SI Vault
Jeannette Bruce
August 28, 1967
New York's millions still jam Coney Island, but now there are only faded reminders of the ancient resort's great days, when its rides and shows made it the most famous playground in the world
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August 28, 1967

Where The Fun Was

New York's millions still jam Coney Island, but now there are only faded reminders of the ancient resort's great days, when its rides and shows made it the most famous playground in the world

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Sideshows were another unforgettable aspect of the old Coney, and they proliferated to the extent that they replaced the broad lagoons, esplanades and tree-lined walks. Barking and spieling and ballyhooing became flamboyant, raucous and artful. "Yes, look well upon this group of savages, ladies and gentlemen! They are the dread Igorots, fierce headhunters from the Philippine Islands! And what you see before you is but a miserable tithe of the vast anthropological, educational, thrilling, and altogether unimaginable sights that will unfold before you as you pass through the Igorot Village!"

The king of the freak shows was Samuel Gumpertz who liked authenticity. "It was 1905," wrote Edo McCullough, "when he whisked them past an astonished immigration official; in the next quarter-century the number of freaks, oddities and outlandish human beings he similarly escorted was to rise above 3,000.... Gumpertz was constantly on the prowl for new grotesques. Five times he went to Asia, with side trips to Java and the Philippines; five times he went to Africa...." There were Zip, the What-Is-It, 19 wild men from Borneo, a succession of bearded ladies and fat ladies. He was inordinately fond of midgets. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you please, step over here and see the world's tiniest people. Note the yardstick—an accurate, an exact, a perfectly calibrated instrument against which to measure the height of these minuscule humans, some of them members of the foreign titled aristocracy! (Step forward, Count, and you, too, Baron, and stand by the yardstick.) Each and every one of these little people, ladies and gentlemen, is a full-grown human being! Thank you, Count. Thank you, Baron."

Coney Island's visitors were goggle-eyed and slack-jawed, but they could always relax at a band concert, attend a theatrical production at Henderson's Music Hall, watch a young fellow named Harry Houdini perform miraculous escapes from impossible fortresses, admire the muscles of Angelo Siciliano, who later changed his name to Charles Atlas. At Feltman's restaurant they might catch a glimpse of Diamond Jim Brady. ("Looking at Diamond Jim," said an oldtimer recently, "was like looking at a lighted chandelier.") At Carey Walsh's cabaret a singing waiter named Eddie Cantor was popular with the tourists. Louis Stauch, who sold filet mignon with all the trimmings for 75�, hired a thin, wiry young man named Israel Baline to sing to his customers. On his own time, Baline composed music that he later published under the name of Irving Berlin. Also at Carey Walsh's, a long-nosed comic named Jimmy Durante thumped the piano, and later took off for Hollywood, as did a gaunt, hungry, good-looking young man named Archie Leach, who marched around on stilts advertising attractions. On TV late shows he is billed as Cary Grant. Marie Dressier ran a popcorn concession as a publicity stunt. A swarthy roughneck had a job as a bouncer in one of the speakeasies before going on to Chicago, where he went into business of a sort as Al Capone. Mae West's father once pounded a beat on Coney Island.

But in the 1930s New York's new parks' commissioner, Robert Moses, said, " Coney Island is honky-tonk," and promptly tore out the only adequate parking facilities Coney had, installing tennis courts that nobody used. Sideshows, thought the commissioner and other watchbirds of public morality, had gotten out of hand—as indeed they had. With the advent of microphones, the spieling and ballyhoo had become deafening. An ordinance was passed requiring that loudspeakers henceforth be muted, and gradually the gaudy sideshows went the way of the parking lot. Today the comparatively few spiels are generally delivered over toned-down P. A. systems to which few pay attention.

Still they come to Coney, the poor people and others, pouring off the subway, for, whatever else has vanished, the sun, the sea and the sand are the same. And there are other things to see.

I stood on the old Dreamland site, now occupied by the N. Y. Aquarium. Coney Island is determined to rebuild, and the Aquarium is one of the first steps in that direction. Half a million people each year troop past a tank containing Beluga whales, huge white mammals that cavorted in their glassed-in prison with Flipperlike smiles on their bland faces. Nearby, at a tank containing electric eels, it was time for a demonstration.

"Ladies and gentlemen," announced a soft voice over a loudspeaker, "as food is thrown to the electric eels you will hear the sound of their discharge. Will the adults please stand back so the little children can see the eels? [The adults looked sheepish and shuffled their feet, but stood where they were.] You will see," continued the voice smoothly, "by the thermometerlike device beside the tank the amount of electric discharge." The meter recorded 660 volts, and over the speaker came a crackling sound.

"If I touch the glass will I get electrocuted?" asked a little boy hopefully.

"Yes," said his mother, dragging him away. The crowd moved on to peer into other tanks containing sand tiger sharks, and into still other tanks, at smaller, brightly hued, exotic varieties of fish.

"The day of just having a menagerie is pass�," said Dr. Ross F. Nigrelli, the Aquarium's director. "The public is no longer satisfied just to look at a fish [or an Igorot, for that matter]. People want to know what its role is in the economy of nature, why its life is of value to humans. The fish is important to biological research. After all, we all go through a fish stage, swimming in water and breathing through gills, before we are born." It was a sobering thought, if not a particularly pleasant one.

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