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Coney Island Arbuckle Keaton

Happy New Year! ATZ is still on a holiday schedule, so our first post of 2015 is a classic movie. If you’ve never seen Coney Island, the 1917 silent comedy directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, with comic actor Al St. John and a young Buster Keaton, you’re in for a treat. If you’ve seen this film before, you know it never gets old.

The 25-minute short opens with stock footage of Coney Island’s Mardi Gras parade and the Electric Eden of Luna Park. The treat is seeing such early amusement rides as the Witching Waves and Chute the Chutes and a High Striker game used as props by masters of slapstick. The storyline has the three comedians competing for Keaton’s date Alice, who goes off first with St. John and then with Arbuckle, who in turn is eluding his bossy wife.

The funniest scenes are when the action shifts from the amusement park to the bathhouse and the beach. Unable to rent a swimsuit– yes, it was once the norm to rent swimsuits!–because of his size, Arbuckle spies the bathing costume of a portly lady and swipes it. He spends the last half of the movie in drag, a popular gag in early films, which he does brilliantly, even as he is battling his rivals and the Keystone Cops.

Chris Edwards’ blog Silent Volume has an insightful essay on Coney Island and Arbuckle, in which he writes:

The great silent comedians all connected with their audiences in different ways. Chaplin mixed his comedy with pathos; Keaton reflected our need for restraint in the face of chaos; Harold Lloyd tried to be average. But Arbuckle engaged the audience directly. The others we watch; with Arbuckle, you often feel as though you’re in on whatever scheme he’s hatched.

Related posts on ATZ…

December 29, 2014: Saturday Matinee: “On The Loose” in Coney Island (1931)

March 3, 2012: Saturday Matinee: Bluto & Popeye, Kings of Coney’s Mardi Gras

August 16, 2011: Video of the Day: “IT Girl” Clara Bow in Coney Island

January 15, 2011: ATZ Saturday Matinee: Shorty at Coney Island

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Released on December 26, 1931, On the Loose stars the comedy team of Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts as two gals whose parade of boyfriends never take them anywhere but Coney Island and they’re sick of it. Giggling as they recall “the refrigerator salesman from Schenectady” and other dates who won the chalkware prizes crowding the mantle in their apartment, they vow that today was their last trip to Coney. Well, of course it wasn’t. By 8:23 in the 20 minute film, the duo are back in Coney Island on a double date with two Englishmen who say it’s “very smart and quite original” and they’re going to do it all.

The gag is that ever since the days of silent movies, Coney Island, with its amusement rides that flung couples into each others arms, has been a popular setting for comedies. Among our faves are Coney Island (1917) with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton and It (1927), in which Clara Bow plays a shop girl who goes on a first date with her boss to Coney Island, though the film is said to have been made at Ocean Park Pier in California. The Coney Island scenes in Harold Lloyd’s Speedy were shot at four different amusement parks– two in Coney and two in California– according to film historian John Bengtson.

California’s Venice Pier, which like Steeplechase also had a Human Roulette Wheel, rotating Barrel of Love and Giant Slide, was a stand-in for Coney Island in On the Loose. Some of the funniest scenes have ZaSu and Thelma shushing the game attendants who remember them from previous visits and Thelma proving she’s a crack shot at the shooting gallery.

In the last few minutes of the film, Laurel and Hardy make a cameo appearance. We won’t spoil it by telling you what happens when they ask the two woman out on a date to where else but Coney Island. The film was directed and produced by Hal Roach, whose studio also made the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedies.

Related posts on ATZ…

December 8, 2013: Sunday Matinee: Princess Rajah’s Chair Dance (1904)

March 3, 2012: Saturday Matinee: Bluto & Popeye, Kings of Coney’s Mardi Gras

August 16, 2011: Video of the Day: “IT Girl” Clara Bow in Coney Island

January 15, 2011: ATZ Saturday Matinee: Shorty at Coney Island

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Nathan and Ida Handwerker

Nathan Handwerker and Ida Handwerker at the 50th anniversary of Nathan’s, 1966. Photo By Daniel Farrell. Courtesy of Loquat Films

Nathan Handwerker, the founder of Nathan’s Famous hot dog empire, is a mythic figure in Coney Island history. The story of the young Polish immigrant working at Feltman’s and saving his salary to open a competing restaurant where hot dogs sold for a nickel instead of a dime is the stuff of legend. His grandson Lloyd Handwerker’s documentary Famous Nathan humanizes him and at the same time makes us see that he truly was larger than life. The film premiered on Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be screened again on April 25 and 26.

The opening scene is a sweet first memory in a remarkably candid family memoir: Lloyd and his sister are children being fed loquats plucked from a tree by their grandfather. The documentary is told through home movies, archival photos and footage, the filmmaker’s interviews with a colorful cast of characters including family members and former Nathan’s workers, and the voice of Famous Nathan himself. A 16-minute oral history, condensed from nearly four hours taped by Lloyd’s cousin David Sternshein when their grandfather was 82 is central to the narrative. The cadence of Nathan’s voice and his story reverberate in the imagination even after the film is over: “I want to go to America. I was dreaming about it.”

Nathan says he could neither read nor write, but that he had common sense. His ingenuity is evident every step of the way, from sleeping with his money in his shoes during the voyage, to calling out customers’ orders one at a time at his first restaurant job since he didn’t know a word of English, to keeping the frankfurters from spoiling by storing them in a barrel between layers of ice. He courted his wife-to-be Ida when she opened a little stand next door to his own. Remember those vintage photos of Nathan’s in which the cars are double and triple parked out front? Well, no one ever got a ticket because the cops on the beat were paid $2 a day and all they could eat.

The other side of this successful immigrant’s story is that Nathan was a workaholic, who was by all accounts highly critical of the store’s managers including his sons Murray and Sol. “If he didn’t say anything, he wasn’t criticizing you,” says one of the former managers, who clearly idolized him nonetheless. When it came time to retire, Ida felt as if she were being punished instead of seeing it as a reward, says Lloyd’s uncle Murray. Nathan asked if he could sweep the street, and turned up at the store in Oceanside in a Cadillac and swept the parking lot, much to the surprise of workers who asked who he was.

At one point in the film, Lloyd asks his father Sol, who is now 88 and the only surviving child of Nathan, if he ever wanted him to go into the family business. Sol says he wanted him to have “a better life, a more interesting life.” Lloyd’s chosen career was cinematography and for the past 30 years he has been piecing together his family’s history.

“My grandfather died when I was 17. I knew him quite well,” the 57-year-old Brooklyn film-maker said in a previous interview with ATZ. His quest appears to have been propelled by the fact that Sol left the family business when Lloyd was 7. Growing up he’d only been to Coney Island a few times and he never worked at Nathan’s. “Why am I here? I guess I’m trying to recreate something of my grandfather,” he says into the camera, as a young man of 30, though he looks much younger, sitting in Nathan’s chair in his office. He has succeeded brilliantly.

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Related posts on ATZ…

April 8, 2014: Photo Album: Classic Chevrolets at Nathan’s Coney Island

March 6, 2014: Tribeca Film Fest to Premiere ‘Famous Nathan’ Doc by Grandson Lloyd Handwerker

March 24, 2013: “Notorious BOB” and Larell Marie Win Nathan’s Hot Dog Qualifier

January 19, 2010: Nathan Slept Here! Coney Island’s Feltman’s Kitchen Set for Demolition

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This week, British Pathé announced the release of more than 85,000 newsreels from its archives to the public via YouTube. Among the films dating from the early 20th century though the 1970s are several documenting Coney Island. “Let’s Go Coney! Island” (1932) was shot inside Steeplechase Park’s Pavilion of Fun and provides a glimpse of patrons riding the Hoopla, Human Pool Table and Panama Slide. At Luna Park, Victor Zacchini, “The Human Cannonball,” is seen being shot from a cannon across the park’s lagoon as part of the season’s outdoor show.

Other newsreels show riders on the Witching Waves (1919) and the residents of New York Aquarium eating a “Whale Of A Lunch” (1964). (Update: We removed one of the films, Dizzy-Dive Land (1932) which is mis-ID’d as a Coney Island coaster but turns out to be Rye Playland’s Aeroplane (1923-1957), according to American Coaster Enthusiasts co-founder and historian Richard Munch.)

While the British Pathé archive is available online via their own website, going public on YouTube allows viewers to comment, share and embed the historic videos.

“The archive contains unique footage from both World Wars, the Titanic, boxing legend Muhammed Ali and more,” said British Pathé and Mediakraft Networks in a press release. “On top of this startling content, the material also paints vivid pictures of almost forgotten lifestyles, peculiar technical inventions and everyday life that British Pathé presented in newsreels, cinemagazines, and documentaries from 1910 until 1976.”

In “Do You Reverse” (1928), couples slide down a water chute together into Steeplechase Pool. Camera trickery is used to show this in reverse. Divers are also seen jumping out of the water and back onto boards.

Dorothy de Mar wins the title of Miss Venus from hundreds of other bathing beauties at Steeplechase Park in “Is She Your Choice?” (1931).

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Related posts on ATZ…

April 21, 2012: Saturday Matinee: A Switchback Railway (1898)

January 8, 2012: Video of the Day: Coney Island at Night by Edwin S. Porter

August 16, 2011: Video of the Day: “IT Girl” Clara Bow in Coney Island

January 15, 2011: ATZ Saturday Matinee: Shorty at Coney Island

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Spring is in the air and Coney Island’s Opening Day is a mere five weeks away, but this short film by Josh A. Kapusinski was shot when the beach and boardwalk were still blanketed with snow. “The King of Merriment is a film that explores the happiness and beauty of Coney Island and its regular visitors in full winter charm – mashed up and juxtaposed with archival footage from Coney in its heyday of the 1940s and 50s,” says the film-maker, an Emmy-­winning motion graphics designer.

We’re not usually a fan of mashups, but this one is very adeptly done. If some of the restaurants and shops that are open year-round were shown, it could be a promo for Coney Island in winter. Vivid, dreamlike sequences of people playing frisbee, bicycling, and walking in a snowy and silent Coney contrast with audio and video from a 1940’s travelogue in which the narrator describes “the place where Merriment is King.” Perhaps the most striking detail is vintage footage of Nathan’s hot dogs being cooked on a griddle projected onto the shuttered gates of Nathan’s Boardwalk eatery in winter.

For info on what to see and do in Coney Island before the rides open for the season on April 13th, check out our post “Coney Island Always: Visiting the Big CI Year-Round,” (ATZ, Sept. 13, 2013).

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Related posts on ATZ…

March 6, 2014: Tribeca Film Fest to Premiere ‘Famous Nathan’ Doc by Grandson Lloyd Handwerker

February 23, 2014: Sunday Matinee: Under the Roller Coaster (2005)

March 10, 2011: Video: Seasons of the Cyclone Roller Coaster by Charles Denson

February 2, 2011: Video: Coney Island —> Times Square by David Patrick Alexander

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Famous Nathan by Lloyd Handwerker

Famous Nathan directed and written by Lloyd Handwerker. Photo Mike Zwerling/courtesy Loquat Film

The long-awaited documentary about Nathan’s Famous by Lloyd Handwerker, grandson of the hot dog emporium’s founders Nathan and Ida Handwerker, is set to premiere at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Famous Nathan is among the films in the festival’s Viewpoints Section, which was announced yesterday. A screening date for the film has not yet been announced. The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 16 through 27. (Update: The film will premiere on April 17, with additional screenings on April 21, 25 and 26. Tickets are available, beginning with Amex presale, starting April 8. Read ATZ’s review of the film here.)

“I’ve been working on it for almost 30 years, off and on,” the 57-year-old Brooklyn film-maker said in an interview this morning with ATZ. “My grandfather died when I was 17. I knew him quite well.” According to Lloyd’s research into his family’s history, “In 1912, Nathan, age 19, one of 13 brothers and sisters from a poor Jewish family, left Jaroslaw, Poland and arrived in New York City. He was unable to read, write or speak a word of English. By the 1930’s, he’d created one of the most loved places to eat anywhere in the world, in Coney Island, Brooklyn.”

Though Lloyd has never worked at Nathan’s, as a cinematographer he felt compelled to piece together his family’s history. His father Sol, who will be 89 in October, was first taken in to work in the kitchen as a young child, piling up rolls on a roll board and cutting frankfurters, according to one of our favorite interviews in the Coney Island History Project’s Oral History Archive. The former Vice President of Nathan’s Famous, who is the only surviving child of Nathan and Ida, will attend the premiere with his wife Minnie.

People who worked at Nathan’s for decades, some for more than 40 years, also shared their memories with the film-maker. “There are elderly workers who are still alive and hopefully they’ll be able to get to the premiere,” said Lloyd. “I offer this personal, long-in-the-making film to my parents, grandparents, the Nathan’s workers and to lovers of our great city everywhere.”

Lloyd Handwerker

Lloyd Handwerker with Steeplechase Horse at the Coney Island History Project. Photo © Coney Island History Project

Famous Nathan
Directed and written by Lloyd Handwerker
(USA) – World Premiere, Documentary

Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters, a New York City icon, has left a lasting imprint on the collective memory and palate of Coney Island. Director and grandson of ‘Famous’ Nathan himself, Lloyd Handwerker, takes a look back at the immigrant experience and almost 100 years of family and New York history in this personal documentary gem. Featuring a strong score, colorful and endearing characters, rare archival material, and a nuanced editing style, Famous Nathan will not disappoint New York history enthusiasts.

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April 22, 2014: ATZ Review: ‘Famous Nathan,’ A Documentary by Lloyd Handwerker

February 23, 2014: Sunday Matinee: Under the Roller Coaster (2005)

October 21, 2013: Traveler: Osteria Ai Pioppi’s Homemade Amusement Rides

July 26, 2012: Film Trailer: Zipper, Coney Island’s Last Wild Ride

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The house under the roller coaster in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” was the real life home for 40 years of Mae Timpano, who shares vivid memories of good times and sad in this 2005 documentary by Lila Place. “If the wind was blowing towards the house, I heard everything going on in Coney Island,” says Timpano in the film. For most of those years under the Thunderbolt, her companion was Freddy Moran, who owned and operated the famed coaster built by his father over the Kensington Hotel in 1925. She recalls the two of them going for swims to the end of Steeplechase Pier at 2AM after she got off work as a waitress.

“Mae’s story is a window onto a lost world and makes us think about the importance of place in a new way,” says the film-maker. In addition to Timpano’s candid reminiscences, the 16-minute documentary includes interviews with family, friends and historians as well as old news clips. Moran tells a TV reporter asking about changes in Coney Island: “Roller coasters are a very, very stable element of the amusement business and I don’t see any way they’re going to be replaced by anything else and give the same feeling.” But after Moran died in 1982, the coaster closed and would never reopen.

Timpano was a spirited survivor who lived alone in the house for several more years. “I got used to the quietness,” she says, just as she had gotten used to the clatter of the roller coaster passing overhead and finding wigs and dentures lost by riders in her backyard. Horace Bullard, who bought the Thunderbolt and other properties with the dream of rebuilding Steeplechase Park, once said of Timpano: “She’s Miss Coney Island. When you get close to her, you get sort of the feeling of what Coney Island used to be like.”

Timpano, who died five years ago, outlived the coaster and her former home, which were controversially and illegally demolished in 2000 on the orders of Mayor Giuliani.

“Under the Roller Coaster” won a number of awards including Best Made in Coney Island Film at the Coney Island Film Festival (2005) and Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Short at Slamdance (2006).

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Related posts on ATZ…

September 22, 2012: Saturday Matinee: Coney Island’s Mite Mouse Coaster (1992)

April 21, 2012: Saturday Matinee: A Switchback Railway (1898)

March 10, 2011: Video: Seasons of the Cyclone Roller Coaster by Charles Denson

January 5, 2011: ATZ Saturday Matinee: Shorty at Coney Island

Read Full Post »

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