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Archive for March, 2014

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

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Mangels Ponycart

Mangels Pony Cart from Ride at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, Coney Island. March 21, 2014. Photo © Tricia Vita

This freshly painted little pony from the classic Mangels Pony Cart at Deno’s Kiddie Park will soon be back on the ride’s platform. In the meantime, he appears to be chomping at the bit for Coney Island’s Opening Day. It’s only 15 days away! The Palm Sunday opener, featuring the Blessing of the Rides at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and the ceremonial Egg Cream Christening of the front car of the Cyclone, is April 13th.

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February 28, 2014: Photo Album: Wonder Wheel Park Preps for Coney Island’s Opening Day

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Bimbo Baby Automaton Arcade Machine

Bimbo Baby Automaton Arcade Machine. German, c.1950. Fontaine’s Auction Gallery

Isn’t this the cutest? There are already two bids on this circa 1950 “Bimbo Baby” arcade machine featuring a monkey orchestra. It has a starting bid of $1,000 and a pre-sale estimate of $2,000-$4,000. The sale is on Saturday morning at Fontaine’s Auction Gallery in Pittsfield, Mass., not far from where my Dad once had a real live monkey on the midway.

Bimbo Baby Automaton Arcade Machine. German, c.1950, coin operated automaton box lights up inside with 6 figural cabana monkeys on a tropical decorated stage, the figures dance, shake and play their instruments; has a speaker built into the base which plays music through a Tefi Spezial-Band cassette (tape in cassette is unwound). Animated mechanism is in good working condition. 38 in. high x 24 in. wide x 23 in. deep.

Now if somebody would just drop a dime in the slot and make a YouTube video of the toy monkeys dancing and playing, we’d be delighted.

Bimbo Baby Automaton Arcade

One of the Monkeys in Bimbo Baby Automaton Arcade Machine. German, c.1950. Fontaine’s Auction Gallery

Update: Found on YouTube! There are quite a few videos of “Bimbo Box,” the larger version, in operation…

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Gogo and Didi Do NYC

Image on autographed T-shirts being auctioned on eBay Giving Works to benefit City Harvest

A series of photos of actors Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen hamming it up at New York City tourist spots during rehearsals for their Broadway run in Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land has been a hit on twitter. Called “Gogo and Didi Do NYC,” the social media campaign took the bowler-hatted duo from the Empire State Building and Katz’s Deli to Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel and Nathan’s. With their last performance set for March 30th, McKellen and Stewart are now inviting fans to bid on three autographed T-shirts custom-printed with their image at a Coney Island souvenir shop during their September visit.

Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen riding Wonder Wheel,

Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen riding the Wonder Wheel, Coney Island, September 2013

Current bids on the shirts (small, medium and large) range from $560 to $625, making them the most expensive Coney Island Tees in history. It’s for a good cause. The proceeds of the eBay auction, which ends on April 3rd, will benefit City Harvest. As Stewart writes:

In Waiting for Godot, Gogo and Didi are two old tramps, needy indeed. They don’t know where they’ll sleep that night, they don’t know where their next meal will come from, and they hoard their meager resources, sharing whatever they do have. In short, they’re hungry. It seemed a natural fit—Gogo and Didi and City Harvest. City Harvest helps to feed nearly two million New Yorkers facing hunger each year. So bid early, bid often, bid high, and know that you’ll be funding a vital and important organization.

Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Coney Island

Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen eating at Nathan’s, Coney Island, September 2013

As for Stewart and McKellen’s trip to Coney Island, it was memorable…

But one day in particular was unusually fun—we went out to the famous Coney Island and had a marvelous time. We played skee ball, hopped on the Wonder Wheel (the view from up there is lovely), and went and scoffed hotdogs at Nathan’s. (Ian, being a pescatarian, delighted in corn-on-the-cob and clam chowder.) In a truly bizarre moment, to our surprise we found Leonard Nimoy, seated outside a few tables away, himself indulging in Nathan’s for the first time. After lunch, we strolled back to the boardwalk. Ice cream for me, candyfloss for Sir Ian, on a bench, on the Coney Island boardwalk…two old(ish) Brits enjoying a classic American seaside landmark. As we left the fairground area and the late afternoon was approaching, we stopped off at a souvenir vendor’s booth and posed for a silly portrait that we impulsively had printed up onto three t-shirts.

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February 28, 2014: Photo Album: Wonder Wheel Park Preps for Coney Island’s Opening Day

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'Mic Check" by RAE in Coney Island

‘Mic Check” by RAE in Coney Island, March 25, 2014

It wouldn’t be spring in Coney Island without street art by RAE popping up across from the Cyclone roller coaster. One of his Instagram followers calls it “Rae’s block.” This imposing and folksy character was created from scrap metal, handlebars, a BMW hubcap, Mardi Gras beads and of course a microphone. “All parts are found. I believe the hands are from a Bart Simpson doll,” RAE tells ATZ.

The last time we saw the Brooklyn-based artist’s work in Coney was around this time last year on the same block. “Rae practices good placement, which is one of the most important considerations for exciting street art,” says RJ Rushmore of street art blog Vandalog, who named RAE one of the “10 Street Artists to Watch in 2013.″

And watch him we did. Last year, RAE’s drawings, paintings and sculpture transformed an East Village bodega into a pop-up show titled “Word of Mouth” and his first solo show in London opened at the Signal Gallery.

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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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March 11, 2014: Thor’s Coney Island: BurgerFi, Arcade Coming to Stillwell & Surf

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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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