Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland
By Bobbie Leigh
Coney Island, the people’s playground at the southern tip of Brooklyn, is an American icon –like Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls. The exhibition “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland 1861-2008,” at the Brooklyn Museum covers almost 150 years of the historic playground. It closes March 13.
Using works of art from such luminaries as Diane Arbus, Reginald Marsh, Milton Avery, Red Grooms and Frank Stella among many others, the exhibition tells a fascinating back story of artists, photographers, and filmmakers all of whom were inspired by Coney Island. Together with the art works, the curators weave together banners, posters, film clips, vintage photos and other ephemera to document Coney Island’s evolution from resort to ruin to recovery.
You can view Visions through a sociological lens reflecting on what began as a watering hole for the wealthy and evolved into an entertainment mecca for the masses. But don’t be misled. This is an exhibition for kids, adults, nostalgia buffs and anyone who loves old movies.
Coney Island began as an elite seaside resort as early as 1829. By 1894, it began to attract a much more diverse population. New steamboats, ferries, and horse trams made it easier to reach the beach. By the early twentieth century, amusement parks —Steeplechase, Luna, and Dreamland —transformed Coney Island into a “ working people’s paradise,” especially for the crowds who lived in insufferably hot and rundown tenements.
At the same time, Coney Island became a magnet for artists, photographers, songwriters, and filmmakers. A George Bellows 1908 painting “Beach at Coney Island” conveys what the lavishly illustrated catalog refers to as a “loosening of moral strictures on public behavior.” Bellows captures the moment when a man leaning on his elbow bends down to embrace a reclining woman with bright red lips and hair to match. Flirtatious behavior, otherwise frowned on at that time became safe in the at the public beach at Coney Island.
After the stock market crash in 1929, Coney Island became known as the “Poor Man’s Riviera.” If you had a nickel, you could take the subway to the beach, watch sideshows, stroll along the longest boardwalk in the world, win a prize, eat cotton candy and a Nathan’s Famous hot dog for five cents. A new feature was a “bally,” a sample performance of a show, staged on a platform, manned by barkers with megaphones urging the crowds to step up and see their exotica -often with clowns, so-called “freaks,” skinny girls in skinnier clothes. Some of the exhibition’s terrific banners from the sideshows feature “Shackles the Great,” “Quito, the Human Octopus,” and “Jeannie, Living Half Girl.”
In the 1940s New York’s nickel empire retained some of its old carnival spirit but war spread a somber note. “Coney Island’s shooting galleries and Parachute Jump appealed to soldiers who either anticipated vanquishing the enemy or had already experienced combat firsthand,” according to the catalog.
The era of 1940-1961 is what the curators have dubbed “A Coney Island of the Mind.” Coney Island slowly lost its allure. The major attractions closed down: Luna Park in 1946 and Steeplechase Park, the last remaining theme park, in 1964. (Fred Trump waged a legal battle to get control of the property but eventually gave up after ten years.) By the 1980s, Coney Island was seedy, derelict and mostly empty except for seagulls and strollers along the boardwalk.
The catalog describes a rebirth after Hurricane Sandy that is anti-Disney (unlike 42nd Street) and not tarted up so its roots are unrecognizable. Whatever the future, Coney Island’s past is comprehensively documented in this riveting exhibition.
Details: Brooklyn Museum