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Vintage Sideshow Art: Armless Wonder by Dan Casola of 2525 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Vintage Sideshow Art: Armless Wonder by Dan Casola of 2525 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY

Vintage sideshow banners painted by Coney Island’s Dan Casola are hard to come by. In fact we’d never seen a Casola banner until we discovered The Armless Wonder–Lot #459 in the Mosby & Co. online auction of the late Bob McCord’s circus collection. We were wowed. In the late 90s, we had a cottage industry writing for Art & Antiques and other art magazines about collectors snapping up sideshow banners from the heyday of the midway. We learned that Coney Island’s Millard and Bulsterbaum, who had their banner painting shop at 2894 West 8th Street from 1915 until the end of the Depression, were considered the best in the biz. Their ads proclaimed “We Paint Banners That Get Top Money for Carnivals and Circus.” The banners that have survived are highly prized by collectors.

In a note on Mosby’s auction page, banner painter Johnny Meah says Casola was “a good artist, working mostly for the Millard & Bulsterbaum scenic art house in Brooklyn—–but largely unheard of.” He notes that the artist’s work was on view primarily in Coney Island and occasionally at fairs in nearby states where Dave Rosen, a Coney Island operator, fielded a sideshow. Rosen’s Wonderland Circus Sideshow was by the way in the building currently owned and occupied by Coney Island USA’s Sideshows by the Seashore. Casola was Meah’s favorite banner painter and he shares further reminscences in an essay “Cunning Crafters of Dreams.”

Now, thanks to Google Books, which has indexed selected issues of the Billboard, we’ve been able to find additional biographical info on Casola. In June 1942: “New on Surf Avenue is girl-underwater illusion, a 10-center operated by Dan Casola, designer and decorator. Dan is the one who designed the Atlantis Bar and Grille new last season on the Boardwalk.” The now-legendary Atlantis Nightclub was on the site currently occupied by Cha Cha’s and Nathan’s Boardwalk location at Stillwell Avenue.

In July 1942, in the Pittsburgh Gazette’s “Dimouts, Rationing Hit Coney Island Hard,” Casola is the talker for his illusion show and is said to have been in Coney Island for 25 years. “He says business is good at the illusion show he presents with ‘three nifty girls.’ ‘Ya only spend a dime folks and a ya get an eyeful, and ya got two eyes aintcha, so what are ya waiting for,’ he yells. That he said, gets em every time, dimout or no dimout.”

At the height of sideshow bannermania (1998), we actually did an unofficial “census” of banners in public and private collections. While Fred Johnson and Snap Wyatt were prolific artists and a body of their work has survived, other master banner painters have not been so lucky. We’d love to be able to close this post with a photo of another Casola banner. If anyone has more info about Dan Casola, please let us know. As for the marvelously gifted Armless Wonder, who painted pictures to sell to sideshow visitors, we’d like to identify him and see more of his paintings, too.

Mosby & Co Auctions, Fall Toy & Americana Sale, Lot 459, Circus Sideshow Banners, Armless Wonder, 92″ tall x 118″ wide, opening bid $750. Estimate: $1,500-$2,500. The sale end date is November 22, 2009 at midnight and on the 20th for liveauctioneers absentee bids.

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May 8, 2011: Up for Auction: Sideshow Banners by Johnny Meah

December 2, 2009: Dec 12-13: Open Studio with Coney Island Artist & Banner Painter Marie Roberts

November 7, 2009: Thru Dec 31 at Coney Island Library: Artist Takeshi Yamada’s Cabinet of Curiosities

October 4, 2009: The Wonder of Artist Philomena Marano’s Wonder Wheel

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astroland-park (3)
Astroland Park, Watercolor by Eric March. From the exhibition “Moments in Time: Queens to Coney Island” at Park Slope Gallery, October 16 – December 31.

The roof of Gregory & Paul’s, now known as Paul’s Daughter, looked empty this summer without the iconic Astroland Rocket. I kept having to remind myself: The Rocket is safe in storage in Staten Island. It’s been saved! But things were not the same in so many ways: Astroland was gone. Closed on September 7, 2008. In Eric March‘s achingly lovely watercolor study from the summer of 2008, G & P’s original sign is intact, the “Astroland Park” Rocket is perched atop the Boardwalk food stand, and all is well in this part of the world.

The artist, whom ATZ got acquainted with in Coney, recently sent us a link to a preview of his upcoming exhibition “Moments in Time: Queens to Coney Island.” The oil paintings and charcoal drawings of Queens industrial landscape are impressive. Naturally we felt drawn to successive images of the Rocket– the black & white and hand-tinted etchings done in 2009. “For ‘Astroland’ I thought the fine detail you can achieve in etching lent itself well to depicting all the signage,” says Eric March. “‘Parachute Jump’ has a lot of precise line work but I also used different biting techniques to get a softer sense of atmosphere in the sky. In addition, an additional layer of yellow ink rolled over the entire plate helps gives ‘Parachute Jump’ that sunset glow.”

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Astroland, etching by Eric March, 2009

Whenever I ran into Eric in Coney Island he was busy gathering signatures for a petition to save the amusement zoning and move the proposed high rises north of Surf Avenue. How did all the Save Coney lobbying and events of the summer affect or inspire his work?

The show is actually about half Coney Island subjects and half Long Island City subjects. I moved to LIC in 2006 from Brooklyn and was attracted to all the industrial structures in Queens Plaza and other places in LIC. Coney Island has my heart, though, and I was drawn back to the beach when I started developing the work for this show. In 2006 I had my first solo show, “A Brooklyn Year”, which was all Brooklyn—including a lot of Coney Island pieces. So I already had ideas for paintings that I didn’t get to for my last show.

When I learned that Coney Island was potentially destined for the wrecking ball it definitely lit a fire under me to not only capture images of the Coney that I knew and loved, but also to get involved politically to help keep it that way. That’s when I started volunteering for Save Coney Island. I did some petitioning on the boardwalk and helped organize to raise awareness about the city’s redevelopment plan and it’s inherent threat to the existence of the vibrant, small scale, historic, and unique Coney Island that’s been drawing people there for over 100 years. The fight’s not over yet and I hope that when people see the work in this show they will also be inspired to fight for a Coney Island that remains one of the last places in New York City that is an open-access melting pot of people, creativity, color, and fun.

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Astroland, hand-tinted etching by Eric March, 2009

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Gallery Talk, Friday, November 6, 7 pm
The artist will discuss the artistic process and the political inspiration for his Coney Island images. Featuring guest speaker Juan Rivero from Save Coney Island

Moments in Time: Queens to Coney Island, October 16- December 31, 2009. Park Slope Gallery is a by-appointment-only art gallery in the historic Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Phone 718-768-4883 or e-mail parkslopegallery@mindspring.com

Parachute Jump, etching by Eric March, 2009

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Wild ride avalanche 1

Wild Ride 2009 by Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan. Performance Art/Multimedia Installation on Bay Street, Toronto at Nuit Blanche, October 3, 2009. Rides owned by Funland Outdoor Amusements. Photos courtesy of Scotiabank Nuit Blanche

Now that the summer is over in Coney, we have time to make good on our promise to cover not only Coney Island and the amusement business, but “fun places in between.” The category “Traveler” will include places we’ve been, places we’d like to go, and places that have something we’d love to see recreated in Coney Island. We’re kicking it off with free carnival rides!

Tag surfing for “amusement rides” on WordPress, photos of a Fun Slide and Avalanche ride set up in Toronto’s financial district for an all-night art fest caught our eye. Last weekend, the 4th annual Nuit Blanche (aka “Sleepless Night”) attracted an estimated one million festival-goers and featured over 150 contemporary art installations. On the Nuit Blanche website, we found this writeup by artists Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan about their “Wild Ride 2009″:

Bay Street – emblem of Canada’s banking industry – is closed. The smell of cotton candy and raucous music fill the air. Two midway rides reflect the whirling, tilting exhilaration of the bull market and its less than thrilling collapse. Free to the public and staffed by recently downsized businesspeople, the rides invite audience members to kinetically contemplate the ups and downs of the recent economic crisis. Out of the darkened financial district, screams will be heard!

wild ride fun slide

ATZ enjoys seeing carnival rides transform the city streets at Little Italy’s San Gennaro and other Italian Feasts into a temporary People’s Playground. We’re taken with the democratic idea of rented carnival rides presented as a free public art project. Did we mention “Wild Ride 2009” and the other interactive artwork was free to the public thanks to $2 million in funding from the City of Toronto, the Province of Ontario, and Scotiabank? We could use a few free rides in the newly rezoned Coney Island. Note to Creative Time, the non-profit which commissioned the Dreamland Artists Club sign painting project in 2005 and Steve Powers’ Guantanamo-themed “The Waterboard Thrill Ride” (not an amusement ride) in 2008. Here’s your next Coney project: Commission an artist to bring back the Whip and Zipper rides and spin a narrative around it.

Wild ride set up

“Wild Ride 2009” creators Dempsey and Millan have collaborated on performances, film and public art projects since 1989, but for this project they teamed up with showmen from Ontario’s Funland Shows. How did it go? We did a quick Q & A with the artists via email to find out…

Q: How did you get the idea do this?

A: We received the commission in the fall of 2008. It was to do a 12-hour art piece on Bay Street in the business district of Toronto. In Canada, Bay Street is synonymous with the economy. It is the financial engine of the country. A couple of things struck us about the site. The area is a series of glass canyons: banking skyscrapers everywhere. Loads of reflective surfaces. There also aren’t any people on the street. There is an underground system called the PATH that is really a vast underground mall. It sucks all the life from pedestrian street traffic. The economic collapse had just happened so the lack of people on the street seemed more eerie. The financial centre of Canada seemed dead.

Q: Are you fans of carnivals and fairs?

A: We grew up going to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. It was the thing that you looked forward to every year, almost like Christmas. Midway carnivals meant freedom, abandon, risk, and possibility. There was also that “post” feeling afterwards when you realized you had spent all your money and had nothing to show for it. We though it might be a good metaphor for the financial meltdown. A wild ride. We could comment on the folly/absurdity of the speculative financial industry.

Plus we wanted to return Bay Street to the people – us – who paid for it. Make it useable, functional, joyful. Make it ours. What would be more democratic than free midway rides and cotton candy?

Wild Ride 1

Q: Can you tell me about carnival company from whom you rented the rides? What was it like working with them?

A: We rented two rides from Funland/Superior . They are a partnership with a long history in the Ontario midway business. They staffed the rides with their carnies who we dressed in business suits. Beforehand we told the public that the midway was being run by downsized business people but on the night we confessed that, really, those Bay Street types have few transferable skills, and that in the interest of safety we had hired skilled professionals and dressed them in business attire, as appropriate to the district.

We were afraid that the carnies would be resistant to wearing the suits but they were so into the spirit of the event. They looked super sharp, literally like they had just stepped off the trading floor of the stock market. And they kept the energy up all night, playing with the crowd, shaking their hands…very business-y! We were awed by their ability and enthusiasm. It made us think about how we valourize and reward some kinds of labour (like that of bankers and stock traders) but not others (like carnies). The guys working for us were just as capable, smart and charismatic.

We were also struck by how removing a ride from a carnival and putting it in another context transformed it into a beautiful object. It was as if people were seeing the rides for the first time. They looked so beautiful (and so incongruous) on Bay Street. People were awed by the blinking lights reflected in the banking towers.

wild ride avalanche 2

Also, because everything was free, sometimes the carnies would let a ride go on for 20 minutes if the riders were willing. There was lots of teasing back and forth. It felt like there was plenty, that you could have all you wanted. Now that’s a rare feeling, especially on Bay Street!

We transformed the location in a couple of other ways, too. We made signs (“Wild Ride…Do You Want to Go Lower?”and “Absolutely Free and Worth Less All The Time”), and pumped out a soundtrack featuring songs about money and loss with a voice-over by a barker (“Lay your money down”). The free cotton candy (distributed by volunteers in business suits) had clown-headed garbage cans nearby. People danced to the music, some putting the clown heads on, some playing air guitar. We rocked them all night long. Even at 6 am there were still lineups and big smiles. It was a beautiful night, the way fairs and carnivals can be, outside of time and sense: magical.

wild ride clown head

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October 25, 2009: Traveler: Bryant Park’s Beguiling Carousel Is Awhirl for the Holidays

October 12, 2009: Moments in Time: Artist Eric March’s Coney Island

October 4, 2009: The Wonder of Artist Philomena Marano’s Wonder Wheel

June 13, 2009: June 13: Coney Island Hysterical Society Artists in Conversation at A.M. Richard Fine Art in Williamsburg

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Shoot 25 by Philomena Marano and Richard Eagan. Mixed media, constructed collage, silkscreen print, enamel on wood. From the exhibition “All Roads Lead to Coney Island” at A.M Richard Fine Art through July 12.

No, we don’t mean Historical Society. Brooklyn native Philomena Marano explains that in 1981, she and fellow artist Richard Eagan founded the Coney Island Hysterical Society because they were “Hysterical” at the rate that the amusement rides and attractions were shutting down. Joined by like-minded artists the group took on such projects as the restoration of an old dark ride and an homage to souvenir cut out photo boards.

Today at 4 p.m, Marano and Eagan get together for a conversation with artist and CIHS alum Marc Kehoe. They first met Kehoe in 1985 when he joined the group and painted a small mural on the side of the Spook House. This special event takes place at the Williamsburg gallery where their work is part of a Coney-centric group exhibition on view through July 12.

“All Roads Lead to Coney” is curated by Andrew Garn and also includes works by Robert and Robbie Bailey, Todd Boebel, Matilde Damele, François Deschamps, Emily Feinstein, Hazel Hankin, Robert Hickman, Hawley Hussey, Bill Jacobson, Salem Krieger, Laure Leber, Andrew Lichtenstein, Doni Lucas, Ingrid Ludt, Ann Murphy, Bethany Obrecht, Brooke Prickett, James Reeder, Arthur Robins, Molly Schwartz, and Robert Vizzini.

A.M. Richard Fine Art, 328 Berry Street, 3rd Floor, Williamsburg. Gallery hours are Friday-Sunday, 1 – 6 p.m. 917-570-1476


Related posts on ATZ...

October 1, 2010: Oct 2: Coney Island Hysterical Art on Gowanus Artists Studio Tour

September 19, 2010: Art of the Day: Play Fascination by Philomena Marano

October 12, 2009: Moments in Time: Artist Eric March’s Coney Island

October 4, 2009: The Wonder of Artist Philomena Marano’s Wonder Wheel

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