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Much of "Freak Show" takes place on Coney Island. Since I've never even been to New York, let alone Coney Island, and since I wasn't alive while even Steeplechase Park was open, a lot of this will be guesswork on all our parts.
(If you know I'm totally wrong about something, don't hesitate to let me know. Almost everything I know about this subject I learned from the Internet...)
The vast majority of this information came from Coney Island History Website. (That site also has some nice maps, one of which was a big reference for mine.)
Coney Island History and Origins in a nutshell:
Coney Island, currently part of Brooklyn, New York, was originally a beachside resort frequented by the wealthy who could afford a carriage ride to the beach (and a stay at the bathhouses), or, later, a steamboat ride. In the 1870s, train lines went near to Coney Island, allowing more people to visit on the weekends. Around the turn of the century, people started to build amusement parks like Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland (which burnt down in 1911), all of which had various roller coasters (often called "Scenic Railways," as the first coaster was actually a mining train!) and other attractions. Luna Park especially was brightly lit at night, and all offered diversions and a kind of fantasy world, as well as a place to meet people of the opposite sex. The beach was also a big draw, and was no longer owned by private interests who could charge for use of the sand. In 1920, the New York subway line extended to Coney Island, allowing the masses--not just the wealthy--to visit the park at the cost of a nickel and a half hour of their time. Individuals also built single rides outside of the parks, and many people visited in the summer season (which lasted about from Memorial Day until Labor Day) to ride the rides and go swimming.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Coney Island became less popular and creative (though most people claim the decline started in the 1920s), and most of the parks burnt down or were destroyed to make way for condos and such. Steeplechase Park survived until the 1960s, and a few coasters were around until the 1980s. But today, only the Cyclone roller coaster, a carousel, and a few other small attractions, still exist from the old park.
(More history, pretty quick to read: "Amusing the Millions": Suite101.com)
But what was it like?
The main strip of the island was bounded approximately by Neptune Avenue to the north and ocean to the south. The main thoroughfare was Surf Avenue, which would be jammed full of cars driving by. The subway terminal, and Luna Park, were north of Surf Avenue; Steeplechase Park and most of the rest of the area's attractions were south. A block south of Surf Avenue, running parallel to it, was the Bowery, a street crowded with rides, attractions, and carnival games. There were lots of buildings lining Surf Avenue, the Bowery, and the numerous North-South streets that went from the Boardwalk to Surf Avenue.
Here is a map of our Coney Island--not entirely accurate, but suitable for our needs. Locations will be filled in as needed. Most of the rides are explained below.
The buildings were generally flimsy structures, usually wooden, and sometimes partially made of paper! Fires were common, and, when they occurred, fast-spreading.
By the 1920s, Coney Island was extremely crowded in the summer. Some estimate as many as 1,000,000 people would come to the island on a busy Saturday. The beach would be so crowded one could barely find a place to sit. Couples would be surprisingly affectionate, on the beach and elsewhere. In fact, many people thought the whole environment was rather dirty. The rich were more likely to go somewhere exotic by automobile than go to such a popular place, where class differences were minimized, and which many immigrants (and people of all races) fancied.
But some people who hated Coney Island in the daytime admitted it had a charm after dark. The bright lights of all the attractions were enchanting, even to some who disliked the island's daytime image. Late at night, clubs might have bands or even dancing. Sometimes musicians played outside, too. Day and night, crowds would talk, and barkers would stand outside shows, trying to draw audiences in. It was a loud place.
Steeplechase and Luna parks were clearly past their heyday, but their diversions, and new roller coasters built outside the parks, attracted many thrill-seekers. The best rides cost twenty-five cents to ride, but the Cyclone coaster often had lines an hour or two long. These rides were much bumpier than most coasters and rides today, and riders would be jostled, perhaps even bruised.
Presumably, Coney Island was still popular with young adults (and maybe even teenagers) looking for something fun to do on a weekend, away from adults. There were also attractions geared towards children, so it could be a getaway for the whole family.
Food was cheap. Feltman's hot dogs sold for ten cents apiece in his restaurant, and Nathan's hot dogs could be purchased at a counter, for a nickel (although the island's poorer visitors would probably bring their own lunches). A visitor could also buy sandwiches or hamburgers, and even steaks at restaurants. Stauch's, in fact, was a higher-class restaurant located on the Bowery. Clam chowder was not hard to come by, either. And, of course, peanuts and popcorn were sold.
In the winter, things were much quieter. Few attractions were open, no one was on the beach, and there was little to do. Nathan's was still open for a hot dog, though, and there may have been a few small shows or galleries that were open on the weekends. Coney Island wasn't completely closed in the winter--but it was close.
Steeplechase Park, "The Funny Place," was located between W. 19th Street, the Boardwalk, W. 16th Street, and Surf Avenue.
One of the entrances housed a "Barrel of Fun" (or "Barrel of Love"), which tumbled men and women together. (The other entrance on Surf Avenue sported "The Mixer," which seems to have been the same thing.) The signature ride of the park was the Steeplechase, which was actually two sets of "horse-racing" tracks. There were two sets of four tracks each. One went around the inside of the park (around the Pavillion of Fun), while the other went around the outside, even hanging over West 16th Street. The track started out high, then dipped and rose, like a roller coaster today. A couple would sit on one of the "horses," and hold on as they and three other groups circled around in a race.
After the race, riders were forced into the Blowhole Theater portion of the Insanitarium in the Pavillion of Fun. Air jets blew the hats off of young men (and also blew young womens' skirts skyward), strange characters pestered the visitors, and other strange things happened--all up on a stage in front of people who had come out of the Steeplechase ride and been tormented minutes before!
The Pavillion of Fun was a giant structure made of glass and steel which housed many other strange attractions, like the Human Pool Table (a floor with many spinning platforms; it was a challenge to get across) and the Human Roulette Wheel (where many people sat on a giant wheel on the floor, and all except perhaps the person in the center were thrown out as the wheel accelerated). There was a Bicycle Carousel, a carousel powered by its riders. The Pavillion also contained many other fun-house-like attractions (mirrors, slides, etc.), a Babyland with attractions (such as a slide and miniature carousel) for small children, and, in 1928, a heated swimming pool and a roller-skating rink. But the pool was closed and demolished once that season ended (and the roller rink was reserved for private parties). (An outdoor swimming pool, filled with salt water, remained.). The Pavillion of Fun was also a place for visitors to retreat if it rained while they were on the island.
The rest of the park had strange and exciting attractions. There were at several carousels: one with barnyard animals (El Dorado? 3 platforms at different speeds), a racing carousel (which reached speeds of up to 25 MPH), and the Chanticleer (a carousel with chickens and ostrich instead of horses). Other rides included "Dodge 'em" bumper cars, a tunnel of love, the Bowery Slide (a slide that started 30 feet off the ground), a Ferris wheel, a Caterpillar (a flat ride with canopies over each car that would close when high enough speeds were attained) and a Noah's Ark (a rocking funhouse, complete with animals). Swings included the "Uncle Sam" (a platform swing) and the Hoop-La (a round ring-shaped swing which people sat inside). There was even a House Upside-Down, which had its furniture nailed to the ceiling.
There were even roller coasters. "Zip," a 40-foot tall coaster, ran along Surf Avenue and West 19th Street, and "The Limit," 55 feet tall, went along the Boardwalk.
Patrons would pay a fee for admission (which was probably a quarter) which entitled them to one turn on each ride.
Luna Park, perhaps best-known for its brightly lit interior and vaguely "Oriental" main tower, was located north of Surf Avenue, roughly between West 12th Street and West 8th Street.
Its oldest ride at the time was the Shoot-the-Chutes, a ride where people got into boats which were launched down a water slide and onto a manmade lagoon, which the boats skipped across like stones. An prominent but simple ride was the Helter Skelter, a double slide which couples could take simultaneously. The slide tracks started out together, separated, and then drew together at the end.
The Red Mill was a boat ride through a tunnel. The nearby Coal Mine ride was a donkey ride through a "mine." And the Honeymoon Express was an underground ride.
An alternative to Steeplechase's bumper cars was Luna Park's "Witching Waves," a group of cars on an undulating metal platform, which moved the cars. Luna Park also had "Dodge'em" cars, though. There was also a tumblebug ride (five round cars moving around a waving track), perhaps called "The Bug." And of course there was a carousel.
Attractions included the Infant Incubators (where premature babies were taken care of, before hospitals understood the process!), and a circus. There was also a bit of sand and a large saltwater swimming pool, and a large fun house called "The Pit" or "Luna Funhouse," and a Penny Arcade. "Battle of Chateau-Thierry" was an elaborate "cyclorama," an attraction with a painted canvas encircling the audience, with sound and light effects to give an illusion of objects exploding. And there were surely shows, perhaps "Broadway Revue," for instance. And, there was a thing called "Love Nest," though I have no idea what it was.
Dragon's Gorge was an "indoor scenic railway," featuring scenes at the North Pole, Africa, the Grand Canyon, and even Hades, as well as sharp turns and steep drops. There was also a Grand Canyon railway.
"Trip to the Moon" was probably a relocated roller coaster, 60-feet tall. Luna Park also boasted the Mile High Sky Chaser, which was more than 80 feet high.
There might have also been a Whip and a Tilt-a-Whirl (they are listed on a 1930 map).
Luna Park had the Casino Ballroom and Restaurant, and possibly a Teahouse as well.
The Wonder Wheel was a large ferris wheel with 8 stationary cars and 16 sliding cars. (The wheel at Disney's California Adventure used the same design, without permission, apparently.) There was at least one free-standing "Whip" ride, a Caterpillar, a Skooter, and some carousels.
There were also funhouses, like "Over the Falls," and the "Amusement Department Store." The Bowery, and other areas, housed dark rides and stand-alone rides, and the Bowery especially was known for its many arcades and games which were open later than even the parks. (Games included shooting galleries, "Digger" games (like "claw" machines of today, but not always electrical, and not always giving the player any controls), and probably all sorts of things similar to what they have at carnivals today.)
There was even a wax museum. Mooney's Kiddie Playground had miniature rides for children, and a 35-cent ticket let a child ride each one.
As far as coasters, the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway was the most prominent holdover from the era of earlier, tamer coasters. The Big Dipper's 52-foot drop was mild compared to the Thunderbolt (86 feet), the Bob's Tornado (55 feet drop, 71 feet high, with sharp turns), and the famous Cyclone (85 feet tall and reaching a peak speed of over 60 MPH).
And of course animals, and even people, starred in sideshows...
Coney Island had a hospital! It was located east of the main drag. There was also a park, but it was unpopular.
Experience | Coney Island PBS's site. The transcript is pretty
Coney Island History Website I'm not sure how accurate everything is on this site, but it was my main source. The maps are useful, and if you read its articles about the parks themselves, you'll learn much more about them.
The Coney Island Pages Not the most informative, but if you like primary sources, check out the Coney Island Articles section.
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