The People of Coney Island
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.
Dreamland, the neighbor and rival to Luna Park, may have been the brainchild of politician William Reynolds, but the dreamer behind it as often as not was Samuel W. Gumpertz. And no wonder. Gumpertz was an important transitional figure in the history of American show business as a whole, with a career that spanned from the exuberant days of the Wild West to the lean years of the Depression.
Gumpertz was born in Washington, D.C., in 1868, but soon after moved with his family to St. Louis, and at the tender age of nine, he ran away to join the circus — in this case, the Montgomery and Queens Circus. For his ability to walk on his hands and do flip-flops, he was promoted to the job of "top mounter" with the Jackley family of acrobats, although this particular line of work lost its appeal one day when he somersaulted from the top of a human pyramid and landed on his head.
Three years later, Gumpertz was taking children's parts at the Tivoli Opera House in San Francisco. After his voice changed, he went to Texas and worked as a rancher there until Buffalo Bill's Wild West extravaganza came to nearby Abilene. Gumpertz joined the show and eventually performed as one of the Congress of Rough Riders of All Nations. Following the wind more than anything, he then took a number of jobs, producing Shakespeare plays and running two theaters even as he managed Shadow the Strongman and the inimitable Harry Houdini, just then making his bid for stardom. Between 1897 and 1903, Gumpertz operated a chain of 17 theaters for Colonel John D. Hopkins, a business acquaintance of Buffalo Bill's.
Gumpertz began his career at Coney Island's Dreamland in 1904, the year it opened, with a smash hit: a miniature village populated by very small people. Lilliputia, also known as Midget City, was built to resemble 15th-century Nuremberg, except that everything was smaller. The inhabitants, gathered by Gumpertz from expositions around the country, had their own parliament, their own fire department (which regularly responded to false alarms), and their own theater. For increased effect, Gumpertz installed a few giants to wander this experimental community from time to time.
In 1908 or 1909, the owners of Dreamland, increasingly concerned about profits, hired Gumpertz as general manager. Though he upgraded many attractions and rides, his forte was in human oddities and circus attractions. He brought a tribe of Igorettes, complete with a village, from the Philippines, and convinced Frank C. Bostock to combine his European and American trained animal shows into a season-long show in a permanent arena. Gumpertz also recruited other circus acts to perform in the center of Dreamland's lagoon. To promote some of these attractions, he hired Omar Sami, considered by some to be the greatest barker of all time for his soft yet mesmerizing Hindu accent.
When Dreamland burned down on opening day of the 1911 season, Gumpertz immediately organized the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in a tent on Surf Avenue. The show continued through the 1920s, and was influential in attracting freak shows to Coney Island after movies had eclipsed illusion rides in popularity. For many years, Gumpertz was the promoter for "Zip What Is It," the famous "pinhead" performer originally employed by P.T. Barnum and later immortalized in the underground comic character, Zippy the Pinhead. In 1929, on the eve of the Depression, Gumpertz left Coney Island to work with the Ringling Brothers, and so ended up where he had begun: with the circus.
John Y. McKane
The figure of John McKane — with his handlebar mustache, his beard and his broad-brimmed hat — was often seen around Coney Island in the second half of the 19th century, although usually he was looking the other way.
McKane's political career began shortly after the Civil War, when he was elected constable of Gravesend. A construction man and a regular churchgoer, he started out relatively honest, relying on locals who owed him favors and lobbying for better rental agreements on local properties. In 1869 he ran for town commissioner and won. Within the year, he was able to double the town's income from rents.
But the 1870s were also the heyday of Tammany Hall, New York's infamous political machine. McKane indulged the ruffians, pickpockets and prostitutes that operated around Coney Island with Tammany Hall’s tacit permission until — quietly, and then not so quietly — he began to master the art of corruption for himself. Soon, Coney Island was awash in kickbacks and rigged contracts. In 1878, when hotel developer Austin Corbin was looking to expand his properties east of Manhattan Beach, McKane arranged to sell him land through a vote at a town meeting. With the help of 200 armed thugs who showed up at the vote, Corbin was able to make his purchase for $1,500, even though the property was known to be worth around $100,000.
The turning point in McKane's career came in 1881, when he gained control of the Coney Island police force. From then on, licenses for everything from ring-toss concessions to music halls amounted to protection fees, which in turn paid the salaries of the police. After Boss Tweed was ousted from Tammany Hall, McKane welcomed any and all low-life refugees into his jurisdiction. His continued election, should any of this criminal element betray him, was ensured by a careful districting arrangement that required all of the citizens in Coney Island to vote at booths in Town Hall, where they could be more easily swayed to make the right choice. Names from the local cemetery frequently made their way onto the ballots as well.
Not surprisingly, McKane found himself on trial more than once in his career. In 1887, he was brought before the Brooklyn Common Council to answer charges of bribery and fraud. The crowd thought his performance hilarious when he claimed not to have made any inquiries into prostitution taking place in his jurisdiction, or to have been able to execute a warrant before the end of a business day.
Of course, everyone else called to testify had been bought off. Everyone, that is, except for one man. George Tilyou, son of the local businessman Peter Tilyou, faced a sea of McKane loyalists and gave names, facts, dates.
Thanks to his far-flung connections, McKane survived this trial and made sure that the Tilyou family lost almost all of its property. Several years later, however, McKane was again in the dock, this time for violating voting laws. A reformer, Alexander Bacon, had arrived with a court order to inspect McKane's novel voting arrangement, only to be told by McKane, "Injunctions don't go here." Unable to influence the jury with bribes, McKane was convicted in 1894 to six years of hard labor at Sing Sing prison. Crowds lined up to see him sent off to jail, and while some may have cheered, Peter Tilyou made a point of shaking his fist at his sworn enemy.
McKane was released from prison two years early for good behavior, but he never again held a place in public affairs. His reign was over, and the way cleared for George Tilyou, the lone man who had stood against him, to refashion Coney Island in another image altogether.
Though no particular innovation can be credited to George Cornelius Tilyou, he probably did more than any other single figure to make Coney Island a unique place on earth.
Born in New York City in 1862, Tilyou was three years old when he and his parents moved to Coney Island. His father, Peter Tilyou, soon opened Surf House, a beach rental and eating establishment, then went on to become a realtor. By 1876 young George thoroughly understood the way Coney Island worked: he sold cigar boxes full of "authentic" beach sand to Midwestern tourists, then used the proceeds to start up a stagecoach business between Norton's Point, where the steamer from Manhattan debarked, and Culver Plaza, where the well-to-do frolicked.
George and his father went into business together in 1882, opening Surf Theater, the first theater in Coney Island, on an alley that ran between the pathways down to the sea. As various concessions sprouted around them, they laid planks over the alley, dubbed the Bowery, after the Manhattan street renowned for its theatrical attractions. The Bowery soon came to define the heart of Coney Island, and so it does today.
When local politician John McKane went on trial for a multitude of abuses in 1887, George Tilyou was the sole witness who dared testify against him. As a result, the Tilyous were hounded out of the area. They were able to return with the conviction of McKane in 1894, however, and George was made a justice of the peace for his earlier bravery. Meanwhile, he had been to the Columbian World's Fair on his honeymoon with his bride Mary O'Donnell.
After seeing the Ferris Wheel there, Tilyou resolved to buy it, but it had already been earmarked for the upcoming St. Louis exposition, so he had to make do with building his own smaller version. The following season, on the heels of his Ferris Wheel's success, he took inspiration from the neighboring Boyton's Sea Lion Park and erected his own enclosed amusement park.
The great strength of Steeplechase Park, known round the world for its trademark "funny face" logo, lay in its power to involve visitors. Many rides were calculated to play hob with gravity and so encourage couples to grab a hold of each other. In addition to the famous Steeplechase, which took its customers down a wavy track on mechanical horseback, the attractions included the Human Roulette Wheel, the Human Pool Table, the Whichway and the Barrel of Love, which spun humans in directions they'd never been spun in before. Equally involving was the Blowhole Theater--a stage built into an exit that forced customers to become actors, as they endured blasts of air and electric shocks to the delight of other recent victims.
Steeplechase burned down in 1907, but Tilyou didn't miss a stride. After charging admission to the burning ruins, he rebuilt the park, this time introducing the roofed Pavilion of Fun. After Tilyou died in 1914, various managers took their turn running Steeplechase, although ownership remained in the family. The park finally closed in 1964, ending what amounted to a 69-year run of comic relief from the modern world.
Born in 1953 and raised in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the hometown of P.T. Barnum, Dick Zigun was aware of American show-business culture from an early age. This awareness continued during his years at the Yale School of Drama, from which he received an MFA, but it wasn't until 1979 that he began to earn the title of "Mayor of Coney Island."
On arriving in New York that year, Zigun was unable to find an affordable apartment in Manhattan, so he moved out to Coney Island, where the rents were cheaper. Soon afterward, one of his plays was produced in Santa Monica, California, in conjunction with a play about Kid Twist, the legendary underworld figure killed at Coney Island in 1908. As Zigun tells it, he was standing on the amusement pier there when he had his epiphany: rather than putting on plays in the rarefied atmosphere of Soho lofts, he could merge his dramatic interests with the tradition of the neighborhood in which he lived.
The organization that resulted, Coney Island USA, put on its first event, "Tricks and Treats at the Wax Musee," on Halloween 1981 at a Coney Island venue no longer in existence. The show received notice in several periodicals, including the Yale Drama Review, and spurred Zigun and some friends to inaugurate the Mermaid Parade. Now celebrating its 18th year, the Mermaid Parade draws participants, both in and out of costume, both professional and amateur, to the Reigelmann boardwalk each June in an effort to prove that mermaids can indeed walk, despite all evidence to the contrary.
In 1985 Coney Island USA opened Sideshows by the Seashore, and Zigun has been producing it ever since. Billed as the only "ten-in-one" sideshow still in existence in North America (the term refers the number of acts that can be seen for a single price), this venue has presented such curiosities as the late Michael Wilson, known as the Illustrated Man for his profusion of tattoos, and Otis Jordan, a quadriplegic who rolled his own cigarettes using "only the mouth and the lips." The newest addition to the roster is Eke the Geek, who, as Zigun describes it, "tattooed his face with space."
Zigun, who also acts as a spokesman for Astroland, the park that runs the Cyclone roller coaster, remains optimistic about the future of his chosen home ground. "I had almost given up on the idea of Coney Island growing and building," he says. "But suddenly it's happening. There's been an amazing turnaround." In part, this turnaround is reflected in recent plans to build a sports stadium on the site where Steeplechase Park once stood.
No doubt the future of Coney Island will not repeat its past, and Zigun himself makes no pretensions to this effect. When he finds himself on panels with old timers who remember the sights and smells of the halcyon days, he says, he invariably gets "blown off the stage." Yet Coney Island still holds a unique place in contemporary America. If it does not overwhelm, it continues to offer its unique charm and its unpolished enthusiasm for everything strange. That it does so at all is largely due to the revivalist efforts of Dick Zigun.