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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

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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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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

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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

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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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Airstream The Silver RV “Goodbye New York” essays have become increasingly popular but the big question is where would you move? For this former carny kid, no one place will do. The nomadic life of a trailerite seems like an answer. Did you know that you can buy an Airstream for $8,000 to $80,000? From there, it’s a hop, skip and a jump to the next rest area on the Interstate, parking lot at Walmart, RV camp, trailer park, or a new life on the fair circuit.

All of this is preliminary to saying that Airstream: The Silver RV is the perfect gift for anyone who cherishes dreams of a life on the road. Author Tara Cox, the founding editor-in-chief of RVLiving Magazine, who hopes one day to own an Airstream of her own, has researched the history and lore of the vintage classic.

Airstream

Airstream founder Wally Byam and his wife Marion at the trailer factory. Photo via Airstream.com

Airstream founder Wally Byam’s first aluminum trailer –“The Airstream Clipper” named after the Pan Am Clipper–debuted in 1936 at a time when the onset of the Great Depression created a boom in the trailer industry. Over 400 trailer companies were competing for customers when just a few years earlier there were forty-eight, Cox says. The book’s selection of photos shows the evolution of the Airstream’s “Streamline Moderne” style, which has made it an enduring icon as well as a pop-culture phenom in recent years.

Airstream Motel

One of the Airstreams at Kate’s Lazy Desert Motel near Joshua Tree. Via LazyMeadow.com

One of several “glamping” destinations mentioned is Kate’s Lazy Desert Airstream Motel owned by Kate Pierson of the forever fabulous band the B-52s. Six vintage Airstreams were restored and decorated by artists Philip Maberry and Scott Walker, who owned the “funky little shack” featured in the B-52s’ “Love Shack” video.

The travel trailer of my carny childhood, which was not an Airstream but had an Art Deco look, was put in storage every year after Columbus Day on the Goshen fairgrounds in Connecticut. One of my earliest memories is tearfully waving goodbye to it till spring when we went back out on the road with the carnival. Perhaps I’ll find something like it if and when the time comes to retire from life in New York City. “Adventure is where you find it, any place, every place,” said Wally Byam, “except at home in the rocking chair.”

Airstream:The Silver RV by Tara Cox. Published by Shire Publications, 2013. Paperback, $9.95

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It seems unbelievable, but in 1954, Murray Handwerker of Nathan’s Famous leased an embalmed whale and put it on display next to his Coney Island eatery to attract customers. The seventy-ton, seventy-five foot finback was on show for two months when a heat wave struck and “A Whale in Bad Odor” began driving away customers, according to news reports at the time. Neighboring business owners called the Health Department, which issued summonses for maintaining a nuisance.  It ended up with Handwerker having to pay people to cut up the whale and tow it out to sea.

This odd tidbit of Coney Island history was one of the inspirations for “The Wonder City,” an ambitious new graphic novel by Justin Rivers and Courtney Zell that re-imagines the history of New York City starting with Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan. Subtitled “The Great Whale of Coney Island,” the first volume in a planned six-volume series is a captivating mix of history and mythology. “Where does myth end and history begin? What if there was no difference between the two?” asks Rivers, a playwright and educator whose literary influences include Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Set in New York City in 1942, the story begins with the delightfully named and drawn “gumshoe” Velma Graydon turning up at the Brooklyn home of the Tulip family. She is ready to spend a large sum to acquire the Parelzaad, a centuries-old charm that six-year-old Lizzie Tulip nonchalantly wears around her neck. Velma is told the heirloom was a gift from the girl’s Dutch grandmother and is not for sale.

But Velma is persistent and unable to let the sought-after charm out of her sight. The next day, she follows Lizzie and her brother Owen on an outing to Coney Island. The Wonder Wheel, which graces the cover of the book, and Grandma’s Predictions, the fortunetelling machine under the Wheel, play a part in the story, along with a dead whale on display as a sideshow attraction and a live whale whose appearance causes havoc in Coney Island.

Courtney Zell’s drawings have a quirky edge and convey emotion and intrigue. As the story unfolds and the mystery deepens, we learn that Velma belongs to a group called The Light Keepers who have long searched for the Parelzaad.  Velma’s research has uncovered documents that trace the charm’s origin to 17th century New Amsterdam. “My father said the charm brought prosperity to his crop,” wrote a resident of the Dutch colony in 1661. “It is our hope that you take it and bring prosperity back to our great city, the symbol of our worldly triumphs and a testament to our survival in the wilderness.”

ATZ first learned about “The Wonder City” last year via the website Kickstarter, where Rivers and Zell posted snippets of the novel-in-progress that piqued our curiosity. “The advice we’ve received from comic publishers is that the economy is bad for new comic book projects right now,” they wrote. “And the best way to get our book noticed is to self publish and get the book out there ourselves. And we’re determined to do it!” The project was successfully funded to the tune of $5518 by 62 backers, who received hand-pulled prints, signed copies of the book and the chance to be drawn into the comic as thank-yous.

The finished book was self-published this month and is on sale for $10 on the Wonder City website, etsy and Amazon.  A book release party and comic book creators meet-up is set for Wednesday, June 29, at 7 pm, at The Bell House, 149 7th Street in the Gowanus area of Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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

January 8, 2011: Boardwalk: Photos by Meredith Caliento, Spoken Word by Michael Schwartz

December 8, 2010: Children’s Book Tells Coney Island Carousel Carver’s Story

September 27, 2009: Coney Island 1969 by Edwin Torres: Fave Poem from Parachute Festival

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The quirky characters and Coney Island setting of Tara Altebrando’s new novel were so engaging that I read it on the subway to and from Coney, and then in a car on the road, in an effort to keep the story from ending.

Who wouldn’t want to belong to the Dreamland Social Club? In this novel for teenage readers, the club is an unofficial group frequented by a freaky clique at Coney Island High School. Among its members is Babette, a goth dwarf who befriends the novel’s 16-year-old heroine Jane with the explanation: “You seem cool. And you’ve got carny blood, even if it’s highly diluted.”

Jane is cool, though it takes most of the book for her to develop a sense of belonging and join the club. She and her brother Marcus have lived a nomadic life with their dad, who has designed roller coasters from Tokyo to Paris. The carny blood that Babette refers to comes from their mom’s side of the family, who were genuine Coney Island characters. But Jane and Marcus have never met their late grandparents and can hardly remember their mother, who died when they were little kids.

As a carny kid and Coney Island devotee, I felt drawn to the story of Jane’s life in Coney, where her family moves after inheriting her grandfather’s house. There’s lots of fun stuff in the attic. Jane soon learns that her grandfather “Preemie” Porcelli got his start in Coney as one of the premature babies on exhibit in Dreamland’s Baby Incubator Show. Her new friends remember him as the operator of a water race game on the Boardwalk calling them in to win prizes.

There’s also Jane’s tantalizing flirtation with Leo aka Tattoo Boy, whose father owns a Boardwalk dive bar that’s being evicted by a real estate developer who has bought up Coney Island. Does the last part sound familiar? The author has done a remarkable job of weaving Coney history and current events—both real and imagined– into a marvelous coming-of-age story.

Among the novel’s memorable details are a carousel horse from the fictional equivalent of Coney’s “B & B Carousell” chained to a radiator, vintage films of Jane’s grandmother who was a “Birdwoman” in the sideshow, and keys hidden away by her mother that still unlock long-vanished attractions. Jane’s family home gives up all of its secrets and Coney Island becomes her real home.

Tara Altebrando will appear at “Great Summer Reads for Teens” with a few other teen authors on Thursday, June 16, from 6-8 pm at Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th Street, New York, NY 10011. Ph 212- 989-3270.

Dreamland Social Club by Tara Altebrando. Ages 14 and up. 389 pages. Published by Dutton Books, 2011. Hardcover, $16.99.

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Related posts on ATZ…

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

January 8, 2011: Boardwalk: Photos by Meredith Caliento, Spoken Word by Michael Schwartz

December 8, 2010: Children’s Book Tells Coney Island Carousel Carver’s Story

September 27, 2009: Coney Island 1969 by Edwin Torres: Fave Poem from Parachute Festival

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