People & Events
Frederic Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy
The masterminds behind Coney Island's Luna Park, Frederic Thompson and Skip Dundy, were hardly plausible candidates for revolutionizing the notion of pleasure. And yet that is exactly what they did.
Frederic Thompson--a native of Irontown, Ohio--initially had intentions of starting a brokerage business, but a trip to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago convinced him otherwise. As a janitor for a large machinery exhibit, he proved handy at keeping the exhibits running and was eventually given charge of the display. The year 1896 found him working as a draftsman in Nashville, where he submitted an architectural design to city officials planning a local exposition and won $2,500.
When the Nashville fair opened, Thompson's uncle turned a failing exhibit over to him. Thompson installed an Edison recording cylinder outside the show in place of a ballyhoo man, and attracted enough visitors to recoup his uncle's losses. Having found his footing, Thompson took another exhibit to the 1898 Trans-Centennial Exposition in Omaha, and there met Skip Dundy, who was running a rival attraction.
A promoter and son of a federal judge, Elmer Scipio Dundy was born in Omaha in 1862. Buffalo Bill Cody, the famous frontiersman and circus entertainer, was a familiar visitor in the Dundy home, and his stories inspired the young Skip to a life in show business. As promoters go, Dundy certainly had his own style: in addition to a stutter, he was prematurely bald. Sometimes, without so much as a pause in his stammered pitch, he would disarm a doubtful client by removing his center-parted toupee and exposing his hairless head.
After the exposition closed, Thompson took some courses at the Art Students' League of New York. It was here that he conceived the "Trip to the Moon" attraction; unlike the usual illusion show, which moved around the spectators, this one would take the audience on a journey. Thompson applied for concession space for the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and again found Dundy there ahead of him. A demonstration of the moon ride convinced Dundy to switch rather than fight, and the two were business partners thereafter.
The "Trip to the Moon" was a resounding success, and when the Buffalo exposition closed, Thompson returned to New York, where he negotiated with George Tilyou to bring the "Trip to the Moon" to Steeplechase Park at Coney Island. Again the ride was a success, but Tilyou asked for too large a cut for their liking, so Thompson and Dundy bought out the neighboring Sea Lion Park and in 1903 created Luna Park. Following the outlandish success of this amusement park, they created the Hippodrome Theater in Manhattan, which opened in 1905.
Thompson and Dundy both had debilitating weaknesses: one for drink, the other for gambling and women. Yet their partnership worked magic in the beginning, perhaps because they agreed that money was never an object. Things began to go sour in 1906, however, when Thompson decided to make a star of his wife, the actress Mabel Taliaferro, and increasingly neglected his duties at Luna Park. The following year, Dundy died suddenly, of a dilation of the heart and an attack of pneumonia.
Left to his own devices, Thompson lost direction. In 1911, his marriage collapsed. In 1912, as his alcoholism progressed and his financial troubles deepened, he was forced to file for bankruptcy and give Luna Park over to his creditors. Aside from a show called "The Grand Toyland" at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, he never again wowed audiences with his visions of mad splendor. A benefit held in his honor at Coney Island in 1916 generated $30,000 for future projects, but by then he had come down with Bright's disease, and he died on June 6, 1919, after a series of complications. World War One was over, and, with Thompson's passing, so was the Golden Age of Coney Island.