In 1911, the dreamland section of Coney Island was decimated in the most spectacular fire of the last century. Neighboring Steeplechase Park had burned in 1907, and although it was rebuilt-and Luna Park continued to stand bright-the Dreamland conflagration signaled the end of Coney’s glory days. Symbolically, it prefigured the close of the grand era that would disappear with the start of the Great Depression, and for students of Coney’s history it stands as the first clear sign that the kind of lavish entertainment that Coney was famous for would not last until the end of the twentieth century.
While Coney Island continued to be a popular amusement destination through World War II, only a shadow of its former extravagance remains today: The looming Wonder Wheel and the legendary Cyclone roller coaster creak through their daily cycles amid a deteriorating collection of smaller rides whose gaudy painted fronts are gradually being replaced by cookie-cutter tilt-a-whirls and scramblers. As the old, distinctive Coney Island fades further and further into memory, a recent spate of books aim to resuscitate it, bringing to life the showmanship that made Dreamland so unforgettable. Carrie Brown’s The Hatbox Baby (featuring a group of Coney regulars transplanted for a season to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair) focuses on the controversial display of premature babies as a freak show/edutainment exhibit; Amram Ducovny’s Coney, also set in the 1930s, looks at the strained relationships of the Yiddish-speaking community, the low-grade criminal element that made its home near the boardwalk, and the off-duty freak show performers during the winter season; and Kevin Baker’s popular Dreamland, published in 1999, recreates the ultra-decadent spectacle of the turn-of-the-century, in which a fictionalized version of the notorious gangster Kid Twist hides out with a dwarf who makes his living as the mayor of the legendary Midget City (here renamed the Little City). It is this vanishing world that Edo McCullough sought to capture in his 1957 book Good Old Coney Island-a classic documentation of what has been “by turns a slow-measured, sea-tossed, delightful wilderness; a raffish and raucous boom-town; a popular hang-out for criminals; a fashionable watering place for the rich and well-born; a gay and rollicking playground for the well-to-do middle class; and a gaudy, tinselled nickel empire for the masses.” In his introduction to the 2000 reissue edition of the book, New York historian Brian J. Cudahy writes that there is now serious talk of redeveloping Coney-and perhaps the possibility of its renaissance is one reason we are currently interested in revisiting the enormous spectacles of those bygone days.
But maybe our interest has something instead to do with the way this kind of theme park entertainment has developed over the past half century, with the advent of parks like Disney World and Universal Studios, and with new, massively themed attractions opening in Las Vegas every year. Today, our theme parks give us a happy world. Human beings (if you don’t count those dressed up as Cinderella and Mickey Mouse) are not on exhibit-the creatures on our rides are animatronic, and the performers are possessed of skills like juggling or tap dancing. Our notion of spectacle has changed-not just from the “real” sightseeing of the urban flaneur to the “hyperreal” entertainments discussed by critics like Umberto Eco and Ada Louise Huxtable, but also in the kind of fake worlds our amusement parks present. Transgressive attractions-from the freak show to the tunnel of love (designed for stolen kisses)-have been replaced by wholesome “entertainment for the whole family,” at least in the world of immersive, American attractions like theme parks and Vegas.
It might be argued that our impulse for exploitative entertainment has been relocated to tabloid newspapers-“Chicken Baby Born to Woman of 65”-but then, that kind of sensational journalism has been around in one form or another since the nineteenth century. Perhaps we still indulge our interest in the bizarre by watching reality television and reading Web sites full of outrŽ porn and animals transfigured into cyborgs with the help of computer-assisted graphics; or, as some critics argue, by watching medical documentaries that invite invasive, objectifying glimpses of unusual bodies and cater to the same morbid curiosities that Coney once did. But there is a big difference between looking at a film or photograph and seeing a live show in the context of an enormous amusement destination devoted to just this kind of entertainment. Web sites lack the social sanction provided by a large corporate, moneymaking sponsor (those of us who visit, say, amputee fetish sites are hardly likely to divulge it publicly), and even with socially acceptable talk shows, tabloids, and documentaries, the viewer is not entirely immersed in the atmosphere the way he or she was in the amusement destinations of the early twentieth century. Seeing an image on a tiny, pixilated screen mediates its power; at Coney, the exhibits were not only live, they were part of a larger environment that perpetuated the same aesthetic.
True, there are fringe entertainments like the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow that hark back to those bygone days (when I saw Rose’s show, it featured an illustrated man who ate a wide variety of bugs; a chainsaw juggler; a human blockhead; and a bare-breasted woman who climbed a staircase of swords)-but these are neither “legitimate” nor part of a larger whole; they exist only on the margins of the entertainment spectrum. Though we still have the impulse for the complicated, morally compromising experience of spectacles laced with pity, horror, and empathy, there is nowhere today that provides the same kind of thrills that once made a day at Coney Island worth a year’s savings.
What we do have, in these recent novels at least, are some narrative attempts to reproduce the Coney panorama. In all three books, the characters spend a lot of time wandering around and taking in the scenery. There are too many walking scenes to count. Near the beginning of Coney, for example, teenage Harry follows a nefarious dwarf named Woody along the wintry boardwalk, “Looming beyond, the motionless Ferris Wheel anticipated summer lovers kissing while the world turned upside down. Beneath it the Cyclone’s sky-riding wooden tracks formed a serpentine road to nowhere. Coney awaited a warm wind to awaken it from its annual Ice Age.” Harry wanders, his friend Aba wanders, his father wanders, his friends from the freak show wander, late at night when they won’t draw attention to themselves. The Hatbox Baby, too, begins with a prolonged panorama of the fairgrounds through the eyes of a boy-the Transparent Man, the Avenue of Flags, the Nudist Colony, the Slave Mart exotic dancers, the man who swallows live snakes. And in Dreamland, a viscous gangster named Gyp the Blood walks through the park in search of his enemy: “past the Barrel of Fun, and the Razzle Dazzle. Past the Venetian Gondolas and the Golden Stairs and the Chanticleer, past the Barrel of Love and the Human Roulette and the Cave of Winds and Human Pool Table and the Down and Out.”
Baker’s point is complicated. First, he connects the exploitation of the labor force with the exploitation of the Coney freaks and prostitutes who populate his novel. But not only does he implicitly compare the workers to the freak show performers, and point out that people who were exploited by their working conditions spent their weekends exploiting other people by gawking at them, he also links the freedoms of Coney to the freedoms of which immigrants and factory drones dreamed. On the boat to America, the first glimpse of the new world Kid Twist gets is Dreamland, ablaze in light.
Historically, Coney Island was a place for working-class people to escape the social strictures by which they were otherwise bound-not only the crippling conditions of life in the factories, but also moral constrictions. Esther, Baker’s heroine, steals erotic moments with Kid riding various amusement rides, and relations between men and women were relaxed and sexually charged in Coney’s permissive atmosphere-at Steeplechase, in particular. In Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Kathy Peiss notes that Dreamland itself advocated a middle-class morality that opposed the tawdry dance halls of the 1800s, but that Luna Park promoted romance on rides like the Old Mill and the Canals of Venice, and that Steeplechase-full of funhouses, sideshow attractions, and ingenious mechanical wonders-“encouraged familiarity between strangers, permitted a free-and-easy sexuality…. Within the amusement park, familiarity between women and men could be acceptable if tightly structured and made harmless through laughter.”
Coney was a place of contradictions-where wonder mixed with disgust, and pleasure with guilt. Almost biblical in its proportions, the Dreamland fire signified an end not only to this kind of debauched spectacle, but almost to the idea of it-as though our interest could be cleansed away by flames. These days, despite our tabloid papers, our medical documentaries, and our afternoon talk shows exploiting the problems of people with skin diseases, multiple personality disorders, and sextuplet births, we think we know better than to be entertained by such things. Our amusement parks and Las Vegas hotels are all but guilt-free, and yet they don’t provide the kind of horrific, emotional, and, yes, dirty thrill that the shows of Coney Island once did. And that is what we miss.
Copyright ©2000 FEED Inc. All rights reserved.