Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Coney Island Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More
Program Description


"It is blatant, it is cheap, it is the apotheosis of the ridiculous. But it is something more; it is like Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone Park; it is a national playground, and not to have seen it is not to have seen your own country," said Reginald Wright Kauffman in 1909 of Coney Island, the tiny spit of land at the foot of Brooklyn that, at the turn of the century, became the most extravagant playground in the country and one of the most modern places on earth. In scale, in variety, in sheer inventiveness, Coney Island was unlike anything anyone had ever seen, and sooner or later, everyone came to see it. "Coney," one man said, "is the most bewilderingly up-to-date place of amusement in the world." On a single day in September 1906, 200,000 postcards were mailed from Coney Island.

From award-winning producers Ric Burns and Lisa Ades (The Donner Party, The Way West, New York), Coney Island is a lively and absorbing portrait of the extraordinary amusement empire that astonished, delighted, and shocked the nation -- and took Americans from the Victorian age into the modern world. Rare and never-seen-before archival photography, dazzling newsreel footage from the turn of the century, interviews, and quotes of the day read off-camera by Eli Wallach, Frances Sternhagen, George Plimpton, Judd Hirsch, Lois Smith, Vincent Gardenia, Jerry Orbach, and others tell the story of what one writer has called "the unofficial capital of the new mass culture." Philip Bosco narrates.

A barren waste of sand when Henry Hudson discovered it in 1609, Coney Island would be transformed into the most spectacular amusement resort in the world -- and the symbol of a new mass age. While politicians and speculators contended for control of the Island during the 19th century, Coney first became a showcase for the wonders of the machine age. A 300-foot tall observation tower with steam-powered elevators was brought to the Island, as well as an Inexhaustible Cow whose mechanical udders dispensed limitless drafts of milk. In 1876 the hot dog was invented there, and five years later, the rollercoaster. At night there was "electric sea-bathing" beneath the hiss of primitive arc lamps.

But that was just the beginning. At the turn of the century, three vast amusement parks -- Steeplechase, Luna Park and Dreamland -- were built, and Coney Island exploded in a forest of glittering electric towers and a riot of rides, restaurants, recreated disasters, freak shows, and historical displays. There was a simulated trip to the moon, the largest herd of show elephants in the world, and huge moving panoramas showing the Creation, the End of the World, and Hell. There were re-enactments of the Boer War and the Fall of Pompeii, and an Infant Incubator where premature babies were placed on display. Strangest of all was Lilliputia, a perfect miniature town inhabited by 300 little persons year-round.

"Coney Island was a kind of magazine of life, except instead of reading about it and seeing color pictures, you could experience it," says historian Elliot Willensky in the film. "Girly shows; premature babies on display; trips on those crazy rides. Life was not a simple, pure, dainty, demure thing. Life was unpredictable. Life was confusing. Life wasn't fair.... And it all happened to you, and there was no morality that said you had to be this or that way. It was a perpetual circus. It had everything that Barnum could dream of and more."


Film credits



Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference

The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline | Gallery | People & Events | Teacher's Guide
©  New content 1999-2000 PBS Online / WGBH