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Aired February 4, 1991

Coney Island

The ups and downs of America's first amusement park

Film 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." 


Directed by
Ric Burns

Written by
Richard Snow

Produced by
Ric Burns 
Buddy Squires

Edited by
Paul Barnes

Narrated by
Philip Bosco

Lisa Ades

Associate Editor
Bruce Shaw

Buddy Quires
Allen Moore

Senior Creative Consultant
Geoffrey C. Ward

Marshall Berman
John Carlin
Frederick P. Fried
John Kasson Jerome Liebling
John Manbeck
Sam Bass Warner
Steve Zeitlin

Andrei Codrescu
Vincent Gardenia
Judd Hirsch
Nathan Lane
John Mahoney
Jerry Orbach
George Plimpton
Lois Smith
Frances Sternhagen
Eli Wallach

Associate Producer
Tricia Reidy

Apprentice Editor
Joseph Meyer

Production Assistant
William Perkins

Animation Photography
George Davis
Eighth Frame Camera

Additional Cinematography
Alicia Weber

Music Arranged and Directed by
Alicia Weber

Music Consultant
Max Rudin

Sound Recording
Mark Mandler
John Zecca
Eliza Paley
Toby Shimin

Negative Matching
Noelle Penraat

Title Design
Jim Madden, Asterik

Titles and Opticals
John Alanga, The Effects House

Du Art Film Labs

Voice Over Recording
A&J Recording Studios
Night Owl Studios
Sound Dimension
System Two Studios
Streetville Studios

Sound Editors
Paul Barnes
Bruce Shaw

Assistant Sound Editors
Ed Barteski
Joshua Levin

Re-Recording Mixer
Dominc Tavella, Sound One Corp.

Film to Tape Transfer
John J. Dowdell, III, The Tape House

The Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library
Library of Congress
Museum of the City of New York
New York Historical Society
Michael Brown Collection
Frederick Fried Collection
Richard Snow Collection

Nick Zervos Collection
John E. Allen, Inc.
American Heritage
Archive Film Productions
Dennis Atkinson
Brooklyn College Library
William K. Everson
Kingsborough Historical Society
National Archives
New York Public Public Library
Martin S. Pernick, University of Michigan
Petrified Films, Inc.
Sherman Grinberg Film Libraries
Smithsonian Film Archives
Twentieth Century Fox, Movietonews, Inc.
University of South Carolina
The Zacchini Family

Clip from The Crowd provided by
Turner Entertainment Co.
Clip from Hello Sister courtesy of 
Twentieth Century Fox

Valerie Georgoulakos
Michael Kantor
Astroland Park
Deno’s Wonderwheel Park

Sponsoring Agent
The New York Center for Urban Folk Culture


Harlan Reiniger
Eileen Mulvey

Field Production
Larry Lecain 
Chas Norton
Bob McCausland

Graphic Design
Chris Pullman
Alison Kennedy

Videotape Editors
Mark Steele
Doug Martin

Series Theme
Charles Kuskin

Unit Manager
Lisa Jones

Senior Researcher
Jane Feinberg

Project Administration
Cori Couture
Nancy Farrell
Letty Hummel
Ann Scott

Publicity Director
Michael Shepley

Associate Producer
Laurie Kahn-Leavitt

Staff Producer
Judith Quain

Business Manager
Susan Mottau

Series Editor
Llewellyn Smith

Senior Producer
Margaret Drain

Executive Producer
Judy Crichton


Hello, I'm David McCullough. Welcome to The American Experience. Once, when men wore straw boaters in summer and women long skirts and picture hats, there was a great city of enticements off to itself by the edge of the sea just nine easy miles from Manhattan. It was Coney Island and Coney Island had everything-- music, dancing, movies, beautiful women, dazzling, snow-white turrets and towers and nights lit up like a wonderland. Other cities had amusement parks, of course, but just as there was only one New York, there was only one Coney Island.

Here you could be an eyewitness to history, sort of — see the Galveston flood or a Boer War battle. You could ride a carousel built for Kaiser Wilhelm, scare yourself to death on a giant roller coaster or loop-the-loop, two Coney Island contributions to modern civilization. Beer was a nickel and no one expected you to do any work or even let such a thought pass your mind.

The whole idea was to have fun and spend your money — no calls to duty, nobody passing moral judgments — though some there were who saw social decay, even the shadow of evil, in so much carnival exuberance. It really was something and very American — the biggest, the best, open to everybody and profitable, proving, as nothing ever had, that there's truly no business like show business. This film was made possible in part by generous grants from the New York Council for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Coney Island

AL LEWIS, Actor: In this concrete jungle, there ain't many places where there's sand and there certainly ain't a lot of places where there's water and you combine water with sand, and lo and behold, you got a beach. See that? The guy who invented that, it was marvelous.

ELLIOT WILLENSKY, Writer: Albert Einstein created the general theory of relativity and talked about this thing called gravity and Coney Island dismissed it entirely.

FREDERICK FRIED, Archivist: I saw this wonderful machine where people were riding on it were taking all kinds of curves and I saw this as a work of art, like was a modern — something modern out of a — someone invented this thing. To me, it was a mobile. I felt thrilled by it.

Mr. WILLENSKY: It was the nature of going to Coney Island that you would encounter strangeness. You would encounter the unencounterable.

Mr. LEWIS: I don't know if you remember the symbol of Steeplechase. It was a clown with a big smile like that there, laughing. George C. Tilyou's Steeplechase.

Mr. WLLLENSKY: Ah, those leering grins. Steeplechase. "Come have fun! And other things." 

1st READER: "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." NARRATOR: "Play is not a luxury," one reformer wrote at the turn of the century, "but an absolute necessity for the working world of today." By 1895, a spit of land at the foot of Brooklyn had become the most extravagant playground in the country and the summer safety valve for the most explosively packed metropolis on earth.

But Coney Island was more than a playground. The three great amusement parks that flourished there turned the machine of industry into instruments of play and let loose the bright forces and dark possibilities of a vast democratic culture. Coney Island astonished, delighted and appalled the nation and took America from the Victorian age into the modern world.

RICHARD SNOW, Editor, "American Heritage": In 1905, the entire western world knew what Coney was. They knew that if you wanted to be really excited, to have a really good time, to have something that your people back home would want to hear about, you went to Coney Island. This place, in its time, both fascinated people and scared them to death. Coney Island offered the future in little ways, but in the first tangible ways these people were able to touch. In tiny ways, in toys, the 20th century was coming in at Coney Island. Sodom by the Sea NARRATOR: On September 1, 1609, one day before he discovered Manhattan, Henry Hudson discovered Coney Island, a five-mile long waste of sand dunes, scrub grass and "coneys," the wild rabbits that gave the place its name.

Coney was still a wasteland two centuries later when, in 1847, a side-wheeler from Manhattan began tying up at a makeshift pier on the island's western end. Out on the beach, men served clams and beer under a crude pavilion, amidst raucous bouts of three-card monte and a dice game called "buck-a-luck." "It is a well known fact," one visitor complained, "that picnics are often arranged for the sole benefit of pickpockets, prostitutes and swindlers." Dead bodies were sometimes found rolling in the surf. At the eastern end of the island, as far as possible from the disorder of the west, three vast frame hotels went up. By the 1870s, the Brighton Beach, the Manhattan Beach and the Oriental Hotels were drawing respectable families and their servants for the whole summer. The proprietors piped in fresh water from the mainland, offered band concerts every evening and paid detectives to patrol the beaches where the guests were mastering the difficult art of sea-bathing.

People too poor for the east end of the island and too cautious for the west spilled out along a mongrel stretch of beach called West Brighton that was not yet built up by the big developers. 

2nd READER: "What crowds of people — light-hearted, laughing people, rich, poor, citified, country-clad, all sorts, all thrilled by the tonic of the atmosphere and all active, yet wondering at their activity." 

NARRTOR: By 1875, an Irish-born builder named John Y. McKane had wrested control of Coney's political machinery so completely that no building — from a chowder stand to an iron pier went up without his approval. During McKane's reign, the island became a showcase for the wonders of the machine age. In 1876, the centerpiece of the Philadelphia Exposition was moved to Coney — an observation tower whose steam-powered elevators lifted people 300 feet above the sea. It was the tallest structure in the United States.

After descending from the tower, sightseers could refresh themselves from the mechanical udders of an inexhaustible cow. Daring bathers could go for nighttime swims, pulling themselves along ropes under the hissing blaze of primitive arc lamps. People called it "electric bathing." Afterward, they could eat a novel kind of hot, fast food. Its inventor, Charles Feltman, called them Coney Island Red hots. Others, uncertain of their ingredients, called them "hot dogs." In 1884, LaMarcus Thompson invented a gravity-powered ride he called a Switchback Railway. The roller coaster was born. Before long, there were refinements — the Loop-the-Loop and the Flip-Flap railway. The Flip-Flap could take only four passengers at a time, frequently damaged them and soon went out of business. 

1st READER: "Coney Island, our popular summer resort, has been a suburb of Sodom. Indeed, Sodom bore no comparison to this place for vileness. One cannot speak in public of the scenes which are daily enacted at that resort and by which young people of both sexes are polluted." [Reverend A.C. Dixon, The New York] 

3rd READER: "Houses of prostitution are a necessity on Coney Island and I don't propose to interfere with the gambling at Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay. After all, this ain't no Sunday school." [John Y. McKane] 

NARRATOR: By 1893, McKane had become an impediment to the island's growth. The New York Times declared that Coney Island had become "Sodom-by-the-Sea" and worried that its reputation would keep people away. That year, to keep a reform candidate out of office, Boss McKane registered 6,218 voters -- 5,000 more than Coney's entire eligible voting population -- and on election day, had his police beat and jail the state officials sent to keep him from rigging the polls. It was the boss's last victory. Two months later, McKane was on trial for election fraud, contempt of court, misuse of public funds and nine other charges.

4th READER: "With Mr. McKane now in Sing Sing, it remains to be seen how far the keepers of the resorts can make their places attractive without vice. The experiment will be interesting."

5th READER: "Every nation needs escape from respectability -- from the world of what we have to do into the world of what we would-like-to-do; from the world of duty that endureth forever into the world of joy that is permitted for a moment. Perhaps Coney Island is the most human thing that God ever made or permitted the devil to make." NARRATOR: By the last decade of the 19th century, there were more than three million New Yorkers. A million and a half of them lived in slums, more closely herded than the people of Calcutta or Bombay. Coney Island exploded. A quarter of a million people could be found there on summer Sundays.

Thomas Edison's incandescent light began burning across the island. Soon, the aurora of three great amusement parks would be visible 30 miles out to sea. In 1896, the motion picture camera was perfected. Among the first titles the Edison Company offered its exhibitors that summer were Sea Waves at Coney Island and Cakewalk on the Beach.

1st READER: "Youth is extravagant to prodigality with itself. It is drunk with its own passionate, intoxicating perfume and we surround that young, passionate, bursting blossom with every temptation to break down its resistant power, lure it into sentiment, pulsating desire and eroticism by lurid literature, moving pictures, tango dances, suggestive songs, cabaret, noise -- until the senses are throbbing with leashed-in physical passion." 

Mr. SNOW: People are always scared by change and Coney represented change of a particularly powerful and picturesque kind. If you go to a place that's only a streetcar ride away, where the rules of behavior are entirely changed, even the people who are enjoying it are going to realize that something strong and transforming is happening to them. They're going to be made nervous by the very things that give them pleasure. City of Fire 6th READER: "If Paris is France, Coney Island, between June and September, is the world." [George C. Tilyou] NARRATOR: The man who succeeded McKane as Coney's ruler was not a politician, he was a showman, but different from any showman who had come before him. His name was George C. Tilyou and he was the first impresario of controlled chaos. In 1893, the 26-year-old Coney Islander visited the Chicago World's Fair and tried to buy George Ferris's 250-foot-tall wheel on the spot. He failed, went home to Coney and ordered a wheel half the size, then put up a sign that said, "On this site will be erected the world's largest Ferris Wheel." By the time the machine arrived, Tilyou had rented out enough concession space to pay for it.  

Tilyou's main competition was Captain Paul Boyton, who had spent most of his life on the rivers of the world, paddling himself to international fame in an inflatable rubber suit. At Coney, he opened Sea Lion Park, a ramshackle cluster of attractions featuring a boat ride down a shoot-the-chutes. 

As soon as he saw it, Tilyou wanted a park of his own, but he needed an attraction to rival Boyton's chutes. He found it in England, a mechanical horse race, and began laying out the sinuous iron track of his Steeplechase Ride. In 1897, Steeplechase Park opened its doors for the first time.

6th READER: "The young men like it because it gives them a chance to hug the girls. The girls like it because it gives them a chance to get hugged. Everybody likes it because it is cheap fun, real fun, lively fun. It realizes its mottoes, 'Half a mile in half a minute and fun all the time." 

NARRATOR: The horses were only part of the fun. Dismounting from the Steeplechase Ride, customers had to cross a small, bright stage ruled by a clown and a dwarf. It was called the Blowhole Theater. It played for almost 70 years, New York's longest-running show. As a couple stepped onto the stage, a jet of air blew the woman's skirt up around her waist, while the dwarf gleefully shocked her date with an electric cattle prod. The audience shrieked with laughter and waited for the next victims, while the latest ones took their seats in the crowd. Sometimes the manager had to darken the stage and empty the theater so a new audience could push in.

Tilyou had discovered that customers would pay for the privilege of entertaining other customers, that people liked seeing shows, but they liked seeing people more. He had also discovered that men and women liked almost anything that allowed them to grab hold of each other. The attractions inside Steeplechase soon included the Earthquake Float, the Skating Floor, the Falling Statue, the Human Cage, the Revolving Seat, the Funny Stairway, the Eccentric Fountain, the Dancing Floor, the Electric Seat, the Human Roulette Wheel.

4th READER: "Time was when the place was shunned by ultra-respectable New Yorkers, who went instead to Manhattan Beach, but nowadays, Coney is visited by all classes." 

6th READER: "When you bathe in Coney, you bathe in the American Jordan. It is holy water. Nowhere else in the United States will you see so many races mingle in a common purpose for a common good. Democracy meets here and has its first interview, skin to skin. Here you find the real interpretation of the Declaration of Independence -- the most good for the greatest number, tolerance, freedom." 

NARRATOR: On July 28, 1907, fire broke out at Steeplechase, in the Cave of the Winds. The big wooden park burned for 18 hours. The next day, Tilyou had a sign up where the entrance had been. 

3rd READER: "To inquiring friends: I have troubles today that I did not have yesterday. I had troubles yesterday that I have not today. On this site will be erected shortly a better, bigger, greater Steeplechase Park. Admission to the burning ruins: 10 cents." 

[George C. Tilyou] 

NARRATOR: Nine months later, the park was open again. This time, Tilyou covered everything with a glass-and-steel shed and called it the Pavilion of Fun. It made Steeplechase impervious to the weather. Tilyou's rivals claimed he went to church to pray for rain.

And there were some rivals now. Frederic Thompson was a failed architect with a drinking problem, who had dropped out from the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Elmer "Skip" Dundy was a court clerk from Omaha who had once managed to sell the bankrupt Union Pacific Railroad for more than $90 million. Across Surf Avenue from Steeplechase, the two men were building the most extraordinary amusement park on earth.

Declaring that "Straight lines are necessarily severe and dead," Thompson banished them from his drafting table.

6th READER: "In building for a festive occasion, there should be an absolute departure from all set forms of architecture. One must dare to decorate a minaret with Renaissance detail or to jumble Romanesque with art nouveau, always with the idea of keeping his line constantly varied, broken and moving. The first step is to get emotional excitement into the very air." 

NARRATOR: They named their park Luna — not for the moon, as some thought, but for Skip's sister, Luna, over in Bayonne, New Jersey. By opening night, Thompson and Dundy had only $11 left between them and had to comb the island to come up with change for the ticket-takers. At eight o'clock on the evening of May 16, 1903, the gates opened.

4th READER: "About 45,000 men, women and children strolling along Surf Avenue stopped and rubbed their eyes and stood in wonder and pinched themselves to see if there was not something wrong somewhere." 

NARRATOR: Nobody had ever seen anything like it. Thompson and Dundy had decorated their forest of towers and minarets with 250,000 incandescent lights. It was, one man said, "an electric Eden." 

2nd READER: "Here is alchemy. Here, in full view of thousands in tiers of boxes and promenades, the spotted horses, the clowns, the acrobats, jugglers, hoop artists, intellectual elephants, Arabian pyramidists, tumblers, contortionists disport under the crackling lashes of the ringmaster." 

Mr. FRIED: You felt you were in the Orient. You felt you were in different parts of the world. The buildings themselves made you feel that you were a great chieftain and these were your temples and you could go in there and just for a Mickel, you'd become a chieftain yourself. You could be almost anything you wanted. All the fairy tales you read as a little boy were coming true right here in Luna Park.

NARRATOR: "Ah, God," said one visitor, "What might the prophet have written in Revelation if only he had first beheld a spectacle like this?"

Thompson and Dundy made a formidable team. In just six weeks, they had paid back every cent of the $700,000 it had cost to build Luna Park. By season's end, they were rich men. Luna's success fascinated William H. Reynolds, a New York politician with a reputation for brokering shady real estate deals. Reynolds talked the City of New York into selling him 60 acres between Surf Avenue and the sea, then got them to throw in West 8th Street for free. Reynolds planned to build a park to end all parks. It would hold 250,000 people at a time. Its one million electric lights would dazzle Luna into obscurity. It would be another world, a dream world. He called it Dreamland. All through the first winter of Luna's success, tall white towers rose across the street. 

Mr. FRIED: The most dramatic thing that happened in Coney Island was Dreamland itself. You felt that you were being elevated into another class, into a higher position in life. It was a more cultural thing. It was a graceful thing.

NARRATOR: Reynolds built his park on a colossal scale. It was to be a catalogue of the future, an inventory of the strange and a compendium of the century to come. The newest technology, the latest science, the odd, the bizarre, the far-flung would be at home in Dreamland.

The park was spread beneath the 375-foot Beacon Tower. At night, its imperial searchlight beamed 50 miles out over the Atlantic, disorienting ships on their way into New York Harbor. Beneath it, gondolas drifted through the Canals of Venice. Trains carried patrons through the Swiss Alps where they were cooled by blasts of refrigerated mountain air. There was a Train of the Future. The wreck-proof Leap-Frog Railroad allowed two trains to pass each other without mishap on the same track.

Human beings from every part of the globe were brought to Dreamland and put on display. The park manager, Sam Gumpertz, acquired a dozen Somali warriors from French Equatorial Africa and an entire village of Eskimos. In 1905, he hustled 51 Igorotte [sp?] tribesmen from the Philippines past startled immigration officials. Gumpertz himself recruited all the citizens of Lilliputia, a half-scale European village which served as year-round home to 300 midgets. At Creation, visitors journeyed backward through 60

centuries of biblical history to the Divine Origin of all things. Next door, vast panoramic exhibits foreshadowed the End of the World and Hell.

8th READER: Here is a young girl who has bought herself a new hat and is contentedly admiring herself in the mirror. A couple of small and apparently very hungry devils steal up to her from behind and seize her by the arms. She cries out, but too late. The devils lay her in a long, smooth chute. Tongues of red paper flame rise up, and down the chute into the pit slides the girl, the mirror and the hat.

NARRATOR: For a public fascinated with horrors closer to home, there was Fire and Flames, a gigantic, staged disaster where scores of firemen battled the flames engulfing a block of asbestos covered tenement buildings-- twice a day.

9th READER: The Infant Incubator forms one of the most interesting and thoroughly scientific features of Dreamland. Think of a family of incubator children, each baby in its own castle and each receiving royal care. These delicate, frail, tiny cherubs are not yet ready to begin the struggle for existence. 

NARRATOR: The most popular exhibit at Dreamland was the Infant Incubator. Dr. Martin Couney knew more about premature babies than anyone else in the world, but he was unable to persuade hospitals to adopt his techniques and, in 1904, set up shop at Dreamland. Of 8,000 infants brought to Dr. Couney over the years, 7,500 survived.

Beyond Dreamland's white ramparts, Coney Island seethed with recreated disasters and historical spectacles. Six hundred veterans of the Boer War, fresh from Johannesburg, re-fought their battles in a 12,000-seat stadium. Galveston disappeared beneath the flood. Mount Pélée erupted hourly, while across the street, Mount Vesuvius showered death on the people of Pompeii. Crowds surged through the dance halls and restaurants and saloons along the Bowery. Four hundred fifty motion pictures ran simultaneously, night and day. Many of the shows featured the spectacles of Coney itself. On a single day in September 1906, 200,000 postcards were mailed from Coney Island.

Mr. WILLENSKY: Coney Island was a kind of magazine of life, except instead of reading about it and seeing color pictures, you could experience it. You could participate in it girlie shows, premature babies on display, trips on these crazy rides. This was a great acculturating experience, acculturating you to the nature of life. 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 you had to be that way. It was a perpetual circus. It had everything that Barnum could dream of and more. 

Mr. SNOW: If you want to get a sense of the temper of the nation at the time when Coney was at its peak, you could not do better than to go to Thompson and Dundy's Naval Spectatorium in Luna Park, where for 25 cents you could see a show that had in its entirety the navies of the world -- Japan, Portugal, Germany coming in and shelling Manhattan and Admiral Dewey's fleet steaming out and sinking every one of them.

When it was at its most popular, it most perfectly reflected its culture and part of that was it showed people what they wanted to see or what they wanted to think their country was going to become and I think part of that was just the excitement of electricity. 

NARRATOR: Dreamland never became as popular as Luna or Steeplechase, but its cascade of lights completed a skyline unlike anything else in the world. Coney was more than three big amusement parks, it was a city. The newspapers called it the "city of fire." 10th READER: "With the advent of night, a phantom city of fire rears itself skyward from the ocean. Thousands of glowing sparks glimmer in the darkness. Threads of golden gossamer tremble in the air, weave translucent patterns of fire, hang motionless, in love with the beauty of their own reflection in the water. Fabulous beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful is this fiery scintillation." [Maxim Gorky] 

NARRATOR: While Sigmund Freud was formulating the pleasure principle in theory across the Atlantic, Tilyou, Thompson, Dundy and Reynolds were perfecting it, in fad, on Coney Island which, for a brief moment, became the realized unconscious of its age. Much of what people found there scared them, but they came. Everybody came to Coney sooner or later. On a warm September night in 1909, Sigmund Freud himself could be found at Coney Island, contemplating Dreamland.

2nd READER: "The brazen voice of the island begins to beat upon the ear drums like a pulse of fever. The leaping horses and the flying cars are metamorphosed into the agile demons of delirium and through the doorways of endless concert halls and drinking places, one glimpses faces that follow and haunt like the unspeakable phantoms of a dream." 

NARRATOR: Thompson and Dundy's private herd of elephants roamed through Luna park. One of their favorites, Topsy, had even helped build Luna, but she had a bad temper. She killed three men in three years, one of whom had fed her a lighted cigarette. It was clear that Topsy had to go. When she shrugged off the effects of two carrots fortified with 400 grains of potassium cyanide, Thompson and Dundy saw a chance for publicity and announced she would be hanged. When the ASPCA protested, the partners came up with a new plan.

Coney's powerful electrical plant could do more than light a park and now, Thomas Edison's men came over to Coney from New Jersey and set up two huge electrodes. Dundy and some handlers led Topsy to the platform. When she balked, they offered her keeper $25 to help, but he refused to take part in the murder of his six-ton charge. Finally, they got the elephant hooked up — electrodes on the right forefoot and the left rear — and threw the switch. It took 10 seconds. There was no noise.

1st READER: "The sun has set and the world is become suddenly afire. The view of Luna Park from Sheepshead Bay suggests a cemetery of fire, the tombs, turrets and towers illuminated and mortuary shafts of flame. Fire is the god of Coney Island after sundown and fire was its god this night, the hottest of the summer." 

NARRATOR: May 27, 1911, was opening day of the season. At two o'clock in the morning, workmen were still busy at Hell Gate in Dreamland when the circuitry started acting up. Light bulbs burst. Someone knocked over a bucket of hot tar and it caught fire. In minutes, Hell Gate was ablaze.

Nearby fire companies got there right away, but everything was lath and plaster, wood and tar and paint. Half an hour after the first alarm, the Dreamland tower was a column of fire so tall and bright, it could be seen in Manhattan. Animals from Bostock's Circus ran, panicked and burning, out onto Surf Avenue. At three o'clock, the Dreamland tower collapsed. L.A. Thompson's old scenic railway disappeared and the Great Whirlwind coaster and finally, the old Centennial Observation Tower itself shuddered and fell. Thirty-three fire companies had gotten to the scene, but it was a change in the wind that saved what was left of Coney.

At dawn, the firemen packed up and went home. It would have been a perfect opening day — warm, still and cloudless. Fred Thompson found Dreamland's manager, Sam Gumpertz, staring at acres of smoking rubble and wordlessly shook his hand. All that was left of Dreamland was the pretty waltz that had been written to celebrate its opening just seven seasons earlier.

There was talk of rebuilding Dreamland, but it never happened. Two years later, George C. Tilyou died. Fred Thompson went bankrupt and lost Luna Park. World War I came. The public fascination with recreated disasters declined.

EMCEE: [Newsreel: Zachini, the Human Cannonball] Ready! 

Mr. SNOW: The burning of Dreamland came very close on the burning of the world. It took people a while to realize that they hadn't just lost a park, that something had changed — that Coney wasn't going to go forward, all is getting grander. The country had changed, the world had changed. We had been in an international war, we were an international power. We were an entirely industrialized society. The wonderful magnet that Coney had been simply wasn't needed any longer.

Now, Coney did not get smaller, Coney got bigger and more populated. The subway lines got there — you'd get 300,000 people on a great day in 1913, you'd get a million on a great day in 1923 — but it was a different place. It was no longer "Coney Island" in the way that Coney Island fell on the ear of the whole world and represented something unique and entirely new.

1st READER: "Suddenly, I am at the seashore and no recollection of the train stopping. Everything is sordid, shoddy, thin as pasteboard — a Coney Island of the mind. The amusement shacks are running full blast, the shelves full of chinaware and dolls stuffed with straw and alarm clocks and spittoons. Over it all, in a muffled roar, comes the steady hiss and boom of the breakers. Behind the pasteboard street front, the breakers are plowing up the night with luminous argent teeth. In the oceanic night, Steeplechase looks like a wintry beard.

Everything is sliding and crumbling. Everything glitters, totters, teeters, titters. Everything is a lie, a fake, pasteboard. Everything is made of nuts and bolts. The monarch of the mind is a monkey wrench, sovereign pasteboard power." [Henry Miller] NARRATOR: In the end, the world that Coney Island ushered in overtook it. The towers of Luna Park were just as tall and just as bright, but Manhattan's grew taller and eventually outshone them. Coney's mechanical diversions were being superseded by the automobile. Immigrant parents who had saved up all year to spend one day at Coney grew old. Many of their children prospered and moved to the suburbs.

In 1944, fire struck the island again, ripping through Luna Park and gutting all but a few rides. The park limped on for a couple of seasons, then closed forever in 1946. Of the great parks, only Steeplechase kept going — on through the 40s, on through the 50s and into the 60s.

Then, on the night of September 20, 1964, while Auld Lang Syne and There's No Business Likw Show Business played out over the public address system, a bell chimed once for each of the 67 years Steeplechase Park had been in business. The lights went off, tier by tier, blazed out one last time. Then Steeplechase went dark. 

Mr. WILLENSKY: When land and water meet, wonderful things always happen. That means to me that Coney Island will forever be an opportunity. And I don't think that what Coney Island should be in people's minds is, "Let's bring back what was," but rather, "Let's consider it a frontier to do the thing of the future" because that intersection of sand and waves, the kind of light that you have, all evoke very powerful primitive creative urges in people — in all people, not just artists, not just developers, but somehow all people coming together. And they continue to come together, even though the Cyclone is starting to show some age and the Wonder Wheel is creaking a little bit more slowly. But tomorrow will be different and I hope — I deeply believe — that Coney Island will provide the opportunity to do a special thing there as it was a special thing for a number of generations already.