The Forgotten Coney Island


So much has changed at Coney Island in the past few years–Astroland is out, Luna Park is in, and next week the new Scream Zone will open, introducing the park’s first new roller coasters in over 80 years.

Before Towering Inferno, there was "Fighting the Flames"

Yet Coney Island has always been in a constant state of flux–multiple fires and developers, and our evolving tastes in entertainment have forced it to keep reinventing itself. Still, thoughts of classic Coney rarely stray from the same, sepia-toned images of rickety amusement rides and sideshow freaks.

That’s just half the picture, though. There is a Coney that is even wilder and weirder, filled with attractions that would be considered downright perverse today. Attractions like 300 midgets living in a Lilliputian city. A tribe of headhunters imported from the South Pacific. A “ride” that allowed you to be buried alive in a glass coffin, and full-scale re-enactments of disasters like a six-story hotel fire, acted out by a hyperbolic cast of 2,000 (some say 4,000) firefighters, men, women and children.

One of Coney's early curiosities: The Igorrotes from the Philippines

At the turn of the 20th century, before cinema arrived en masse to entertain us, Coney’s original theme parks like Luna Park and Dreamland were creating freaky B-movies in real life, using massive sets and actors who would be right at home in current disaster flicks like Battle Los Angeles. It’s a pretty significant chunk of Coney’s history to just be learning about. Which is why Joanna Ebenstein decided to piece it together.

The graphic designer and photographer is “interested in things that fall between the historical cracks.” Her love of forgotten history led to her creation of the Morbid Anatomy Library, a mini-museum of creepy medical artifacts and curiosities in Gowanus.

The Coney Island of popular imagination—of hot dogs and roller coasters and side shows—didn’t appeal to her until she attended a lecture at the Coney Island Museum about these immersive amusements from a century ago. “Someone,” she whispered to museum director Aaron Beebe, “should do an exhibit on this.” A few months later he invited her to become an artist-in-residence and curate a show; she started researching immediately.

“The more I read, the weirder it got,” said Ebenstein. Jeffrey Stanton’s Coney Island History Site was an enormous help. Another resource was the historian Norman Klein, author of The Vatican to Vegas: The History of Special Effects, who is speaking this Saturday during the museum’s Congress for Curious People.

With the help of Beebe, Ebenstein spent a year hunting down artifacts for “The Great Coney Island Spectacularium,” which will run at The Coney Island Museum through April 2012. Most were hidden in folders and drawers in the museum’s own archives, like a beautiful die-cut ticket of a dove holding an olive branch, which granted admittance to a re-enactment of Noah’s flood called “The Deluge.” Others were commissioned, like two marzipan pork chops recreated in the style of the meaty treats sold at Bauer Sisters Candy Delicatessen—one of two such “candy delis” at Coney in the 1900s.

A collection of taxidermied, deformed animals, a curiosity cabinet with assorted items like a voodoo head, and other oddities on loan from a private collector who purchased the Niagara Falls Museum, are also on display. The Niagara was a prototypical “dime museum,” a jumble of strange and exotic curiosities intended to shock and delight as much as inform; these emporiums of the bizarre were common to Coney as late as 1923. And on May 27, they’ll unveil a Cosmorama—a sound-and-light show inside a 360-degree mural that was another typical Coney spectacle. The one Beebe and Ebenstein designed for the exhibit depicts the burning of Dreamland a century ago on May 27, 1911.

The fire (one of many at Coney) didn’t help preservation efforts, but Ebenstein suspects we let these spectacles slip through the cracks on purpose. “There’s something we don’t like about ourselves that these attractions bring up,” she said. No one today would dream of creating, much less visiting a midget village, yet we will watch a reality show called Little People, Big World. Our basic desires are still intact–we’ve just changed our definition of appropriate. “Spectacularium” shines a light on our early fascinations, before movies and television picked up the torch.

The Great Coney Island Spectacularium” runs through April 2012 at the Coney Island Museum, 1208 Surf Ave. between Stillwell and West 12th, open Sat.-Sun. 12-5pm, admission 99 cents.

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