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Luna Park Opens


While the three great parks at Coney Island shared many characteristics, Luna Park, with its whimsical architecture and its commitment to a complete fantasy world in which visitors could lose themselves, represented something entirely new in its day.

The geniuses behind Luna Park, Frederic Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy, forged their partnership at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo with Thompson's "Trip to the Moon" illusion ride. Lured to Coney Island by George C. Tilyou, the pair ran this ride and several others at his Steeplechase Park during the 1902 season. At the end of the summer, Tilyou offered them a lower percentage of the take for the following season. They declined the offer and instead bought up Captain Paul Boyton's Sea-Lion Park, intent on creating an amusement park of their own.

When Luna Park opened on May 16, 1903, it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Thompson, an erratically trained architect, had designed an environment entirely at odds with the Beaux-Arts movement of the time. The lines, colors, and shapes were constantly changing. Rather than the usual central tower, there were spires and minarets everywhere. And it was immense. By 1907 Luna Park employed some 1,700 people and was illuminated by 1,300,000 electric lights, at a cost of $5,600 a week. Almost a municipality in itself, it had its own telegraph office, radio office, and long-distance telephone service.

Inside this city within a city, worlds collided. Extending their success with illusion rides, Thompson and Dundy filled their park with visions of exotic events and locales, such as "The War of the Worlds," "The Kansas Cyclone," and of course, the ever popular "Trip to the Moon." The park itself was designed so as to keep visitors constantly on the move. If Dundy saw visitors so much as sitting down for a rest, he would send a group of musicians over to get them back on their feet.

With Steeplechase Park and Luna Park operating at full tilt, the momentum was overwhelming, and in 1904, Senator William Reynolds and a group of speculators opened Coney Island's third large-scale park. Although Dreamland was generally not as inventive as Luna Park, it did do well with morality plays, such as "The End of the World" and the Orient Theater's "Feast of Beshazzar and the Destruction of Babylon." Another of its popular attractions was Lilliputia, a miniature village populated by very small people, created and run from 1904 to 1906 by Samuel Gumpertz, who later became Dreamland's general manager.

On opening day of the 1911 season, a fire broke out in Hell Gate and soon ran out of control, leaving Dreamland in cinders. The same thing had happened to Steeplechase Park in 1907 and George Tilyou had rebuilt it without thinking twice, but the owners of Dreamland, unlike Tilyou, had not grown up with Coney Island sand in their shoes, and they decided to cut their losses. Within a few years, Tilyou died and Frederic Thompson, operating alone since the death of Dundy in 1907, was forced to file for bankruptcy. Coney Island had appeared in the world with a burst of imagination, but its most extravagant days were already behind it.

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