This was also featured on the show — the passionate letter from Ferris, asking Rice to join the project







Images of wheel construction courtesy Scientific American.

Courtesy Scientific American
Courtesy Scientific American
Courtesy Scientific American
Courtesy Scientific American
Courtesy Scientific American
Courtesy Scientific American
Courtesy Scientific American
Courtesy Scientific American


New York Times, May 13, 1894 — This article mentioned the plan to move the Ferris Wheel to New York (but the plan fell through)


From the New York Times, March 1, 1898



The Chicago Navy Pier (featured on the show)

Chicago History Museum (featured on the show)

The Midway Pleasance and Jackson Park, Chicago

The Ferris House in Pittsburgh, PA

The Sears-Ferris House in Carson City, Nevada

The Wonder Wheel and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn (featured on the show)

The High Roller, Las Vegas, Nevada

Weiter Riesenrad (Vienna’s Giant Ferris Wheel), Vienna, Austria


Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History by Norman Anderson

Circles In the Sky: The Life and Times of George Ferris by Richard G. Weingardt

Six Months at the Fair by Mrs Mark Stevens



The literary Coney Island

Everybody sees Coney Island a little differently. Most people know it for the amusements but not everybody has the same feeling about them. One person craves the beaches, the food. Another prefers a stroll along the boardwalk, fireworks, an evening Cyclones game. Others live nearby, too familiar with the swelling weekend crowds. And some people — and this seems like blasphemy — have had their fill of Nathan’s hot dogs.

1Coney Island has always been a Rorschach test of class, morals and taste, an escape from the city for more than 150 years. (In the 19th century, it was an escape from two cities, as Brooklyn was independent then and had not yet subsumed Coney Island within its borders.)

It’s never been considered a bastion high culture, although its degrees of middle- and low-brow have been vibrantly written about from the very beginning.  In The Coney Island Reader: Through The Dizzy Gates of Illusion, edited by Louis J. and John Parascandola, we get a time machine through its many iterations, thanks to the observations of dozens of writers.

I don’t think of Coney Island as a particularly literary destination, and yet here we have some of their greats chiming in to describe the lusty pleasures of Brooklyn’s beach-side getaway.

We begin with Brooklyn’s greatest voices — Walt Whitman.Yes: there was a clam-bake — and, of all the places in the world, a clam-bake at Coney-Island! Could moral ambition go higher, or mortal wishes go deeper?”  He’s writing in 1847 when the area is a barely developed destination.


Jose Marti, the poet and Cuban revolutionary, is overtaken by its magic. “And this squandering, this uproar, these crowds, this astonishing swarm of people, lasts from June to October, from morning until late night, without pause without any change whatsoever.”

Today’s Coney Island amusement district is vastly smaller than the one which greeted Stephen Crane in 1894.  “We strolled the music hall district, where the sky lines of the rows of buildings are wondrously near to each other, and the crowded little thoroughfares resemble the eternal ‘Street Scene in Cairo’.”

As Coney Island grew larger in the early 20th century — with its three principal amusement parks Dreamland, Steeplechase and Luna Park — it pulled thousands more to its whimsical attractions.  It’s almost  hilarious to picture Russian writer and dramatist Maxim Gorky sitting inside the Dreamland ride Hellgate, with its hellish flames “constructed of paper mache and painted dark red. Everything in it is on fire — paper fire — and it is filled with the thick, dirty odor of grease. Hell is badly done.”

Surf Avenue 1910-15
Surf Avenue 1910-15

The Coney Island Reader combines literary observances with social commentary and documentary accounts featuring interviews with the impresarios themselves.  In a 1909 magazine article by Reginald Wright Kauffman, George C. Tilyou, the owner of Steeplechase Park, proclaims, “To sum up my opinion of the whole thing, we Americans want either to be thrilled or amused, and we are ready to pay well for either sensation.” (George’s brother Edward is represented here with a vivid essay called “Human Nature with the Brakes Off — Or: Why the Schoolma’am Walked Into the Sea.”)

More contemporary observations of the fictional kind are represented by Kevin Baker (who also contributes the forward), Josephine W. Johnson and Sol Yurick (from the novel which inspired the film The Warriors).

This is perhaps the only book in history that features the writing of e.e. cummings and Robert Moses. One saw saw “[t]he incredible temple of pity and terror,  mirth and amazement,” the other “overcrowding at the public beach, inadequete play areas and lack of parking space.”

Ah, Coney Island. It’s what you make of it.


The Coney Island Reader
Through Dizzy Gates of Illusion
edited by Louis J. Parascandola and John Parascandola
Columbia University Press

Top image: Luna Park at night, 1905 (polished up image courtesy Shorpy)


Ten holiday gift ideas for history buffs: The best reads of 2014 with Robert Moses, Coney Island and the Statue of Liberty

Illustration from Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
GIFT GUIDE What do you get for that history fanatic in your life?  Afraid of buying them a book that they may have already read?  Here are nine books published in 2014 that I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year, illustrating wild and colorful corners of New York City history. I’ve reviewed a few of them in postings earlier this year if you’d like more information.  Oh, and there’s one book on here that I actually haven’t read. But how could I leave it off? I’m just assuming I’m getting that for Christmas.

New York Mid-Century 1945-1965
Annie Cohen-Solal, Paul Goldberger, Robet Gottlieb

After World War II, New York reinforced its international power and influence by becoming a vanguard in the arts. The city embraced new ideas by artists, writers, actors, architects and dancers who then went on to influence each other.  This magnificent coffee-table book sits their towering achievements side-by-side and in full color — the work of Mark Rothko, the architecture of Philip Johnson, the movements of Martha Graham, the photography of Weegee, the stage magic of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Even the Rockettes! In placing high and low performing arts together with conceptual design and abstract expressionism, New York Mid-Century convincingly illustrates New York as the world’s culture crucible.

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island
Headhunters, Luna Park and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century
Claire Prentice

Inspired by an unusual photograph of native people around a fire — taken in Coney Island — Prentice explores the sad but true story of the Igorrotes, a Filipino tribe, taken from their home for profit and exploitation to America’s recreational seaside capital.  The exhibitor Truman Hart was a would-be P.T. Barnum, a charlatan profiting from the tribe’s appearances at Luna Park. He eventually unravels, drinking heavily and running into problems with the federal government.  This is light but fascinating window into the stark reality of Coney Island entertainment.

A History of New York in 101 Objects
Sam Roberts

In a 2012 column, the venerable New York Times writer and editor recruited 50 precious objects into service of the story of New York City, a tale that began over 13,000 years ago.  He elaborates on those objects in this new book and expands the contours of his itemized history with 51 additional items.  From artichokes to Gilded Age clocks, rusty spikes to the New York Public Library lions,  Roberts’ history is a friendly, colorful way to experience New York City, a Whitman’s Sampler of our city’s past.

Chop Suey USA
The Story of Chinese Food in America
Yong Chen

America’s love for Chinese food predated America’s love for its Chinese residents. The original Chinese settlers from the West produced a variation of their homeland cuisine that was easily prepared and extraordinarily flavorful, allowing immigrants to make strides in urban areas and, eventually, throughout America.  Chen carefully places America’s craving for dishes like chow mein into the context of racial prejudices against Asians in the 20th century.  And if this makes you a little hungry, you’re in luck — the author presents some of his favorite recipes for steamed fish, Kung Fuo chicken and moon cakes.

Bohemians, Bootleggers, Flappers & Swells
The Best of Early Vanity Fair
Various Authors; Edited by Graydon Carter with David Friend

For the one hundredth anniversary of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter has put together a collection of stories from the magazine’s first incarnation, from P.G. Wodehouse‘s take on the fitness craze of 1914 to Allene Talmey‘s survey of New York nighclubs in 1936. The entirety of the Jazz Age in contained between them — the fashion, the reverie, the amusement, the agony. But most of all — the modernity. If anything defines most of these spectacular entries, it’s the coy observations of change, how America left the Gilded Age to became something awkward but none the less brilliant.

The Race Underground
Boston, New York and the Incredible Rivalry that Built America’s First Subway
Doug Most

The subway is one of the defining creations of New York’s Gilded Age, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion.  Both the underground systems in Boston and New York benefited from great genius and even greater wealth. As Boston Globe editor Doug Most notes in his captivating read, the systems even shared wealthy benefactors — the brothers Henry and William Whitney, one in each city, negotiating a host of political and technical speed bumps on their quest to build the country’s first subterranean route. Most’s story is especially fascinating in outlining the difficulties of these ambitious projects. What seems an absolutely sound decision today was deemed highly risky and politically fraught in its day.

Supreme City
How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America
Donald L. Miller

This snappy, crowded tale, among the most entertaining books on New York City history I’ve read in the past couple years, is indeed an epic about New York City in the Jazz Age, but it’s a wildly different tune than the one in which you’re familiar. This is a tale of architecture and invention, of a boldness and proportion that New Yorkers take for granted today. Miller recounts the invention of Midtown Manhattan, but it’s also about a spiritual shift in urban life. Industrial visions and personal journeys alike culminate in the year 1927, a watershed date for New York, and arrive within the Manhattan grid system, mostly along 42nd Street between Eighth Avenue and Lexington Avenue, the nucleus of a new urban vision. The story ventures out through the entire city of course but always to the beat of this new Midtown.

The 1964-65 World’s Fair And The Transformation Of America
Joseph Tirella

The United States experienced an incredible social transformation in the mid-1960s. Unfortunately for Robert Moses, these soaring changes to American life clashed with the rosy and naive vision of his second World’s Fair in Flushing-Meadows, Queens.  You may have read about the fair before in other books, but Tirella takes care to place it within a larger context, allowing you to marvel at the strangeness of the fair’s futuristic visions. Embarked upon as the launching pad for progress and modern technologies, Moses’ pet project became a symbol for forgotten and outdated values.

Liberty’s Torch
The Great Adventure To Build The Statue of Liberty
Elizabeth Mitchell
Lady Liberty represents so many lofty sentiments that we forget what she actually was almost 140 years ago — an impetuously complex enterprise by a group of French thinkers to embody a way of thinking onto an edifice of copper.  As ridiculous as it is monumental, Liberty was the product of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s extraordinary vision, a production process borrowing from centuries of French metallurgy and the tireless efforts of fund-raisers on both sides of the Atlantic to convince the people of America of the statue’s noble intent. In essence, by the end of Mitchell’s narrative, you’ll be impressed that the Statue of Liberty was even created at all!

And here’s one that comes out on December 23 and I haven’t even read it! So let me just merely call it to your attention…

Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City
Pierre Christin, Olivier Balez

Will a graphic novel about the life of Robert Moses that’s less than 1/10th the length of The Power Broker adequately convey the ambitions, the motivations and the sheer destructive force of his legacy? Probably not. But Chilean illustrator Oliver Balez brings a bold and stylized luster to the landscape of New York skyscrapers and highways. And the graphic representation of Moses brings him one step closer to being an outright comic-book villain (or anti-hero, depending on you read it).

Haunted Hipsters: Four Ghost Stories of Brooklyn

Dark skies over the Brooklyn Bridge, from a 1905 postcard (courtesy MCNY)

PODCAST  Brooklyn is the setting for this quartet of classic ghost stories, all set before the independent city was an official borough of New York City.  This is a Brooklyn of old stately mansions and farms, with railroad tracks laid through forests and large tracks of land carved up, awaiting development.  These stories also have another curious resemblance — they all come from local newspapers of the day, reporting on ghost stories with amusement and more than a little skepticism.

1)  The Coney Island and Sea Beach Railroad took passengers to and from Brooklyn’s amusement district.  But nobody was particularly amused one evening to be stopped by a horrific, gangly ghost upon the tracks near Mapleton.

2)  In Clinton Hill, a plantation-style house built in the early years of the Brooklyn Navy Yard has survived hundreds of unusual tenants over the years, but certainly the scariest days in this historic home occurred in 1878 with a relentless, invisible hand that would not stop knocking.

At right: Death will not deter this Brooklynite from ordering a great craft beer. (courtesy Powerhouse Museum)

3)  The Oceanic Hotel was one of Coney Island’s first great hotels, an accommodation for almost 500 near the increasingly popular beaches of Brighton Beach.  But in 1894, the hotel was virtually emptied out and reportedly haunted.  Did it have something to do with the murder upstairs in Room 30?

4) And finally, the area of Bushwick nearest the Queens border are populated with various burial grounds like the Evergreens Cemetery, borne of the rural cemetery movement which transplanted thousands of previously buried bodies from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

In 1894, with Bushwick prepared for a spate of new development, the sudden appearance of an oddly dressed spirit threatens to disrupt the entire neighborhood.  During one evening, a drunken party of 300 ghost hunters, brandishing swords and revolvers, come across one terror that proved to be very real indeed.

ALSO: Secrets of The Sentinel, a 1977 horror film set in an old house along the Brooklyn Promenade.

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The Bowery Boys #172: Ghost Stories of Brooklyn

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10 Montague Terrace, setting for the 1970s horror film The Sentinel, sits at the end of this elegant block on the Brooklyn Promenade.

[Looking west from Brooklyn Bridge Park to the houses on Montague Terrace.]

The theatrical trailer to The Sentinel

Phenomena reported August 1894 in several publications, including the New York Evening World

The incident in question occurred near the Mapleton station along the Coney Island and Sea Beach Railroad (Map of Brooklyn railroad lines courtesy The Weekly Nabe who has more information on the early days of Mapleton.)
Phenomena reported December 1878 in several publications, including the New York Sun
A view of Wallabout Bay and the land which became the Brooklyn Navy Yard, circa 1830s.  That would appear to 136 Clinton Avenue (the oldest house in the area) however the general proportion of the region looks a bit off.  Below it, two pictures of the house on Clinton Avenue, including a close-up of the infamous door. (Pics courtesy Flickr/sjcny and Long Island Historical Society)

Phenomena reported August 1892 in several publications, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The haunted Oceanic Hotel, located at Neptune Avenue and W. 6th Street. Perhaps this looks surprising for a 500-room hotel, but out of frame are bungalows and other adjoined buildings.  But you can see how this sort of accommodation went out of fashion rather quickly.

[First hotel at Coney Island, Oceanic Hotel.]

Phenomena reported November 1894 in several publications, including the New York Times

1924 — A view of the tracks which separate Bushwick from a cluster of cemeteries. Buildings to the left sit in the vacant lots which were mentioned in this story.  The cemetery nearest this photograph is Most Holy Trinity Cemetery.  You may remember the name Most Holy Trinity for it was this Bushwick congregation that was featured in a ghost story a couple years ago in the show ‘Haunted Histories of New York.’

Opposite Trinity Cemetery.

Troubled Waters: The story of the Grand Republic steamboat, the cursed sister ship of the General Slocum

Above: The Grand Republic steamship. As you can see from its paddlewheel, it was a twin to the General Slocum [source]

This could not have made New Yorkers feel very safe about even the briefest of river excursions.

Days after the General Slocum excursion steamer caught fire and sank in the East River, killing over 1,000 people, its older sister ship the Grand Republic — a twin of the doomed vessel, owned by the same company — kept operating along the waters of New York Harbor.

To many, it looked like the ghost of the Slocum.

The Grand Republic often ran in tandem with the Slocum, transporting passengers to the seaside amusements of the Rockaways.  During the month of June 1904, the Grand Republic was assigned to the Hudson River, while the Slocum ran the Long Island Sound.

An advertisement in the New York Evening World, June 10, 1904

After the Slocum tragedy, steamboat inspectors were heavily scrutinized and excursion companies were accused of endangering lives for a fast dollar.

Rallying to the side of safety was, of all people, the venerated Daniel Sickles, former Congressman and Civil War officer.  (You may remember him from his early days back when he killed the son of Francis Scott Key.)

The retired politician had no tolerance for the bureaucrats he believed were responsible for the Slocum disaster.

“Scalp those moribund Federal officials who sit with their roll-top desks and draw their salaries for doing nothing while human life is allowed to be sacrificed by the hundreds,” he said.  “Only yesterday, I am informed the Grand Republic was allowed to leave her wharf with more passengers than the law allows.  Broadside these fellows and let every man and woman write President [Theodore] Roosevelt a letter demanding an investigation.” [source]

Sickles made good on his word, writing Roosevelt and lashing out at the steamer companies in no uncertain terms, the overcrowded General Republic his chief example of their continued malfeasance.

Below: A graphic on the Grand Republic in a book called American Steam Vessels. “Built in 1878” “This steamboat was the largest ever constructed for excursion purposes exclusively at the port of New York.”

The Slocum disaster obviously hit business hard for the entire excursion industry.  The weekend after the Slocum sank, the Grand Republic was supposed to host another church group for a tour of the Hudson, but, understandably, only one-fourth of its passenger list arrived.  The Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, owner of the Slocum and Grand Republic, went out of business, and the Grand Republic was sold to another concern.

The captain of the Grand Republic steamer John Pease had been responsible for inspections on the Slocum and was eventually indicted, “criminally responsible for the Slocum disaster.”

Still that did not take the Grand Republic off the waters. ‘THE GRAND REPUBLIC STILL RUNS,” declared the Tribune on July 4, 1904.

Below: A view of the Midland Beach pier, where excursion steamers would frequently dock. (NYPL)

Four days later, the Grand Republic almost crashed into another steamer off the coast of Coney Island.  Two weeks later, with 500 passengers aboard, it slammed into the Kismet steam yacht.  In August, the boat was revealed to have the same sort of rotten life preservers that had so doomed the Slocum.

Still that did not take the Grand Republic off the waters. “GRAND REPUBLIC DEFIES ORDERS,” declared the Evening World on August 3, 1904.

Below: The Grand Republic, illustration by Samuel Ward Stanton

The steamboat owners argued with the New York inspectors in the press, neither looking very trustworthy.  Eventually the boat owners surrendered the Grand Republic to the government for inspection.  Believe it or not, even with hundreds of life preservers declared ‘rotten’ and promptly removed, the boat was eventually declared safe, although its capacity was greatly lowered — from 3,750 to 1,250 passengers, a major financial blow to the owners.

It led a quiet career for many years afterwards, although many feared the boat’s association with the doomed General Slocum and refused to ride it.  It resumed trips to the Rockaways and Coney Island, taking tens of thousands of people through New York Harbor for many, many years.  And it even returned to taking church groups on day excursions, similar to the journeys that the General Slocum had taken.

But the boat would continue to get into rather significant accidents.  In 1915, even the suggestion of fire during one voyage sent a thousand people scrambling for the life preservers, resulting in several injuries.  In a disturbing parallel with the Slocum, “[w]omen shrieked as they were knocked down by the mob that surged about the lifeboats.” [source]

On August 1, 1922, the Grand Republic smashed into another boat in the Hudson River, injuring over a dozen people.  Luckily the boat was filled with Boy Scouts, who calmed the panicked passengers. (Below, from the Evening World)

You might think this would spell the end for the old steamboat, but no!  It remained in the waters, continuing to transport passengers to upstate New York, one of the oldest vessels in service.

The Grand Republic, like its sister ship, was brought down by fire, although luckily without the terrible casualties.  In 1924, while docked along 155th Street, a severe dockside blaze caught several boats on fire, including the Grand Republic.

The fire erupted late at night, and thirty men were sleeping aboard the boat at that time.  Fortunately, this was the era of the automobiles; car horns from a nearby street awoke two seamen, who safely evacuated the crew.  The Grand Republic, however, was lost, eventually sinking into the Hudson River.

By the time of its demise, the boat seems to have shaken off much of its bad reputation.  Later that year, in a sort-of obituary to the excursion steamer industry, the New York Times declared, “[C]ertainly the Grand Republic was a grand success as an excursion boat.”

The decline and fall of Coney Island’s original Thunderbolt

Coney Island gets a brand new star attraction this week — the 2,000-feet Thunderbolt roller-coaster in Luna Park.  It’s “narrower than most apartments” (according to Gizmodo), a bright orange ribbon ride that squiggles, rises and plummets within a disturbingly wonky silhouette.

It also takes its name from one of Coney Island’s most famous roller-coasters, designed by famed ride designer John Miller. The Thunderbolt is considered by some to be one of Miller’s least impressive works. (The name is not even original; there are three other Miller-designed coasters named ‘Thunderbolt’.)

This jaunty “scenic railway,” as roller coasters were called then, was a huge success at its opening in 1925. One year later came the first accident, when the train “stalled half way up a steep incline, slipped back to the bottom of the dip and was crashed into by the succeeding train.”

Twenty cents a ride, but a second one for fifteen cents. (Courtesy Brooklyn Memories)

Below: Onlookers watch the cars go ’round the Thunderbolt, 1938 (Reginald Marsh photographer, courtesy MCNY)

It’s perhaps the cinema’s most famous roller-coaster thanks to Woody Allen and the Oscar-winning film Annie Hall.  John Moran and his son Fred, the operators of the Thunderbolt, really did live underneath it, “the back stanchions of the steel structure come down through the walls of the apartment.”   His home was used in the film. [source] [source]

Fred Moran died in 1982, and the ride closed later that year, in great need of repairs that never came.  It famously sat abandoned during the 1980s-90s, embraced in weeds and surrounded by a rusty fence. The land was sold to Horace Bullard, owner of the Kansas Fried Chicken fast-food chain, who intended on reopening it. 

He never managed to revive the Thunderbolt.   In 1991, the Moran house was destroyed in a fire, and the Thunderbolt itself succumbed to flames in 1998..  Its husk remained standing until it was controversially torn down (and with “deliberate indifference“) starting on November 17, 2000.

Below: The ruins of the Thunderbolt. And I believe the Moran home is also pictured her. (Courtesy the blog Coney Island Playground of the World)

Why rush the destruction of an artifact that, by that time, was one of New York’s best known ruins and a mecca for nostalgists?  The city was looking to lure minor league teams to New York, and with the construction of the new KeySpan Park, the nearby ruin was considered an “eyesore that looked dangerous.”

Ironically, the baseball team that would move into KeySpan would be named after Coney Island’s other famous roller-coaster — the Cyclone.

Less than 14 years later, a new Thunderbolt will make its debut near this very spot.

Come to the Airdome! Over 100 years of outdoor movies in NYC

[Outdoor movie theater.]

An outdoor movie theater in Brighton Beach, 1920. (MCNY)

It’s outdoor movie time again in New York City!  The tradition of screening films in city parks at dusk has become more popular than ever. (Just check out this complete list of this year’s offerings.)  As you prepare to spread your blanket on the lawn of Bryant Park to await a Hollywood classic, just realize that you are part of a grand tradition in the city that traces back almost one hundred years.

Yes, there were outdoor (or open air) theaters showing films almost as soon as the medium became popular.  This is not terribly surprising.  There were already outdoor playhouses for theater and vaudeville, and, in an era of over-crowded tenements and no air conditioning, any reason to sit outside on a nice summer’s night seemed practically luxurious.

One drawback outdoor movie lovers deal with today is the loud city interfering with the sound of the movie.  Not so then; the city might have been loud, but the movies had no sound.  It was a purely visual sensation, a thrilling entertainment light show under the moonlight.

At right: An advertisement for a rare Midtown open-air theater.  The lights of Broadway and street noise would have been a serious impediment. 

Early outdoor theaters in New York, sometimes called airdomes, were not usually in city parks, but in abandoned lots or open spaces in upper Manhattan.  Here’s a description of an airdome from a 1914 exhibition guide:  “An airdome is simply an outside moving picture show that is run on practically the same lines as the old summer garden, and is therefore essentially a fair-weather show, although a few airdomes are equipped with pavilions.”

Airdomes were designed to be temporary although you did need a permit from the city to operate one. Other than that, anybody could do it! “Nothing elaborate …is necessary for a successful airdome,” said the guide. “The chairs and tables may be of the ordinary kitchen variety.”

Below: An advertisement for two Brooklyn airdomes — in Coney Island and Prospect Heights (Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

From surveying various newspapers from the 1910s, it appears most airdomes were located either in upper Manhattan and the Bronx (where there were more open lots) or in Coney Island (where the masses went for recreation).

Before 1915, movies were one-reelers, quite short, and often featured alongside live acts as part of a vaudeville routine.  This airdome (listed in the July 1909 New York Sun) was typical of the day:

Outdoor movie theaters were so prevalent in the 1910s that, during planned war time electrical blackouts in 1918, they were specifically mentioned as a “bonafide food and entertainment establishment” alongside “roof gardens and outdoor restaurants.”  [source]

As with modern outdoor theaters, sometimes reality elbows its way into picture.  One of the Bronx’s most prominent open air moving picture theatres was the Nickelet (at Tremont and Prospect avenues), presumably named for the admission price.  One evening in June 1913, audiences witnessed a terrifying sight — a woman burning to death in a building adjacent to the theater lot.  Audience members scrambled to her rescue to no avail.

The transient nature of the airdome — and the ability for anybody with a license to have one — did cause friction at times. During the spring of 1909, in the Long Island town of Freeport, a Brooklyn man enraged the town when he set up an airdome there even though he was not a town resident.

The airdome never went away of course.  But the experience paled in comparison to the grand delights of the movie palaces, especially when air conditioning technology came along.  They eventually died out, along with the rooftop garden, in the 1920s, only to return later in the century when sound and projection technologies allowed for a more enjoyable evening at the movies.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’re reading this outside! Create your own airdome experience and watch this film — Charlie Chaplin’s Sunnyside — enjoyed by Brooklynites over 90 years ago in an outdoor moving picture theater:


Coney Island’s many death and destruction amusements

The entrance to the Johnstown Flood presentation (Cleaned-up photo courtesy Shorpy)

On May 31, 1889, a dam near the town of Johnstown, PA, collapsed after a brutal day of torrential rain, flooding the valley with 20 million tons of water and destroying everything in its path. There was virtually no escape, and 2,209 people died in the deadly flood.  Railroads, bridges and iron works were wiped off the map.  It remains one of the greatest disasters in America history.

Several years later, in 1905, on the Coney Island boardwalk, visitors could relive the danger in a bizarre reenactment set upon one of the biggest stages in the United States.  That’s entertainment!

The elaborate amusement, touted as “the greatest technical production in the world,” was only one of several theatrical presentations offering death and destruction, vivid dioramas of history and horror, for the pleasure of summer audiences.

These strange amusements were a precursor to the modern Hollywood disaster film, but they also served a more demonstrative purpose.  They provided Coney Island with a way to compete with Broadway, using new technologies and sophisticated stagecraft to recreate nature’s most horrifying scenarios.  Crowds marveled at the trickery, often rendering events with a macabre beauty.

On Surf Avenue and 17th Street, one could visit the horror of the Galveston Flood, recounting the 1900 disaster (actually a hurricane) that killed over 8,000 people.  The Evening World declared, “How the very spirit of the horrible hurricane can be caught by mechanical and electrical devices is the secret that will make the Galveston flood famous.”

Down on Fifth Street, audiences delighted to a revival of the eruption of Mount Pelee, which killed almost 30,000 people in 1902.  Opening just two years after the disaster, the Pelee attraction was particularly luscious and comfy — “cooled by six big ventillators and ventillating fans run by electric motor” — as audiences witnessed the effects of faux lava catching houses on fire. [source]

Not to be outdone, in 1906, impresario Herbert Bradwell, the producer of the Johnstown Flood attraction, expanded the water and light effects to recreate Noah’s Biblical flood.  The Deluge was both cheap spectacle and a morality play in five scenes, employing a flagrant water and light show to retell the ancient Biblical story, from the construction of the Ark to a host of tableaux outlining a possible future of “universal peace.” [source]

Coney Island’s most famous amusement parks certainly got in on the apocalyptic action.  Luna Park presented the thrill of fire-fighting with the 1904 show Fire and Flames.  Dreamland also joined the fray that year with Fighting The Flames where patrons could witness the horror of burning tenement.

Later that year, Dreamland replaced its fire fantasy with a vivid retelling of the San Francisco Earthquake, mere months after it killed almost 3,000 people and leveled the city.  The Earthquake featured a cast of 350 people within a stage creation of pyrotechnics and smoke effects, leveling the city on a nightly basis.

Below: Luna Park’s Fire and Flames and Dreamland’s Fighting the Flames were both featured in separate films.  

Perhaps the most dazzling of the many death and destruction features were the various incinerations of the ancient city of Pompeii.

The first came in 1903 down near the Manhattan Beach Hotel with The Last Days of Pompeii, which nightly decimated the ancient Greek city, using a host of firework tricks and various maudlin theatrics. A year later, Dreamland brought the Fall of Pompeii, with a thrilling simulacrum of fire, ashes and lava. [picture source]

But in terms of the sheer amount of destruction imaginatively depicted, nothing could top Dreamland’s 1906 show called The End of the World, which destroyed all of mankind in an auditorium seating 1,200 people.

“The expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and the destruction of the world by fire are the principal episodes in the production in which … more than a hundred people, a large choir and an organ take part.” [source]

Below: The entrance to the End of the World

Venuses in Fur — New York society ladies in fancy animal skin

The Metropolitan Opera’s soprano sensation Geraldine Ferrar, photo taken April 1913. I guess fur was never out of season a century ago!

“When You Done Your Christmas Furs — It will be an added pleasure to know they came from Gimbels — the house with the time-honored experience in Furs — for surely it requires more than simply workmanship to produce a good fur garment.  GIMBELS seventy-one years’ experience  has resulted in the accurate knowledge as to how to properly select the skins.”

Some of the furs sold at Gimbels for the holiday season in 1913 — wolf, muskrat, skunk raccoon, lynx, lamb, stoats (otherwise known as ermine), several kinds of fox, beaver and ‘tiger-dyed coney’ or rabbit skins dyed to resemble exotic animals.  You could get coney skins in zebra and leopard prints.

Nellie Fassett Crosby (Mrs. John Sherwin Crosby), president of the Women’s Democratic Club of New York City and founder of the Woman’s National Democratic League, and Mrs. Steven Beckwith Ayres, also active in the WNDL.

Eugenie Mary “May” Ladenburg Davie, noted Republican activist in New York and a director of the Pioneer Fund.  She was apparently a bit of a political spitfire, even while draped in the latest fashion.

Suffragists at the Armory, January 1914

It’s even suitable beach wear! A group of friends at Coney Island, January 1915

From the studio of New York portraitist Theodore C Marceau, 1906

Gimbels not only sold furs; they stored them for you in the summertime. Can’t have a frock made entirely of animal skin just sitting in your closet!