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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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