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Rcihard Eagan Photo by Hazel Hankin

Richard Eagan, the outside talker for a shark show in Coney Island, 1987. Photo © Hazel Hankin

“You’re going to meet Miss Atlantis, the daring young lady who will defy the devil and swim with three killer sharks,” says Brooklyn artist and performer Richard Eagan, recalling his spiel as an outside talker for the Florida Shark Show. His 1987 gig managing the Coney Island attraction is among the midway experiences that he relives in “Alive on the Inside,” on Thursday, January 28th at City Lore.

Eagan has performed the one-man theater piece since the late ’80s at venues from the Lower East Side to Coney Island, where it was last seen in 2007 as part of the Coney Island History Project’s folklore program. “Most of what I talk about is gone, so it is a memory piece,” Eagan tells ATZ. “When I was developing and performing it in earlier days, it was the last days of the old Coney Island hanging on by a thread. The characters were still there plying their trade. There’s so few of them left.”

Among the characters Eagan brings to life in the show are Buddy Cook, who is actually Norman Kaufman, owner of the Jumbo Jet coaster, whose Stillwell Avenue amusement park was evicted by Thor Equities in 2006 to make way for “redevelopment.” “I refer to him as ‘The Buddha of the ticketbox,'” says Eagan. Ronnie D is Ronnie Guerrero, the late owner of 12th Street’s famed Polar Express, which was located on Stillwell Avenue in the 1980s. Jake Fein is concessionaire Jack Merr, who operated a basketball game across from the Spookhouse.

Eagan co-founded the Coney Island Hysterical Society with fellow artist Philomena Marano in 1981 because they were “hysterical” at the rate that the amusement rides and attractions were shutting down. One of their projects was the transformation of the disused Dragon’s Cave ride on the Bowery into the Spookhouse, which they operated until 1984. Their visual art is on view in the exhibit “Boardwalk Renaissance: How the Arts Saved Coney Island,” at City Lore Gallery through March 13.

“Alive on the Inside,” January 28th, 7:00pm. Tickets are $11.49 via Eventbrite. City Lore, 56 E 1st St, New York, New York 10003. 212-529-1955

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January 18, 2016: Art of the Day: Coney Island at Valentine Museum of Art

November 16, 2015: Art of the Day: Remembering Spookhouse – A Ride Through Gallery in the Dark

April 21, 2011: Remembering Coney Island’s Jumbo Jet Coaster 1972-2002

October 26, 2010: Studio Visit: Richard Eagan of the Coney Island Hysterical Society

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Coney Island Hysterical Society

Richard Eagan, Gene Manzione and Philomena Marano at the Spookhouse in Coney Island, 1984. Photo Courtesy of Coney Island Hysterical Society.

Wouldn’t it be cool to take over a derelict amusement ride and refurbish it as an art project? “Boardwalk Renaissance: How the Arts Saved Coney Island,” a new exhibit at City Lore, celebrates a time in the mid-1980’s when a group of young artists were able to do just that.

In 1981, Brooklyn artists Richard Eagan and Philomena Marano co-founded the Coney Island Hysterical Society because they were “Hysterical” at the rate that the amusement rides and attractions were shutting down. One of their projects was the transformation of the disused Dragon’s Cave ride on the Bowery into the Spookhouse, billed as “a ride through gallery in the dark – a unique blend of art and amusement.” Admission was $1.00-$1.50, which wasn’t bad considering a ride on the Cyclone cost two bucks back then.

Boardwalk Renaiisance

The art of Spookhouse at Boardwalk Renaissance, an exhibit at City Lore thru March 13, 2016. Photo © Tricia Vita

Artwork by Eagan and Marano, and scenic designs by Bill Stabile, as well as paintings by Marc Kehoe and photos by Hazel Hankin documenting the Spookhouse’s 1984-1986 run are on view at City Lore. According to a vintage poster, the ride featured works by 15 artists plus students of I.S. 291, and “Reconstruction and Revitalization” by a crew of eight. Ten artists were invited to paint each of the original 1940’s Messmore & Damon cars. Among them was Nancy Prusinowski, who reminisced with ATZ about shunning a spooky theme in lieu of a pastoral scene similar to that on a carousel chariot. The eye-catcher was a Cupid holding a Nathan’s hot dog, a hat tip to Nathan’s, which owned the building and was across the way.

It’s remarkable that folks without amusement biz chops were able to preserve and operate an old Coney dark ride, even for a few years. It could not be done today. After Astroland closed in 2008, some friends were actually talking about how we could bring back Dante’s Inferno. Of course it was not feasible.

Marc Kehoe Coney Island Hysterical Society

Marc Kehoe painting ‘It’s Spooky’ mural on exterior wall of the Spookhouse, 1985. Photo courtesy of Coney Island Hysterical Society

“Those were very different times,” says Philomena Marano in an e-mail. “All the right ingredients magically fell into place: Coney Island was abandoned, Sporty Kaufman wanted out of his Dragon’s Cave Ride, we were rowdy, creative and had a vision and Nathan’s Ken Handwerker was keen on launching a revitalization. I must say that all of the time we were working on Spookhouse I was strangely aware that something like this could never happen again. In the canons of weird and bizarre ‘Projects & goals,’ it’s surely at the top.”

In a fantastic example of synchronicity, the Spookhouse also featured set pieces designed by Bill Stabile for Harvey Fierstein’s Off-Broadway play Spookhouse, which were nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design in 1984. Fierstein is a childhood friend of Marano, and when the play closed the pieces were donated to Coney’s Spookhouse. When the ride closed due to rising insurance costs, the Skull and the Devil were acquired by Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and became part of Spook-A-Rama’s stable of props from defunct dark rides.

Spookhouse Bill Stabile

Scenic Designs by Bill Stabile for Harvey Fierstein’s Spookhouse on exhibit at City Lore.

Thirty years later, all that remains of the Spookhouse are two signs and two cars in private collections, and Stabile’s car, which can be seen in the exhibition, along with a replica of his Giant Skull in park paint, the original of which is on display at the Coney Island History Project as “Skully.”

“We’re happy knowing that a few items survived,” says Marano. “And although they are owned by others we maintain a strong attachment to them. Like they are still ours.”

“Boardwalk Renaissance” also spotlights Coney’s house under the Thunderbolt roller coaster, the World in Wax Musee, shooting galleries, and the early days of Coney Island USA including the first Mermaid Parade.

“Boardwalk Renaissance: How the Arts Saved Coney Island,” City Lore Gallery, 56 East 1st Street, NYC 10003. Exhibit runs through March 13, 2016. Gallery open Wed – Fri, 2pm – 6pm and Sat – Sun, 12pm – 6pm. Closed November 26-29. Free admission.

Boardwalk Renaissance

Boardwalk Renaissance, an exhibit at City Lore. November 7, 2015. Photo © Tricia Vita

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March 13, 2013: Coney Island 2013: New Ghouls Mingle with Old in Rebuilt Spook-A-Rama

November 21, 2012: Coney Island Post-Sandy: Flooded Spook-A-Rama to Get New Stunts

October 26, 2010: Studio Visit: Richard Eagan of the Coney Island Hysterical Society

October 26, 2010: Studio Visit: Philomena Marano of the Coney Island Hysterical Society

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Gerry Menditto, Manager of the Cyclone, visits the History Project on the Coasters Opening Day 2009. Photo © Tricia Vita/Coney Island History Project via flickr

Gerry Menditto, Manager of the Cyclone, visits the Coney Island History Project on the Coaster's Opening Day 2009. Photo © Tricia Vita/Coney Island History Project via flickr

Congrats to Gerry Menditto, manager of the Coney Island Cyclone Roller Coaster! An email from our friends at City Lore informed us that Gerry has been elected to the People’s Hall of Fame.

Gerald Menditto, for enabling New Yorkers to experience the thrills and chills of the world’s greatest roller coaster, the Coney Island Cyclone, by “walking the tracks,” and keeping it safe and running for more than three decades.

Each inductee will receive a larger-than-life-size token of esteem — that is, a large bronze cast of an actual subway token — from City Lore. The ceremony will be interlaced with performances honoring the honorees. Following, we will celebrate our honorees with light refreshments, music and dance. Red Baraat, a “Bangin’ Bhangra and brass funk” band will perform, and a brief Bhangra dance lesson will be offered to guests. Call 212-529-1955, x 0 for tickets ($15 for members, seniors, and students, $20 for others).

City Lore’s 11th People’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony and party is set for Sunday, October 25th from 3- 6 pm at the Museum of the City of New York. In advance of the celebration you can watch this video profile of Gerry Menditto from Thirteen.org’s new online series “New York On the Clock.” The mini-documentary webisodes about “New Yorkers who make the City work” premiered on September 14 with this feature on Coney Island’s “Mr. Cyclone.”

In a similar vein, City Lore’s annual People’s Hall of Fame awards celebration honors the contributions of local people to New York City’s cultural life and was established in 1993. In addition to Gerry Menditto, the 2009 People’s Hall of Fame inductees are James V. Hatch and Camille Billops, Dionisio Lind and Michael Smith, Margarita Kagan, and “DJ Rekha” aka Rekha Malhotra. Honorees are selected by a committee working with City Lore’s Board of Directors. If you would like to nominate your New York City cultural hero to the 2010 People’s Hall of Fame, email a note to City Lore along with the reasons for your nomination.

Previous honorees with Coney Island or amusement industry backgrounds include Pete Benferamo, the Lemon Ice King of Corona Queens; The Ross Family of Coney Island Bialys, the oldest bialy business in the city; Rudy King for bringing the steel drum to New York City; Dick Zigun for founding the Mermaid Parade and Coney Island USA; and Hovey Burgess for mentoring a new generation of circus artists.

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August 5, 2009: Coney Island Has 56 Rides and 33 More Days of Summer!

June 26, 2009: Happy Birthday to Coney Island’s Cyclone Roller Coaster!

June 7, 2009: How Sweet It Is: Wedding Party at Cyclone Roller Coaster

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