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The Sea Beach LineThe MTA’s Sea Beach Line, better known as the N train, now has a fascinating new novel named after it, by Ben Nadler. The Sea Beach Line takes the reader from the Southern Brooklyn neighborhoods of Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay and Brighton Beach to Manhattan’s Washington Square Park and the Upper East Side.

The book’s narrator Izzy Edel has a mystical bent and is well-versed in Jewish texts, both real and imaginary. After getting kicked out of college for hallucinogenic drug use, he travels to New York in search of his estranged father, who is missing and presumed dead. A postcard with a tattooed mermaid and a letter with a return address in Coney Island lead him to his first clues at a private museum run by a business associate of his father’s. A runaway from a Hasidic sect and her relatives, Uzbek gangsters, and his father’s fellow book vendors are among the novel’s intriguing cast of characters.

ATZ asked novelist Ben Nadler, who lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at City College and the College of New Rochelle, to fill us in on the backstory of The Sea Beach Line in the following Q & A. You can preview the first chapter for free on the publisher’s website.

Q: In Stillwell Terminal there’s a sign for the Sea Beach Line which I rarely see anywhere else. What is the history of the line and how did it come to be the title of your novel?

A: The Sea Beach Railway was an independent line which went to Coney Island in the 1800s. It was bought by the BRT, but kept its name as The Sea Beach Line. The BRT was bought by the BMT, which, along with other companies, was in turn bought by the city. Eventually, everything was folded together into the MTA. So, The Sea Beach Line is known today as the MTA’s “N” train. But it retains its full name; in addition to the station signs, the words appear in the illuminated signs on the side of N train cars.

There are some crazy articles from around the turn of the twentieth century in the New York Times archives about independent “inspectors” throwing fare evaders off the Sea Beach Line, on the way to Coney. Some people were seriously assaulted, and at least two women actually died, after being run down on the tracks. These stories inspired me to invent the painting by the artist, R. Galuth, which plays a central role in my novel.

More generally, though, I’m really interested in the layering of history in New York. That’s a lot of what the book is about, digging up these layers of history, experience, and meaning. So referring to a common subway line by its historical name, and elevating into a more a mythic place, is very much in line with what the novel is.

Ben Nadler

Ben Nadler

Q: Tell us about your relationship with Southern Brooklyn– Coney Island, Brighton and Sheepshead Bay–all featured prominently in the book–along with Washington Square Park in the Village. Have you lived or worked here? Have any bits and pieces of your personal history turned up in the book?

A: I live in Midwood, Brooklyn, and have lived here over the entire course of writing the novel. This is sort of the very top edge of Southern Brooklyn, but part of the same world in some ways.

I have been fascinated with Coney Island, specifically, since I was very young. Several of my father’s relatives, including his grandmother, lived in the Amalgamated Warbasse Houses when he was a kid. They were Yiddish-speaking union members who moved down from the Lower East Side when the development opened in the ‘60s. My father always imparted to me that Coney Island is a special place. And because it was the location of the older, immigrant generation of his family, it always seemed more connected to the past than other places for me.

I first moved to New York City in 2002, and would often come down to Coney alone or with friends, to walk on the beach and boardwalk at night. In around 2008 I started dating my girlfriend, Oksana, whom I’m still with. She was born in Russia, but grew up in Coney Island, on West 23rd St. Some of her family still lives there. Oksana further introduced me to the broader Coney Island neighborhood to the west of the amusement area, as well as to Brighton to the east.

The Manhattan material has more of a direct connection to my experiences: I was a bookseller on West 4th Street for a few years. I came to New York to study at the New School in the West Village, and ended up working as a bookseller for the last couple years of college, and for a bit after. I don’t think there is anything from my own biography in the plot or the characters, but the accounts of the bookselling business, and the street culture around the park in the early 2000s, are very much a pastiche of my memories and experiences.

Q: The scenes that flash back to 11-year-old Izzy meeting and bonding with his estranged father as they go crabbing on the pier in Coney and make a meal of the catch are masterful. How did you come up with this chapter?

Thanks. This was actually the very first part of the book that I wrote. Everything grew from there.

Basically, a friend and I were spending a lot of time crabbing and fishing on the pier that summer. It was mainly an excuse to make ourselves get up early, ride our bikes down Ocean Parkway at dawn, and drink on the pier in the morning. So the scene started to come together in my mind over successive weeks, sitting on the pier bench, waiting for the tug on the line. The characters were birthed from the setting, to a degree.

Q: The mix of Jewish mysticism and noirish plot drew me in. Can you talk a little about what inspired that combo?

A: Honestly, this wasn’t a planned combination. These are just things I write about.

That being said, I think there are some natural connections between the two elements. Hasidic tales in Eastern Europe were all about taking complex religious and mystical traditions, and bringing them into narratives that could be accessibly shared amongst common people. And noir/ hardboiled/ pulp novels in America were a way of taking the literary form of the novel, and making it into something accessible (in terms of plots, language, and the actual ownership of books) to a wider, and largely working class, audience. So they fit well together. Especially in the streets of Brooklyn.

More than anything though, we are talking about different forms mystery. The search for what’s hidden.

Sea Beach lineQ: Have you written anything else about Coney Island (nonfiction/journalism) or set in Coney Island (fiction)?

A: Yeah, over the years I have done some freelance nonfiction writing about Coney Island for different blogs and publications. My favorite example of this is the article my girlfriend and I wrote about the reconstruction of Steeplechase Pier after Hurricane Sandy.

Several years ago, an editor from Sea Gate tried to start a local Coney Island newspaper. He got a publisher who was supposed to sell ads and fund it, and he hired he me and a photographer to put together some stories. I did a lot of great interviews, and got to meet some awesome people, but then the publisher skipped town, and the paper never got printed.

Coney Island pops up in a lot of my writing. A chapter of my out-of-print first novel, Harvitz, As To War, takes place in Coney Island, in the projects. One of the pieces in a comic book, Line & Hook, which I made with Alyssa Berg and is forthcoming next month from Perfect Wave, is written from the perspective of an old drunk on the Coney Island boardwalk.

Q: You seem very familiar with Coney Island – for example, putting the fictional Galuth Museum on 18th Street, which is one of Coney’s mysterious missing streets. What place in Coney Island, past and/or present, captures your imagination?

A: A missing street is such a great opportunity for a fiction writer. Because it doesn’t exist, I had total freedom to construct my own location. But at the same time, because it’s located between two real places, it was firmly grounded and contextualized in the experiential world.

In Coney Island, like a lot of New York City, the tenements were destroyed in “slum clearance” and replaced with public housing projects. It is debatable if this was the best thing for people or not (or if it could have been a better thing for people if the history of the projects unfolded differently, with more support). In any case, you can’t really talk about life in Coney Island today without talking about life in housing projects. But I am entranced by these disappeared neighborhoods. Throughout the city, there are old neighborhoods buried under NYCHA projects, under expressways, under skyscrapers, under Lincoln Center.

For pure mystery and imagination, though, you can’t beat Dreamland. This was the quintessential Coney Island amusement park, a reified world of fantasy and imagination. It lasted for just seven years before disappearing in flames. When I look at old post card photos of the front gate, with the giant angel statue in the middle, my imagination goes wild.

The Sea Beach Line by Ben Nadler. Fig Tree Books, 2015. Softcover, $15.96.

Related posts on ATZ…

October 25, 2015: Autumn Reading: Novels Starring Circus Mermaids, Coney Island Sideshows, Traveling Shows

December 1, 2014: Autumn Reading: Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow!

November 22, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Brooklyn Theatre Index of Coney Island, Brighton Beach & Manhattan Beach

November 10, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

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Circus mermaids and freaks, Coney Island sideshows, and a traveling circus and carnival take center stage in this trio of literary novels that we read over the summer. Wondrous and horrific by turn, these stories will have you turning their pages well past the witching hour.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler. St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Hardcover, $26.99.

The Book of SpeculationErika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation is a suspenseful novel that combines some of our favorite things — traveling shows, sideshow performers, mermaids, family secrets and rare books. The rare book is the 17th century log of a traveling circus which the narrator receives in the mail from a stranger along with a mysterious message: “A name inside it–Verona Bonn–led me to believe it might be of interest to your family.” The women in Simon Watson’s family, including his mother and grandmother, were circus mermaids who drowned, always on July 24. The novel alternates between the magical tale of Simon’s ancestors documented in the logbook and his present life on Long Island, where he is in danger of losing both his job as a librarian and his family’s historic home. As the date of his mother’s death approaches, Simon becomes convinced that his sister, who ran off with a carnival, is doomed to drown as well. Can the revelation of a family secret save them both?

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. Scribner, 2014. Hardcover, $27.99; Paperback $16.00.

Museum of Extraordinary ThingsCoralie, the enchanting heroine of Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things, was born with webs between her fingers. Pressed to perform as a “human mermaid” in her father’s museum of freaks and curiosities in early 20th century Coney Island, she escapes after hours by swimming the Hudson River. Sightings of “a sea monster” become a tabloid mystery. Coralie’s story unfolds parallel with that of Eddie Cohen, a Jewish immigrant living on the Lower East Side who works as a newspaper photographer and fishes the river for his supper. It’s clear that their worlds are going to intersect and they are destined to fall in love, but that doesn’t lessen the allure. First published in 2014, Hoffman’s novel was on the New York Times bestseller list and was the Long Island Reads selection for 2015. Set in 1911, the year of both Manhattan’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Coney Island’s Dreamland Fire, the story has an authentic ring to it. Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson was among the early readers of the manuscript.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. Ecco/HarperCollins, 2015. Hardcover, $26.99.

Church of MarvelsThe Church of Marvels of the novel’s title is an 1890’s Coney Island sideshow, but the sideshow has burned to the ground and its proprietor Friendship Willingbird Church is dead before the book begins. Her twin daughters Belle, a beautiful contortionist and sword swallower, has fled to Manhattan, while Odile, who was born with a curvature of the spine, struggles to make a living as the Target Girl on Coney’s Wheel of Death. Initially, we were disappointed the novel did not have more scenes set in Coney Island or the sideshow, as we had anticipated. Leslie Parry’s exquisite prose and the surprising twists and turns of the narrative won us over. Odile’s quest to find her missing sister takes us inside the lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island and the tenements and opium dens of the Lower East Side before circling back home to Coney Island.

Related posts on ATZ…

May 17, 2015: Summer Reading: Undertow by Michael Buckley

December 1, 2014: Autumn Reading: Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow!

November 22, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Brooklyn Theatre Index of Coney Island, Brighton Beach & Manhattan Beach

November 10, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

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Undertow by Michael BuckleyIn Michael Buckley’s gripping new YA novel Undertow, Coney Island is a dystopia known as “the Zone, the DMZ and Fish City.” Its famed amusement parks and Mermaid Parade are long abandoned. The neighborhood has been fenced off from the rest of New York City and turned into a militarized zone since a warrior race of sea people called the Alpha swam ashore and raised a tent city on the beach.

The book’s narrator is Lyric Walker, a feisty 16-year-old Coney Islander who is thrust into the spotlight when her high school is opened to six Alpha teens. A movie version of the story would be a dream job for a make-up department: “Many have scales. Others have jagged rows of teeth, and mouths like open wounds,” Lyric says of the Alpha students who have to be escorted past violent protestors by soldiers, cops and FBI agents. “One of them is a teenaged mountain of power, a slightly smaller version of the giant warriors who led the way. He has sunken eyes and tiny spikes on his neck, shoulders and forearms.” There’s also a girl with gelatinous skin through which her veins and bones can be seen and a golden god with a bruised face and serrated knives that pop out of his arms.

The golden god is the Alpha prince Fathom, who does battle nightly on the beach with his father’s challengers and wears his bruises like trophies. A mutual attraction develops between the charismatic prince and Lyric when the principal assigns her to be his tutor and meet with him privately every day. When their meetings incur the wrath of the xenophobic governor, the safety of Lyric’s family, who have been harboring a secret from their friends and neighbors, is put in jeopardy.

Lyric Walker is an engaging protagonist, as are the other characters in the book, including her parents, making it a great summer read for both teens and adults. Undertow climaxes with an epic battle on the beach in which Lyric literally learns to make waves. Readers rooting for a human-Alpha romance will be happy to know this is the first novel of a trilogy.

In an interview, Buckley says that Undertow took its inspiration from a refugee crisis that made headlines last year. Tens of thousands of children fled Central America and came to the U.S. where they were imprisoned while elected officials called for electrified fences at the border, similar to the ones in his novel. The Brooklyn resident’s best-selling middle grade series the Sisters Grimm and NERDS have sold more than four million copies and appear in 22 languages.

On Tuesday, May 19, BookCourt at 163 Court Street in Brooklyn is hosting an author reading, audience Q & A and book signing at 7pm.

Undertow by Michael Buckley. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015. Hardcover, $18.99

Related posts on ATZ…

December 1, 2014: Autumn Reading: Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow!

November 10, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

June 19, 2011: Coney Island Summer Reading: The Wonder City

June 14, 2011: Coney Island Summer Reading: Dreamland Social Club

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Step Right UpAfter Hurricane Sandy, Coney Island got lucky when a rare vintage 1940’s Mangels shooting gallery from Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park was brought out of storage, restored, and installed at Coney Island USA’s Surf Avenue storefront. As far as we know, it’s the only one of its kind in operation that is open to the public. Since many shooting galleries were sold for scrap iron during World Wars I and II, you’re more likely to come across cast-iron and sheet-metal targets in the shape of birds and beasts, cowboys and Indians, and soldiers and torpedo boats in folk art collections than as a game in an amusement park.

Richard and Valerie Tucker’s passion for collecting figural cast iron began in the`early 1980s with the acquisition of a row of doves from a William F. Mangels’ gallery manufactured in Coney Island. Thirty years later, they own hundreds of shooting gallery targets from a variety of manufacturers. Step Right Up! Classic American Target and Arcade Forms is a sumptuous coffee table art book with more than 225 color images of American and European targets along with a sampling of carnival banners, signs and game pieces. As the first and only book on the subject, the volume is valuable to collectors and of special interest to fans of carnival art and antiques.

In addition to Mangels, the 144-page book has chapters on C.W. Parker of Kansas, William Wurfflein of Philadelphia, the John T. Dickman Company of Los Angeles and Chicago manufacturers Evans, Hoffmann, Mueller, and Smith, as well as miscellaneous targets and a few European targets. Essays by specialists on the manufacturers supplement illustrations from the Tuckers’ archive of catalogs, trade cards and other ephemera which are a great resource since the majority of targets have no trade marks.

Step Right Up! Richard and Valerie Tucker

Card Suits by WF Mangels. Private Collection. Photo: Kimberly Gavin/Kimberly Gavin Photography

One of our favorite target makers is C.W. Parker, who started out as a shooting gallery operator and soon got into the business of supplying traveling carnivals with a wide variety of attractions. Parker had a showman’s flair for borrowing design ideas from his fellow manufacturers and fashioning them into commercially successful shooting galleries and carousels.

No complete Parker galleries are known to exist or even to have been photographed, says Bob Goldsack, a Parker historian who wrote the book’s chapter on the self-proclaimed “Carnival King.” Parker’s highly detailed and mechanized targets included owls and eagles with flapping wings, whippets chasing rabbits, and the now politically incorrect circus animals, Indians, and Lincolnesque figure holding a sign that says “Hit Me” in a gallery advertised as “A New Political Shooting Gallery.”

A lecture and book signing by the authors will be held at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, Columbus Ave at 66th St, in Manhattan, on December 18 at 6pm. Admission is free of charge.

Step Right Up! Classic American Target and Arcade Forms by Richard and Valerie Tucker. Schiffer Publishing, 2014. Hardcover, $45

Step Right Up! Richard and Valerie Tucker

Indian by CW Parker. Photo: Kimberly Gavin/Kimberly Gavin Photography

Related posts on ATZ…

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

February 28, 2013: Coney Island Shooting Gallery from 1940s Makes Comeback

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

February 25, 2010: Happy Belated Birthday to Coney Island’s William F Mangels

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Ward Hall BiographyThe official biography Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow! was published with great fanfare earlier this year in celebration of Hall’s 70th anniversary in show business. More than a dozen years ago, while traveling with S & S Amusements as the High Striker Girl, ATZ had the honor of being on the same midway as Hall & Christ’s legendary World of Wonders. At the Great Allentown Fair, where the patrons love shows, the throng in front of the banner line and the torchlit bally stage conjured up the long ago golden age of the midway. Hearing Ward deliver his classic pitches against this backdrop was one of the unforgettable moments of the season.

In 1946, Ward Hall left his Colorado home at age 15 to join Dailey Bros. Circus after answering an ad in Billboard for a magician and fire eater. Though the teen did not yet know how to eat fire, a friendly canvasman taught him the skill and before long he was also working as an outside talker on the sideshow’s bally stage.

“I didn’t know what to say, so I looked over at Norma, who was selling tickets, and she hollered at me, ‘Tell ’em about the painted-face mandrill.’ Well, I did that and then I looked back at Norma and then she would tell me what to say next,” Ward recalls. By the 1960s, burlesque dancer Sally Rand had crowned Hall “The Silver Throated King of the Carnival Talkers” in an NBC documentary Carny. Sideshow historian James Taylor gave Hall the title “The King of the Sideshow” in the 1995 volume of Shocked and Amazed–On & Off the Midway.

Author Tim O’Brien, who first wrote about Ward as a reporter for Amusement Business, has masterfully researched and organized material spanning the showman’s career in sideshows, circuses, theater, movies and television, and his partnerships with Harry Leonard and Chris Christ. Photos, clippings and anecdotes from their life on the road are interspersed with chapters about the art of the bally, the value of the banner line, carny lingo, and Gibsonton, the Florida town fondly known as “Showtown USA,” which Hall and Christ call home.

Ward Hall Pete Terhune

Ward Hall and Pete Terhune. Photo © Paul Gutheil via Casa Flamingo

Among the subjects covered in the book are why there are so few sideshows and freak shows today compared to 30 years ago. Hall says it has to do with economics, not political correctness–spectacular rides have replaced shows on carnival and fair midways.

Also of interest are details of legal cases which were fought and won by Ward, such as a three-year court battle that successfully overturned the 1921 Florida law banning the exhibition of human oddities. The plaintiffs included Pete “Poobah” Terhune, a dwarf who worked with Ward and his partners for 55 years as a fire-eater, snake handler, circus clown and king of the pygmies. In the 1971 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional because the plaintiffs “must be allowed to earn a livelihood.” The chapter “Ward Meets Pete: How a Dwarf Won the Heart of a King” is a loving tribute to Pete, who passed away at age 82 in 2012.

Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow! The Official Biography by Tim O’Brien. Casa Flamingo Literary Arts, Nashville, TN, 2014. 262 pages, 100+ photos & illustrations, $24.99

Related posts on ATZ…

November 22, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Brooklyn Theatre Index of Coney Island, Brighton Beach & Manhattan Beach

November 10, 2014: Autumn Reading: The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

November 23, 2013: More Photos from the Glory Days of the Sideshow Banner

November 7, 2013: Photos from the Glory Days of the Sideshow Banner

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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 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.

Feltmans' Seaside Gardens

Feltmans’ Seaside Gardens. Cezar del Valle Collection

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.

A book launch party with an illustrated talk by the author will be held at 440 Gallery, 440 6th Avenue, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on Sunday, December 14 at 4:40pm.

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

March 30, 2014: Spring Reading: Automatic Pleasures: The History of the Coin Machine

December 14, 2010: Amid Demolitions & Evictions in Coney Island, City Landmarks Shore Theater

April 29, 2010: Photo of the Day: Interior of Coney Island’s Doomed Henderson Music Hall

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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 to please the crowds. When the press asked if the tribe would be hunting human heads in America, Hunt replied “The only heads they will take in this country will be those of the goddess Liberty, inscribed on the good American dollar, at gay Coney Island this summer.”

The cast of characters including tribal chief Fomoaley Ponci, translator Julio Balinag and children Tainan and Friday are portrayed with great empathy. Among the sad realizations in this sad and astonishing story is that with the exception of their journey from Grand Central Station to Coney Island, the Igorrotes did not get to see New York City. While reporters asked them–What do you think of America?–Hunt kept them captive in their “Village” and even their requests to walk around inside Luna Park were rejected.

Igorotte

Igorotte Village at Dreamland, Coney Island. 1905. Library of Congress Photo

Before the 1905 season was over at Luna Park, the opportunistic showman had smuggled the Igorrote Village across the street to rival Dreamland, lured by a higher offer, and then to fairs and parks in far-flung cities. A government agent and Pinkerton detectives were on his trail following a report that the Igorrotes were being exploited and their wages withheld.

Prentice writes that during the summer at Coney Island, the Igorrotes were bringing in $20,000 per week (equal to about $525,000 today), but when they were finally sent home by the government in 1906, each one got just over $30. Though arrested and prosecuted, Hunt had squandered the fortune that the Igorrotes brought in, including their promised monthly wages of $15 each and the money they’d earned from selling souvenirs. An afterword provides information about what happened to the Filipinos after they returned home and the fate of the other characters in the book.

On December 10, the Brooklyn Public Library is hosting an author reading from 7-8pm, with a wine and cheese reception at 6:30pm at the Central Library at Grand Army Plaza. Admission is free. The Coney Island Museum will have an author reading and Q & A on December 13 at 1pm. Admission to the museum is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, kids under 12 and residents of zip code 11224. Free for Coney Island USA members.

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island: Headhunters, Luna Park, and the Man Who Pulled Off the Spectacle of the Century by Claire Prentice. New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Hardcover, $26.00

Related posts on ATZ…

March 30, 2014: Spring Reading: Automatic Pleasures: The History of the Coin Machine

June 19, 2011: Coney Island Summer Reading: The Wonder City

June 14, 2011: Coney Island Summer Reading: Dreamland Social Club

December 6, 2010: Children’s Book Tells Coney Island Carousel Carver’s Story

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