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Posts Tagged ‘carnival’

Reithoffer Shows

Art for Reithoffer Shows Indy 500 ‘Flitzer’ Coaster at Coney Island, May 26, 2008. Photo © Tricia Vita via flickr

Reithoffer Shows, one of America’s oldest carnivals, is heading to Brooklyn after 11 days at the Staten Island Mall with more than 25 rides. The carnival’s Blue Unit is partnering with Aviator Sports at Floyd Bennett Field for the fifth year of the Kings County Fair, which runs from May 15 through 26. The family-run carnival billed as “The Aristocrat of Show Business” began in 1896 with a steam-driven carousel and is now operated by the 4th and 5th generations.

Meanwhile, over the weekend in Coney Island, the “Rumor Mill” was saying that Reithoffer is bringing rides to Thor Equities long-vacant lots on Stillwell from May 15-26 with the option of staying longer if business was good. The source of this “news” was said to be “very reliable.” The rumor began back in March (“Will Rides Return to Thor Equities Vacant Lots in Coney Island?” ATZ), though no specific carnival was mentioned at the time.

We’re still skeptical because no one we talked with from Reithoffer’s management knows anything about rides going to Coney Island and it’s the same date as the Kings County Fair. Blue Unit Manager Gary Alberry did allow that since Reithoffer has more than 115 rides, it’s possible some are being sent to Coney, though he’s not aware of it. The Blue Unit also has rides at the Northeast Fair in Pennsylvania and a Virginia K-Mart, while the Orange Unit is playing spots in New Jersey and Maryland, according to Reithoffer’s route list. With Memorial Day Weekend less than two weeks away, if rides are indeed coming to Coney they should be arriving any day.

On Memorial Day Weekend 2008, Thor CEO Joe Sitt proclaimed “The Summer of Hope” and filled his vacant lots on Stillwell with carnival rides from Reithoffer Shows for a limited two-week run and Geren Rides till Labor Day. Contrary to the PR campaign, the lots were vacant again by July, when Geren left for his fairs. Will this be Thor’s Summer of Hope, Part 2?

funhouse showfront

Art for Crusty Crab funhouse front, Reithoffer Shows in Coney Island. May 26, 2008. Photo © Tricia Vita

UPDATE May 20, 2014

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Thor's Coney Island

Thor’s Coney Island: Aerial view of vacant lots on south side of the Bowery between W 12th and W 15th where amusements once thrived. July 7, 2013. Photo © Tricia Vita

Thor Equities’ huge vacant lots on Stillwell Avenue in the heart of Coney Island were cleaned up over the weekend and two different sources say rides are coming. The news is unconfirmed and it’s hard not to be skeptical considering the history of what’s been here since Joe Sitt acquired the land and began evicting longtime ride and park operators in 2006. But everybody — or almost everybody– wants to see the property activated instead of sadly sitting vacant (and yes, that is a pun). If temporary rides are in the stars for Thor’s Coney Island this season, let’s hope it works out this time. Despite various amusement operators efforts to negotiate lease deals, the lots remained vacant in 2010 and again last year, when a stop-work order was issued on a permit for “temporary parking for the amusement district.”

Ring of Fire

Geren Rides’ Ring of Fire on Stillwell Ave in Coney Island, July 5, 2008. Photo © Tricia Vita

A little history in case you weren’t around to experience the drama: In October 2006, eight amusement businesses, including Norman Kaufman’s Batting Range and Go Kart City and Eddie Miranda’s Zipper, which inspired the film Zipper, received notice from new property owner Thor Equities to be out by the end of the year. On Memorial Day Weekend 2008, Joe Sitt proclaimed “The Summer of Hope” and filled the reviled empty lots on Stillwell with carnival rides from Reithoffer Shows and Geren Rides for a limited run. Hope died when the rides left in mid-July and were replaced by a couple of inflatable bounces.

inflatable bouncer

After the carnival left: Batman and Cinderella’s Castle inflatable bounces on Thor’s vacant lot in Coney Island. August 8, 2008. Photo © Tricia Vita

Skeptics said the amusements were a ruse in the lead-up to the Coney Island Rezoning of 2009. At the time, Sitt and the City were at a standoff in negotiations over a compromise plan that would reduce the acreage of the amusement zone and allow high-rise hotels on the south side of Surf Avenue.

Cobra Ride

The Cobra was among the flat rides at Cha Cha’s Steeplechase Park on Stillwell Avenue. June 23, 2012. Photo © Tricia Vita

Failed flea markets made a mockery of the rezoning in 2009 and 2011. “Festival by the Sea” and the “BK Festival” were granted City permits as a “temporary fair” because a flea market is not a permitted use on this property in Coney Island. Clever, huh? In 2012, rides, games and sideshows returned to Thor’s Stillwell lots for the first time since 2008. As a critic of flea markets on land where the Tornado roller coaster (1927-1977) and the Bobsled (1941-1974) had once thrilled, we were happy to see the BK Festival and Thor Equities take this new direction.

Among the rides were the Cobra, which amusement park blogger The DOD3 describes as White Trash Carny Ride #7. “Every Cobra I’ve been on looks like it’s stuck in a 70s timewarp but they all give wonderfully intense rides,” he writes. Other WTCRs on his list are the Skydiver (#1), the Zipper (#3) and the Trabant (#9), all of which Coney used to have. A Trabant was one of the rides at Dreamland, a temporary park on the former Astroland site in 2009.

BK Festival: Giant Slide on Stillwell Avenue West. April 8, 2012. Photo © me-myself-i/Tricia Vita via flickr

There were problems at the Stillwell Avenue park from the get-go. Originally set to open on Memorial Day Weekend 2012, the park was not able to open till four weeks later. A Giant Slide and Zipline never opened at all. Filing of paperwork with City agencies and bureaucratic red tape was blamed for the delay. City permitting issues relating to fencing closed the park intermittently and irregular hours had some visitors asking if and when it was open. The Mega Whirl, a prototype ride that combined the thrill of the Whip and the Tilt-A-Whirl debuted here and its abandoned platform remains on the lot, a symbol of financial ruin and broken dreams.

MegaWhirl Ride in Coney Island

MegaWhirl Ride and Zipline on Stillwell Avenue in Coney Island. November 11, 2012. Photo © Tricia Vita via flickr

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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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The news that Nashville-based string band Old Crow Medicine Show is coming to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on March 7 reminded us how much we like their carnival-themed music vid for “Wagon Wheel.” Played more than 20 million times on YouTube since its debut in 2006, the video has the band on the bally stage of an old-timey carny girl show, with the girls shimmying up to the musicians as the ticket-seller counts his cash and the Rock-O-Plane whirls on the midway. It was shot in Smyrna, Tennessee, next to Snyder & Metts Amusements, which was owned by Hill Snyder and is now part of carnival history, says a poster on Matt’s Carnival Warehouse.

The band members have roots in Virginia and upstate New York, where fiddle player and vocalist Ketch Secor wrote “Wagon Wheel” as a teen. The song took its inspiration from bootleg tapes of Bob Dylan’s “Rock Me Mama” to which Secor added lyrics about hitchhiking to North Carolina.

According to music writer Peter Cooper, when Secor sought to copyright the song with Dylan for use on an album, he learned that Dylan credited the “Rock me, mama” chorus to bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, and Crudup probably borrowed his idea from an early 20th century recording by Big Bill Broonzy. “That song drags a heavy chain,” Secor told Cooper. “In a way, it’s taken something like 85 years to get completed.” Released in 2004, the song went platinum this year and the band was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.

Tickets for the March 7, 2014 concert at Barclays go on sale Friday, October 18, with pre-sale to fans via OCMS’s website now available. The band’s 2014 tour dates in support of the Avett Brothers also include Boston, Pittsburgh and Fairfax, VA. On December 30 and New Year’s Eve, OCMS will play Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium.

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Conklin Shows Banner by Fred Johnson

Canada’s Traditional Favorite Conklin Shows Banner by Fred Johnson. Photo via Treadway Gallery

We’ve come across vintage circus-style posters advertising carnivals but have rarely seen a painted banner except for the sideshow attractions. This one painted for “Canada’s Traditional Favorite Conklin Shows” circa 1950 by master banner painter Fred Johnson will be up for bid at a June 8th auction in Oak Park, Illinois held by Treadway Gallery. Bidding is also available online via live auctioneers.

The show’s founder J.W. “Patty” Conklin was born Joe Renker in Brooklyn and worked as a sideshow talker in Coney Island before arriving in Winnipeg in 1924. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Billboard frequently described him as “a Canadian midway biggie” and one of the keenest, most practical of midway operators.

In the era when the banner was painted, Conklin Shows played fairs and exhibitions in rural Quebec and Ontario before heading to Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition for Labor Day, according to a website on the carnival’s history. The show grew to become the largest touring carnival in North America, with a route that stretched from the South Florida Fair in West Palm all the way to the Calgary Stampede until it was swallowed up by midway consolidation in 2004. In the Northeast, Conklin played the Eastern States Exposition in Springfield, Mass., and the now defunct Westchester County Fair and Belmont Fair, where we visited in 2003 to write a story for Education Week about the show’s traveling classroom for carny kids.

Measuring 94 inches high by 117 inches wide, the Conklin banner is signed by Fred Johnson, who painted canvas advertisements for all the big circuses, carnivals, and amusement parks during an illustrious 65-year career. It has a pre-sale estimate of $3,000-$5,000.

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March 3, 2013: Up for Auction: Bill Lynch Shows Vintage Carnival Poster

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October 10, 2012: Up for Auction: Sideshow & Magic Banners by Fred Johnson

August 10, 2009: Westchester County Fair Mementos

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Billy Lynch shows

Bill Lynch Shows Carnival Poster. Photo via Halls Auction Services

This vintage advertisement for Bill Lynch Greater Exposition Shows recalls the days when some big carnivals had bill posters lining fences and filling windows with circus-style paper ahead of the show’s arrival. The artist’s fantastic aerial view of the midway features a beautiful girl whirling on a chair-o-plane high above the other amusement rides. Measuring 25 inches high by 38.5 inches wide, the one-sheet was printed by Erie Litho & Printing Company in Pennsylvania. It’s up for sale on March 17 at Hall’s Auction Services in Calgary with online bidding available. The pre-sale estimate is $1,000-$1,500.

According to an article in the Billboard, Lynch was a Nova Scotian who bought his first amusement ride–a steam-powered merry-go-round that operated on his native McNab Island– in 1920. He was just 18 years old. By 1928, Lynch had his own traveling carnival playing still-dates with a merry-go-round, Ferris Wheel, chair-o-plane, three shows and a string of concessions.

Bill Lynch’s big break came when he won the bid to bring his carnival to Nova Scotia’s Halifax Exhibition in 1929. The contract required seven rides and seven shows. Over the winter and spring, Lynch managed to double the size of his midway by borrowing or buying equipment and the show opened to great fanfare in Halifax. In 1935, it took 14 railroad cars to transport the carnival, which by then was also touring Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

The March 17th auction at Hall’s consists of items from the 40-year personal collection of “Canadian Picker” Scott Cozens. The auction will be filmed for a future broadcast of “Canadian Pickers” on the History Channel.

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June 5, 2013: Up for Auction: Conklin Shows Banner by Fred Johnson

February 4, 2013: Rare & Vintage: Girl to Gorilla Sideshow Banner

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Girl to Gorilla

Girl to Gorilla Banner by Fred Johnson. Circa 1940s. Hideaway Antiques, Toronto

The Girl to Gorilla Illusion was one of the top-grossing grind shows on the carnival midway. Sadly, there are few if any working today. If you know of one, let us know! The last G2G that we saw was Jack Constantine’s and it was quite a few years ago. This vintage Girl to Gorilla banner signed by master banner painter Fred Johnson is being offered for sale by Toronto’s Hideaway Antiques. It gives an impressionistic idea of what to expect on the inside.

As the talker on the vintage clip shown below says, “You’re going to see a beautiful girl change before your eyes very slowly into an ugly male gorilla…From the top of her head to the tips of her toes you’ll see the hair grow. The Ape Girl. The Ape Girl. The Ape Girl. Anything can happen…” The illusion is done with mirrors but when the “gorilla” breaks out of the steel cage, the screaming audience runs out of the tent, attracting a crowd for the next show.

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