“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.”
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 bar-room “constructed almost entirely of glass and of different colors,” and “Flynn’s Sporting House,” featuring “sparring, wrestling, singing and dancing, large balcony and ball-room on second floor.”
Some excerpts from newspaper articles give insight into the Gay Nineties, when Sunday blue laws were enforced in Coney Island and concert saloons had to close their doors or give “sacred concerts.” Female impersonators and short-dressed singers were cause for getting one’s license revoked. The index is a great resource for theater buffs and Coney Island aficionados. And if you happen to be writing a historical novel about Coney (we’ve heard from at least two people who are), it is required reading.
If only the book had more photos, though of course that would raise its cost. Our favorite among the 30 black and white photos is this rare image of Feltman’s Seaside Garden. The park built by hot dog inventor Charles Feltman eventually included an open-air movie theater, a precursor to the popular Coney Island Flicks on the Beach of recent summers. “The theatre is located on the main promenade quite near the ocean, so that the temperature will be cooled by ocean breezes at all times,” said an article in the Brooklyn Eagle on July 4, 1914. “The house has a seating capacity of 2,000. The space between the rows is exceptionally wide.”
It’s sad to realize that only a few of the mentioned venues are extant: Coney Island USA is carrying on the tradition of sideshow and burlesque in their landmarked building on Surf Avenue which once housed the Blue Bird Casino and the Wonderland Circus Sideshow. The long-vacant Shore Theater building, formerly the Loew’s Coney Island and built in 1925, is landmarked, but has fallen victim to demolition by neglect. In Brighton Beach, the Oceana Theatre, which opened as a movie house in 1934 with Dancing Lady starring Joan Crawford, is now the Millennium Theatre with live entertainment by Russian touring groups.
The Brooklyn Theatre Index Vol III: Coney Island Including Brighton Beach and Manhattan Beach by Cezar Del Valle. Theatre Talks LLC, 2014. Paperback, $15
Related posts on ATZ…
November 10, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island
December 14, 2010: Amid Demolitions & Evictions in Coney Island, City Landmarks Shore Theater