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Archive for the ‘Reading & Writing’ Category

Brooklyn Theatre Index Vol III“Henderson’s and Inman’s still offer the cream of the vaudeville acts to be seen at Coney Island…” according to a story in The New York Dramatic Mirror back in the summer of 1898. Both music halls are long gone from Coney Island’s Henderson’s Walk and the Walk itself is now a private parking lot thanks to property owner Joe Sitt’s demolition of the Shore Hotel and the Henderson Building. Henderson’s and Inman’s are among dozens of entertainment venues in old Coney Island catalogued in the newly published The Brooklyn Theatre Index Vol III. The third volume of theater historian Cezar Del Valle’s borough-wide opus covers Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach.

Del Valle’s area of expertise is New York City popular entertainment between 1850 and the 1950s, including special emphasis on actual theater buildings. The book project began with listings compiled over a 25-year-period by Dario Marotta, whose interest in theater history was inspired by a photo of his late uncle standing in front of his nickelodeon in Williamsburgh circa 1912. Marotta never discovered the location of his uncle’s theater, proving the ephemeral nature of many of these venues. In 2002, he gave his research to Del Valle, who kept the information on file for use in articles, talks, and walking tours. Eventually he began adding to the listings with library and internet research of his own at the Theatre Historical Society of America’s Michael Miller Collection.

Del Valle also pored over newspaper clipping files in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle “morgue,” which is housed in over 150 filing cabinets at the Brooklyn Public Library. “Both Marotta and Miller had problems researching Coney Island. I was fortunate because more and more publications became available online, between 2010-2014, and these were searchable,” Del Valle told ATZ. “Trade publications like Variety and The New York Clipper are now available along with a staggering number of newspapers.”

Henderson's Music Hall

Henderson’s Music Hall. Staley’s Views of Coney Island by Frank W. Staley, 1907. Cezar Del Valle Collection

The 250-page book is organized alphabetically by street name with the Bowery and Surf Avenue having the lion’s share of performing venues. Among the quaintly named places are Perry’s Glass Pavilion, a music hall and (more…)

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Lost Tribe of Coney IslandIn 1905, when Coney Island had a trio of three grand amusement parks–Steeplechase, Luna and Dreamland–popular attractions included a scenic railway that transported visitors to the North Pole, Africa, the Grand Canyon and Hades, and live shows such as a Midget City and Dr. Couney’s Infant Incubators. “None of this season’s novelties at Coney Island is better worth seeing than the Igorrote Village in Luna Park,” wrote a Brooklyn Eagle reporter of a brand-new attraction where nearly naked, tattooed tribespeople from the Philippines entertained the masses by performing dances and rituals. “For obvious reasons the surroundings of the Filipino headhunter are not so realistic as at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition last summer, but otherwise the exhibition has the same impression in its sheer contrast of savages with civilized people,” said the reporter.

Journalist Claire Prentice scoured innumerable archives to piece together and vividly bring to life this fascinating, long-forgotten episode of amusement park history in her new book The Lost Tribe of Coney Island. Touted as “headhunting, dog-eating savages” by the press, the Igorrotes were a show biz sensation and a gold mine for their increasingly unscrupulous manager Truman K. Hunt, the former lieutenant governor of Bontoc. He obtained permission from the U.S. government to bring the group to America after having managed the government’s own Igorrote Village at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The exhibits were “used to push the case that America had a duty to protect, educate and civilize such savage beings, and later, when the treatment they experienced became a national scandal, they were used to argue that America had no place in the Philippines at all,” writes Prentice.

Uncle Sam and Igorrotes

“Uncle Sam” and the Igorrotes at Luna Park, June 1905. The New York Tribune

Upon arrival at Luna Park in May, the Igorrotes energetically built and rebuilt the thatched huts of their Village and presented “an amusement park version of their daily lives.” Hunt staged sham romances and weddings and a fake dog-napping as publicity stunts. At home, the Igorrotes feasted on dog meat for special occasions but were forced to eat it daily in Coney Island (more…)

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Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa

Nic Costa’s classic Automatic Pleasures: The History of the Coin Op Machine is once again in print and as relevant as ever, considering the resurgence of pinball in bars and the popularity of a new Cupcake ATM on Lexington Avenue that had a line of people 12 to 15 deep on opening day. There’s also the nearly 10,000 slot machines at New York’s Aqueduct and Yonkers racetracks, a harbinger of many more to come with the legalization of casinos in New York State.

Gambling machines, the one armed bandit, penny arcades, fortunetelling machines, strength testers, shooting games, viewers, and vending and service machines are among the automatic entertainments covered in the book, which is illustrated with both black & white and color photos.

Did you know the first-ever vending machine was a coin-operated holy water dispenser invented by Hero of Alexandria nearly 2000 years ago? Costa writes that it wasn’t until the development of markets and a society based on paid labor that devices saving time were valued and produced in number.

The first coin freed patent was in 1857, for “A Self-Acting Machine for the Delivery of Postage and Receipt Stamps.” A penny inserted would automatically feed out a stamp from a roll. By the mid-1890s more than 1,000 patent applications for coin freed machines had been received by the U.K. Patent Office. Tellingly, many of the early machines could be used either as fortune tellers or games of chance. Games with automatic payouts of a cigar, a card or a token became increasingly popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1890s.

Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa

In the U.K. in the first years of the 20th century, there was a spate of prosecutions against businesses, including saloons and shops, which had the automatic machines. The intent was to suppress “public corruption” and “juvenile depravity.” The enforcement of anti-gambling laws resulted in European manufacturers having to concentrate on games of skill with a low pay-out, which led to the later American domination of the world market.

Automatic Pleasures is enlivened by numerous excerpts from firsthand accounts of the era. Herbert Mills of Chicago’s Mills Novelty Company, once the world’s leading manufacturer of coin operated machines, writes about the Automatic Vaudeville or Penny Arcade business in the early 20th century:

The Penny Arcade has become a permanent institution as much as the theater, the opera, the circus, the concert, the lecture or the gymnasium, for it combines in a modified form of all of these and because it makes such universal appeal, particularly to the poorer classes, it is destined to grow constantly in popularity and size. Only about 10 per cent of the total population have an income of more than $1,200.00 per year, and therefore, the percentage of those who can afford a dollar for a concert ticket or two dollars for a theater ticket is very small. But everyone can patronize the Penny Vaudeville and afford ten cents for half an hours entertainment.

Automatic Pleasures: The History of The Coin Machine by Nic Costa, D’Aleman Publishing, 2013. Paperback, $32.42

Automatic Pleasures by Nic Costa

Related posts on ATZ…

February 5, 2014: National Pinball Museum Founder’s Vintage Games Up for Auction

November 15, 2013: Modern Pinball NYC Opens with New Arcade Business Model

May 7, 2013: Video of the Day: Restoration of Grandma’s Predictions

March 9, 2011: Inexhaustible Cows & Bottomless Cups of Chocolate Milk

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Airstream The Silver RV “Goodbye New York” essays have become increasingly popular but the big question is where would you move? For this former carny kid, no one place will do. The nomadic life of a trailerite seems like an answer. Did you know that you can buy an Airstream for $8,000 to $80,000? From there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to the next rest area on the Interstate, parking lot at Walmart, RV camp, trailer park, or a new life on the fair circuit.

All of this is preliminary to saying that Airstream: The Silver RV is the perfect gift for anyone who cherishes dreams of a life on the road. Author Tara Cox, the founding editor-in-chief of RVLiving Magazine, who hopes one day to own an Airstream of her own, has researched the history and lore of the vintage classic.


Airstream founder Wally Byam and his wife Marion at the trailer factory. Photo via Airstream.com

Airstream founder Wally Byam’s first aluminum trailer –“The Airstream Clipper” named after the Pan Am Clipper–debuted in 1936 at a time when the onset of the Great Depression created a boom in the trailer industry. Over 400 trailer companies were competing for customers when just a few years earlier there were forty-eight, Cox says. The book’s selection of photos shows the evolution of the Airstream’s “Streamline Moderne” style, which has made it an enduring icon as well as a pop-culture phenom in recent years.

Airstream Motel

One of the Airstreams at Kate’s Lazy Desert Motel near Joshua Tree. Via LazyMeadow.com

One of several “glamping” destinations mentioned is Kate’s Lazy Desert Airstream Motel owned by Kate Pierson of the forever fabulous band the B-52s. Six vintage Airstreams were restored and decorated by artists Philip Maberry and Scott Walker, who owned the “funky little shack” featured in the B-52s’ “Love Shack” video.

The travel trailer of my carny childhood, which was not an Airstream but had an Art Deco look, was put in storage every year after Columbus Day on the Goshen fairgrounds in Connecticut. One of my earliest memories is tearfully waving goodbye to it till spring when we went back out on the road with the carnival. Perhaps I’ll find something like it if and when the time comes to retire from life in New York City. “Adventure is where you find it, any place, every place,” said Wally Byam, “except at home in the rocking chair.”

Airstream:The Silver RV by Tara Cox. Published by Shire Publications, 2013. Paperback, $9.95

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November 11, 2013: After 80 Years in Popcorn Biz, Family’s Heirloom Wagons Up for Sale

September 5, 2013: Photo of the Day: Restored WF Mangels Shooting Gallery

January 21, 2013: Rare & Vintage: 1960s Chance Skydiver Car

December 31, 2012: Memoirs of a Carny Kid: The Land of Prizes

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Party Poppers

Happy New Year! Champagne Party Poppers at Gristede’s. December 28, 2012. Photo © Tricia Vita

The sight of packages of champagne party poppers in the supermarket for New Year’s brought me back to my carnival childhood and an essay that I wrote in the 1980s. Originally published in the Boston Review, “The Land of Prizes” is from a work-in-progress titled “Memoirs of a Carny Kid.” Does anyone else remember the Clam Shell Flowers? Happy New Year!

When I was a carny kid, De Cicco’s of Boston was one of the great wholesale houses of the carnival world. They carried hundreds of Oriental novelties including every one of the little “prize-every-times” in my mother’s balloon dart store. Winners in the game could be counted upon to look at the label “Made in Japan” and say, “What a piece of junk!” But I disagreed. I thought the prizes were wonderful stuff, my own private stock of here-today, gone-tomorrow toys.

The De Cicco brothers sold things by the gross, like big-time egg farmers. They sold red, white and blue rosette fans to wave like Fourth of July flags every day of the carnival season, and Daredevil Sam, the parachute man, to launch into the air. They sold pirates’ eye patches and villains’ moustaches, policemen’s badges and sheriffs’ stars, and the straw fingertraps called “Chinese handcuffs.”

They sold enough musical instruments to start a parade of marching bands: bamboo flutes with two or three notes to toot; kazoos to hum a catchy tune into; tin crickets to click like castanets; and guitars and banjos with rubber band strings to strum. And they sold every kind of whistle under the summer sun: leather and paper crescents that, after soaking up every drop of saliva, would stick to the roof of my mouth and let me sing like a Swiss warbler; balloon whistles that I tried to blow up, mostly because the long, drawn-out whine that was heard when the air escaped from them was certain to make my mother say, “why don’t you go out and play on the midway?”; and rubber razzers, imported from Hong Kong, of which my mother would gaily say as she gave them away everywhere in New England,  “Here’s a Bronx cheer – Phuuuuu!”

While the grown-ups were busy buying ten gross of this and twelve gross of that, I had the run of the house. Up one wide aisle and down the next, over dusty wooden floors and along countertops level with my beguiled eyes, I’d browse among trinkets and trick toys that I’d never see anywhere else, not even in those Cape Cod souvenir shops where almost everything came from China and Japan. By the time my mother’s order was ready,  I’d have picked out a slew of things and asked one of the Mr. De Ciccos to write up a bill for me too.

He looked over what I’d chosen: a mailbox bank with its own lock and key, a deck of miniature playing cards, and a handful of polished clam shells sealed with flimsy strips of paper that said those three magic words—“Made in Japan.” I knew that if I placed one in a tall glass of water, then waited until I couldn’t wait longer and went away, I’d come back to find a pink paper flower floating up from the opened shell. I couldn’t say how long it took for this Japanese water lily to blossom: in all the years I bought packages of shells at De Cicco’s, I never saw it happen with my own eyes.

The shells remained as mysterious to me as the party poppers that I shot off like fireworks—Bing! Bang!—whenever there was a lull in carnival business. Town kids scrambled to catch the streamers, as colorful and curly as Christmas ribbons, before they fell softly to the ground. While the cardboard champagne bottle that they’d come in was still smoking, I pulled it apart, anxious to get at the little bits of foreign newspaper that were hidden inside. There were seldom more than two or three elaborately printed symbols on the singed strip of paper, but they had come all the way from the other side of the world and I studied them with deep curiosity. What did they say to me?

I wouldn’t find out until I grew up and traveled to Boston’s sister city—Kyoto, Japan.  There I deciphered my long-lost ideograms in a book called Read Japanese Today. And I practiced my Japanese conversation with coffeeshop acquaintances. In the beginning I couldn’t explain to them why I’d come or, after, why I stayed for more than three years. But now I can tell you: I had come to find a home in the land of prizes, where my heart first opened, as slowly and imperceptively as the clam shell in its glass of water.

Copyright © Tricia Vita


Related posts on ATZ…

September 26, 2012: Poetry from the Terminal Hotel by Charles Chaim Wax

September 29, 2011: Coney Island Poem from the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project

December 8, 2010: Children’s Book Tells Coney Island Carousel Carver’s Story

September 27, 2009: Coney Island 1969 by Edwin Torres: Fave Poem from Parachute Festival

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Terminal Hotel, Mermaid Ave and Stillwell Ave, Coney Island. May 26, 2011. Photo © Bruce Handy/Pablo 57 via flickr

An Unexpected Encounter

I went to Moe’s Used Books
in Coney Island to look for
The Joys of Yinglish,
long out of print
and even though
it was the last week in September
the temperature hovered
in the mid 80s
and Moe’s store lacked an air-conditioner
because all his meager profits
would have been eaten up
by the cost of electricity. Soon I was
sweating and barely able
to breathe
my throat tight and swollen
so I needed
a cool liquid quickly
and plodded along Surf Avenue
to Corn Queen
and ordered a large root beer
but in this particular establishment
they don’t give you an item
until the money has been
deposited in their cash register.
I pulled out a fifty
all I had with me
placed it on the counter
and reached for the root beer
but the guy grabbed the cup
pointing to a sign on the wall:
no bills larger than $20 accepted.
For some reason I blurted out,
“Turn on the air-conditioner,
why don’t you?
It’s like the equator in here.”
He simply smiled.
“Look, I been coming in here
for twenty years.
Lemme drink,
then I’ll get change.”
He shook his head.
“Where’s the owner, Two Ton Tony?
He knows me.”
“Deceased, ” he said.
When I heard that
my knees buckled
and I clutched the counter. Suddenly
a woman appeared
placing a dollar bill on the counter.
“For the big man,” she said.
I immediately snatched
the soda
gulping it down,
then I turned to her
saying, “Thanks.”
She was a prostitute.
The outfit
plus make-up
gave her away
and one word led to another
and soon we were
in room 11 of the Terminal Hotel.
The dear woman
larger than a twenty.

10/25/2005. Copyright © Charles Chaim Wax
via poemhunter.com


Related posts on ATZ…

September 29, 2011: Coney Island Poem from the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project

January 8, 2011: Boardwalk: Photos by Meredith Caliento, Spoken Word by Michael Schwartz

December 8, 2010: Children’s Book Tells Coney Island Carousel Carver’s Story

September 27, 2009: Coney Island 1969 by Edwin Torres: Fave Poem from Parachute Festival

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New-York Historical Society Collection

This gambling wheel was used at Coney Island in the early 20th century. Wood, glass, metal. New-York Historical Society Collection

As a child I believed that rich kids were born with silver spoons in their mouths and carny kids were born with wheels of fortune spinning in the background. One of my favorite objects on display in the New-York Historical Society’s Luce Center is this splendid 65-inch gambling wheel from Coney Island with carved dragon heads as spokes and a center surrounded by gems and electric lights. Purchased in 1994 at Sotheby’s auction of the renowned Smith Collection of arcade material, this unique wheel was used at Coney Island in the early 20th century. If it could speak, what tales would it tell of fortunes won and lost back in the day when Coney was nicknamed Sodom by the Sea?

The Coney Island wheel and the stories behind it come to mind because the New-York Historical Society’s blog has announced a “Behind-the-Scenes Writing Contest.” They are asking visitors to select a favorite from among the 40,000 objects on display and write a short story or essay about it. Here are the contest rules:

1. We’re looking for a story of around 1,000 words based on any object in the New-York Historical Society’s collections, whether it’s what one Women’s Suffrage marcher thought as she put on her “Votes for Women” pin, or the life of a silver spoon made by a slave and used in a rich family’s house. But don’t worry too much about word count; write as much as makes sense to your story! Entrants should be fifteen (15) years or older.

2. Please submit entries by April 30, 2012 to jaya.saxena@nyhistory.org, subject “Behind-The-Scenes Writing Contest.” Include your full name and e-mail address.

The winner will receive free admission for a subsequent visit to the New-York Historical Society, and a copy of When Did The Statue of Liberty Turn Green? and 101 Other Questions About New York City. The top three entries will be posted on the blog!


Related posts on ATZ…

September 28, 2011: Rare & Vintage: Auction of French Fairground Art

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December 19, 2010: Rare & Vintage: Original Coney Island Motordrome Bike

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