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Grandma's Predictions

Grandma’s Predictions, Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park. May 12, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita via flickr

Happy Mother’s Day to Coney Island’s Grandma’s Predictions! The rare circa 1923 fortune teller returned to her home under the 1920 Wonder Wheel on Mother’s Day 2013 after several months in arcade restorer Bob Yorburg’s workshop. Her inner workings had been destroyed by floodwater from Sandy. Grandma got eye surgery as well as a new wig, dress and wax hands cast from the original mold, and a fine new cabinet. Visit Grandma and get your prediction — only 50 cents.

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Antique Coney Island Ride Tickets

Collection of antique tickets for Coney Island rides and amusements, early 1900s. Eclectibles at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair

Roller coasters have evolved since the days when the Switchback Railway and Loop the Loop occupied the block where the Cyclone is now, but as far as ride tickets, they don’t make ‘em like they used to. When the New York Antiquarian Book Fair opens today at the Park Avenue Armory, among the treasures for sale will be a collection of elaborately illustrated tickets from Coney Island rides and amusements of a century ago. The collection is being offered by Eclectibles (Booth A44) as part of a selection of New York ephemera. The tickets came equipped with strings for securing to a shirt or coat button and are wonderful souvenirs of old Coney Island.

The rides and attractions represented in Eclectibles collection include such long-vanished Surf Avenue thrillers as The Ben Hur Chariot Race (1908-1923) and the Rocky Road to Dublin (1907-1912) built by William F. Mangels, Jackman’s Shooting the Rapids (1898-1901) and Loop the Loop (1901-1910). The Star Double Toboggan Races (1904-1906), the world’s first two-track racing coaster, and the Red Devil Rider (1907-1923) are among the Bowery attractions. A number of L.A. Thompson’s Scenic Railway and Steeplechase Face tickets round out the collection of 14 tickets, which is priced at $3,500.

Die Cut Tag from Coney Island’s Bostock Arena in Dreamland circa 1904. Courtesy of eBay Seller monsonantiques

Considering that an especially rare ticket and advertising tag for Coney’s early attractions can sell for several hundred dollars on eBay, the price is fair. The last time ATZ wrote about one of these hard-to-find tickets was in 2011, when a die cut tag from Dreamland’s Bostock Arena was snapped up for nearly $400 in the last few seconds of an auction.

Currently on eBay, seller childhoodthings is offering a collection of Coney Island tickets, including Loop the Loop (“Heels up, Heads down”), the County Fair Musical Railway, L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway (“Ain’t It Lovely!”) and Steeplechase Park for $1,000.

Lopp the Loop Ticket

Loop the Loop Ticket, early 1900s. Via eBay seller childhoodthings

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Monkey Speedway Car

Antique Circus Monkey Racing Car. Photo by Architectural Anarchy, Chicago via 1st dibs

Coming across this photo of an “Antique Circus Monkey Racing Car” recently sold by Chicago dealer Architectural Anarchy rekindled the curiosity that I felt as a carny kid. My father’s story about how he had a real, live monkey on a trapeze in his popcorn trailer to attract customers in the 1940s began with mention of where he got the idea: a Monkey Speedway! It was at the Patriots’ Day Celebration in Boston. The term was one I’d never heard before because this long popular carnival attraction had by then disappeared from the midways of New England.

Monkey Speedway

Vintage Photo of Monkey Speedway. Photo © Tricia Vita Collection

Right through the 1950s and 60s, carnivals placed ads in the Billboard and then Amusement Business for Monkey Circuses and Speedways as well as managers to run them. “We are interested only in a show man that can and will work hard for a seasons bank roll,” said an ad for King Reid, New England’s largest carnival, in 1946. Carnival supply house H.C. Evans called its Monkey Speedway “The unbeatable carnival attraction! Equal to a free act!” A trio of trained monkeys in little metal cars raced around a wooden track while people placed bets on the laydown of numbers. The prizes were boxes of candy, my father said.

It was the crowd-stopping appeal of the Monkey Speedway that gave Dad the idea to put a monkey act in his popcorn trailer one spring when the show owner changed the location of the merry-go-round, leaving him up in front with no customers. After trying unsuccessfully to buy one of the Speedway monkeys, my father went to Benson’s Wild Animal Farm in New Hampshire, where they had monkeys for sale.

“So they sold me a little rhesus monkey for $15 and they put him in a small wooden cage. I put the cage on the front seat of my truck, and while I was driving back to the carnival, the monkey would look at me and I would look at the monkey, and I don’t know if I was more afraid of him than he was of me.”

Monkey Speedway

Vintage Photo of Monkey Speedway. Photo © Tricia Vita Collection

“After we got back to the lot, the monkey ate a few meals and got to like me. I’d built a small trapeze and fastened it to one of the rafters on the popcorn stand. I tried to train Roebuck to sit on it and swing. It was against the law to keep an animal in a food stand, but I had to take a chance because it was either that or go out of business.”

It took my father three weeks to get Roebuck to sit on the trapeze and swing. And when he did he was surrounded by a crowd of people who bought peanuts and popcorn and candy apples to eat while they watched the free show. “Some kids would do anything to to be near the monkey: They’d bring bananas. They’d throw pennies. And Roebuck would catch quite a few of them.”

When the kids would ask what’s the monkey’s name?” he’d say, “I’m Sears, he’s Roebuck,” and the kids would laugh.

Monkey Speedway, Cetlin & Wilson Shows

Monkey Speedway, Cetlin & Wilson Shows. Photo © International Independent Showmen’s Museum

Though my father bought and sold Roebuck years before I was born, I felt as though the monkey was my long-lost brother. I just knew that he missed the peanuts, popcorn and pennies as much as I did when we stayed from October through April in my grandmother’s house, away from the free-wheeling life of the road.

The Monkey Speedway is one of the long-vanished shows documented in the collection of the International Independent Showmen’s Museum in Gibsonton, Florida. And the tiny race cars, if you’re lucky enough to find one, have entered the realm of folk art.

Monkey Go Round, a German film released in the 1960s by Castle Films, is the fairytale-like story of a troupe of monkeys and their caretaker’s show biz comeback and will give you a glimpse of a Monkey Speedway.

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Grandma and Zoltar

Grandma’s Predictions and Zoltar at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, Coney Island, July 2012

The venerable, circa 1923 “Grandma’s Predictions” has been telling fortunes under Coney Island’s 1920 Wonder Wheel all her life. A couple of seasons ago a brand-new Zoltar was brought in to keep her company and proved very popular with visitors to the arcade. Hurricane Sandy soaked both of them, and decapitated poor Zoltar. A new Zoltar Speaks machine was promptly ordered and is already here, but Grandma, an irreplaceable antique as well as a good luck charm for the three generations of the Vourderis family who have owned the park, was sent off to be restored.

Last night these riveting videos of Grandma’s wax head getting “eye surgery” at National Jukebox Exchange appeared on YouTube. The octogenarian tarot card reader is also getting new wax hands cast from the original mold, according to arcade restorer John Papa. He appears in the video along with fellow arcade restorer Bob Yorburg, who told ATZ that Grandma will get a new wig, dress and cabinet, too. The rare arcade piece is known as the “Cleveland Grandma” by collectors since she was built by the William Gent Manufacturing Company in Cleveland, “Grandma’s Predictions” is expected to come home to Coney Island on Mother’s Day, where a welcome home party will be held at Deno’s Wonder Wheel.

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Tin Toy

La Boule Mysterieuse Tin Toy, 1906. Potter and Potter Auctions

Legend has it that circus contortionist Leon LeRoche took his inspiration for “La Boule Mysterieuse” from a popular gambling game that set up outside the show’s tent in Romania. After gamblers placed bets on one of several numbers, the showman let a ball roll from the top of a foot-high spiral, shouting as the ball made its way to the winning number. LaRoche’s legendary act, which was celebrated by this 1906 tin litho toy, had him scaling a 12-foot high spiral while inside a metal ball that rolled slowly and mysteriously upwards.

Boule Mysterieuse

La Boule Mysterieuse Tin Toy, 1906. Potter and Potter Auctions

“If it had not been evident that the idea of the trick had come to him from seeing the spiral of the Turkish showman, one would positively have believed the whole thing to be a miracle,” according to LaRoche’s story in the 1928 book Star Turns. The trick was regarded as “an unfathomable mystery, a sudden stroke of genius. Everywhere the agents arranged performances of the Man of Wonder with his troupe.” LaRoche doubled the height of the spiral to 24 feet and by the time he began touring with Barnum and Bailey in 1896, the track was 30 feet tall.

“Pull the string on the toy and it duplicates his feat,” says the catalogue description for the antique toy, which was made in Paris by Fernand Martin. On February 2nd “La Boule Mysterieuse” will be on the auction block at Potter & Potter in Chicago. The pre-sale estimate is $800-$1,000 and the online sale already has bids.

Serendipitously, Tin Mania in the U.K. also has one of these rarities for sale and made the delightful video below to publicize it. The price is 1,119 GBP (1,889 US Dollars)

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'Smiley' Clown Skill Game,

1 Cent ‘Smiley’ Clown Skill Game. Victorian Casino Antique Auction, January 19-20, 2013

A plethora of vintage arcade games, slot machines and gambling paraphernalia will be on the auction block next weekend at Victorian Casino Antiques in Las Vegas. Online bidding is also available for the January 19-20 sale. Here are a trio of items that caught our fancy.

“Smiley” the Clown, the first post-World War II arcade game from Chicago’s Pioneer Coin Machine Company, has strong graphic appeal. In addition, it takes a lot of skill to win. Introduced in 1946, the game requires players to maneuver the ball through a circular maze.

Play Football Arcade Game

5 cent ‘Play Football’ Arcade Game, circa 1924. Victorian Casino Antique Auction, January 19-20, 2013

“Be a Champion. Learn ‘the Kicks’ in Football!” The Chester-Pollard Amusement Company’s 1924 “Play Football” was a popular and fun nickel arcade game for two players. The idea was to score a goal for your team by pushing the handle to make one of the little soccer players kick the steel ball.

Among the gambling equipment in the sale is this H.C. Evans Horse Race Wheel complete with odds changer. Chicago’s H.C. Evans and Company was the country’s leading manufacturer of carnival and casino equipment for six decades. Its top of the line wheels include the Big Six, the Jumbo Dice Wheel and the Horse Race Wheel. The wheel measures 60 inches in diameter and approximately 87 inches high.

H.C. Evans & Co. Horse Race Gambling Wheel

H.C. Evans & Co. Full Size Horse Race Gambling Wheel, Victorian Casino Antique Auction, January 19-20, 2013

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Step right up and see “Double Trouble,” an early 20th century peep show reel. Yes, it’s SFW though dancers wearing short skirts were considered risque when this moving picture machine was new. Invented in 1894 and marketed by the American Mutoscope Company, the coin-op machines contained flip book movies with a viewing time of about a minute.

These classic reels were made from 1897 to 1907, when the company turned completely to projection, and were created and almost totally produced in New York City. Although the 4,000-plus titles included a variety of subjects, it was the girly movies with suggestive titles like “Artists and Models” and “Wiggling Wonders” (glimpsed in the photo below) that won notoriety.

Mutoscope machines were popular in Coney Island and the Rev. Frederick Bruce Russell of the Law and Order Society raided and closed several for the exhibition of improper pictures on July 30, 1897. “Those closed by Mr. Russell to-day were at Feltman’s Pavilion, Koster’s Concert Hall, the Sea Beach Palace and the Old Iron Pier,” said an article on the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle. “The particular pictures which fell under the reformer’s eye were entitled ‘What the Girls Did With Willie’s Hat’ and ‘Fun in a Boarding School.’”

What did the girls do with the hat that was so scandalous? They frolicked and kicked it high over their heads while wearing short skirts like the girls in “Double Trouble.” Bring back the peep show! It would be fun to have some of these old Mutoscope movie machine as well as an arcade museum as we noted previously in “ATZ’s Big Wish List for the New Coney Island,” ATZ, October 7, 2012).

penny movies

Boys looking at penny movies at South Louisiana State Fair, 1938. Photograph by Russell Lee. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

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