People & Events
Luna Park Closes
With the coming of the Depression, Coney Island fell on hard times. People were less likely to spend money on extravagances, and when they did, movies were closer at hand. Nor did people have cross the world to get the Coney Island experience: the original had inspired imitators that, if not as grandiose as Luna Park or Dreamland, were not so very different from the Coney Island of the 1930s. After the first heady days, the Electric Eden was finding its equilibrium in the larger scheme of things.
Adversity continued to dog Coney Island even after the economy improved. The 1939 World's Fair in New York was perceived as a beacon of hope by the general populace, but from the perspective of amusement proprietors, it only stole customers away. Moving several of the World's Fair attractions, such as the Parachute Jump, to Coney only helped for a while. During World War Two, the "lights out" policy dimmed the resplendent electrical aura that had always been its calling card, and the fun seemed to go out of Coney Island.
Although Luna Park struggled along through these times, it had plainly been deteriorating. Then Coney Island's perennial curse of fire struck, not once but four times. The first blaze broke out before the 1944 season had begun, partially destroying LaMarcus Thompson's Scenic Railway roller coaster and the Tunnel of Love beneath it. Damp weather and lack of wind limited the damages, but on August 12 a second fire started in the washroom of the Dragon's Gorge, another classic roller coaster, and eventually spread to much of the park. For the remainder of the season, only the western half of Luna Park remained open. Then it closed, and an insurance battle commenced. In 1946 the property was sold to new owners, who planned to build a housing project. Before they could do so, two more fires took down everything that remained of Luna Park except the ballroom and the pool, which then had to be demolished the old-fashioned way.
Post-war Coney Island suffered from a competitor that was perhaps even more formidable than the rest: the automobile. Steeplechase continued bravely onward, but interest had clearly turned elsewhere. The various freak shows that had prospered after World War One began to lose customers as well, and to move out of Coney Island. As more and more housing projects were built behind Surf Avenue, the neighborhood took on an increasingly rough character. In this context, the various electric shocks administered at Steeplechase no longer seemed so funny, and customers began to complain. In the midst of family squabbles, the last of the great parks closed in 1964.
Coney Island was not dead. Another park, Astroland, opened in 1962 and was able to stay in business despite all predictions to the contrary. The Cyclone roller coaster continued to take brave souls on its terrifying course, and the Wonder Wheel, with its design dating back to the early 20th century, still lifted lovers to a bird's eye view of sea and sand.