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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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On this day in 1903, Thomas Edison’s infamous Electrocuting an Elephant was released, having been filmed on January 4th in Coney Island’s Luna Park. A crowd of 1,500 had gathered to see Topsy, billed as “the man-killing elephant,” executed with 6,000 volts of electricity. The movie is filed in my brain under “Why I Hate Thomas Edison” despite his invention of the electric light bulbs and motion picture technology on view in the wondrous “Coney Island, Luna Park by Night” filmed by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Co. in 1905.

This week, Edison’s Elephant, a new play by David Koteles and Christopher Van Strander exploring the life and death of the abused and maligned Topsy premieres as part of Metropolitan Playhouse’s Gilded Stage Festival. The inspiration for the play came when Koteles, whose great grandfather worked for Edison during the early days of the Kinetoscope, learned about Topsy while watching a compilation of Edison’s short films. According to an interview with NY Theater Now, he was “horrified, but intrigued” and decided to team up with his friend Chris Van Strander to write the play.

Edison's Elephant

Topsy inspired Rosie the elephant in Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants (2006) and was the subject of journalist Michael Daly’s Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant (2013). Daly says the electrocution was Edison’s way of venting his fury over having lost the AC vs DC battle with Westinghouse, as well as his opportunity to film the first death of any kind. Although Topsy’s execution has been referenced in many films and literary works, as far as we know this is the first play.

Among the characters in Edison’s Elephant are an Edison employee involved in experiments with electricity that killed other animals prior to Topsy’s execution. His wife, who accompanies him to the execution, is the conscience of the play. “I think we’ve created a very special evening of theater. As well as a lovely tribute to Topsy,” Koteles said. The Metropolitan Playhouse festival, which runs from January 13-26, features nine new plays inspired by the leading writers and creators of the Gilded Age, including PT Barnum, L Frank Baum, Henry James, and Frederick Law Olmsted.

Edison’s Elephant by David Koteles and Chris Van Strander. Performances on January 16, 19, 24 and 25 at Metropolitan Playhouse’s Gilded Stage Festival, 220 East 4th Street, New York City. 212-995-5302

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Creepshow at the Freakshow

Creepshow at the Freakshow Banner by Marie Roberts, painted in 2004. Photo taken October 27, 2012. © Tricia Vita

Artist Marie Roberts, whose sideshow banners adorn Coney Island USA’s facade, painted this one for Creepshow at the Freakshow in 2004. ATZ snapped this photo last October, but never got to post it or review the play since it was cancelled the very next day due to Superstorm Sandy! This year’s Creepshow, titled “Coney Island Criminals,” is opening this weekend, and Marie’s banner, which survived the storm, is once again in the window on Surf Avenue beckoning passersby to stop and buy tickets.

Written and directed by Dick Zigun, the interactive play takes its inspiration from an episode in the early career of Al Capone. The gangster got his nickname “Scarface” in 1917 after getting slashed at Coney Island’s Harvard Inn where he worked as a bartender/bouncer. More of Marie Roberts art will be seen in the show, including a painting of an Ivy League rowing club and the logo of Yale University’s secret society Skull and Bones, which is beguiling considering that the Harvard Inn was owned by a gang boss known as Frankie Yale and Dick Zigun is a Yale School of Drama grad.

The play also features CIUSA outside talker Scott Baker as Jimmy Durante, who got his start playing piano in Coney Island. Set design is by Kate Dale, the Juilliard prop shop supervisor and veteran “Best Mermaid” who has been the Creepshow’s designer for the past eight years. Since the Harvard Inn burned down long ago and even Seaside Walk, the street it was on, is no more, being in the audience at “Coney Island Criminals” and possibly getting hit in the face with spaghetti or made into the mob is as close as you’ll get to this place.

Coney Island USA, 1208 Surf Ave. Corner of Surf Avenue and West 12th Street, Coney Island. Creepshow at the Freakshow runs from October 11 through Halloween. Check website for days and showtimes. Tickets are $15 in advance or at the door.

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The Wheel House is a delightful diversion from today’s rainy start to the Memorial Day weekend. UK-based circus theater Acrojou’s rolling house is powered by actors who call to mind the folksong “I’m away with the raggle taggle gypsy-o!” Architizer calls it “A Wheel-Shaped Mobile Home For Acrobats.” The troupe has performed The Wheel House in Ireland, Holland, France, Belgium, Spain and Israel, and in the Piccadilly Circus Circus at the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

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The Beauty Underneath from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies, Australian Production. Photo via Facebook.com/LoveNeverDiesAU

In 2010, when Love Never Dies premiered in London and was expected to open in New York, our first thought was the sequel to Phantom of the Opera would bring tourists to Coney Island, where the musical is set. Imagine people coming out of a Broadway theater humming “The Coney Island Waltz” and being lured out to the real, live Coney to trace the Phantom’s footsteps. It could still happen, thanks to a new film version of the successful Australian production of the musical. According to the recently debuted Facebook page Love Never Dies: Broadway, “It is destined for Broadway, so stay tuned for news!”

ATZ went to see the first-ever U.S. showing of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies on the big screen last week. The film of the critically acclaimed Melbourne production will be shown again in theaters across the U.S. on Wednesday, March 7th at 7:30 pm and a DVD will be released on May 29.

The musical is set in 1907, ten years after the fire at the Paris Opera. As the impresario of “Mr Y’s Phantasma,” a vaudeville extravaganza in the heart of Coney’s Electric Eden, the Phantom commands a phalanx of gorgeously costumed–okay, we’ll say it–phreaks! A trio of them are sent to greet Christine, who has traveled from Paris with her husband Raoul to sing an aria for Phantasma’s closing show of the season. What she doesn’t know is that it is the lovesick Phantom who has paid a fortune for the command performance.

Bathing Beauties from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Love Never Dies, Australian Production. Photo via Facebook.com/LoveNeverDiesAU

The Phantom fled here with the help of Madame Giry and her daughter Meg, the ballerina turned “Sweetheart of the Midway.” Meg is delicious in “Bathing Beauties,” a saucy stereoview card brought to life. She also has one of the best Coney lines ever: “Well, here’s the way it works on Coney Island: They make you pay for every little crumb.” But we can’t tell you why without giving away the ending. The twists and turns of the story are over the top, but the haunting melodies, high-caliber performances and lavish costumes and sets kept us entranced.

The set design is a marvel of catwalks that resemble roller coaster tracks and a tent that reveals a whirling carousel. One of our favorite scenes is “The Beauty Underneath,” in which the Phantom takes Christine’s 10-year-old son on a tour of his phantasmagorical world. Set to the throb of electronic rock, the song asks “Have You Ever Yearned To Go, Past The World You Think You Know? Been In Thrall To The Call Of The Beauty Underneath?” Human curiosities writhe inside glass prisms as the lights of Luna Park-like towers and rides glimmer in the background.

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A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

If you missed Zero Boy‘s electrifying one-man show at Coney Island USA in October, we highly recommend that you get yourself over to the Gershwin Hotel tonight at 8 pm to see and hear “A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy.” The audience is the nephew.

“I do a comic romp through the past, present, and future of Coney Island,” the virtuoso “vocal acrobat” told ATZ in a Q & A with Uncle Zero Boy last month. “It’s sort of like a cartoon of certain big historical elements starting with the beginning of Coney Island all the way up to the 80s, 90s, to now. It is a Zero Boy style show in that it’s like Bugs Bunny going through history.”

Read the full Q & A and watch a video clip of the show here.

Neke Carson and Michael Wiener Present “Live from the Gershwin”: “A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy” 8 pm, cover $10. Gershwin Hotel, 7 E 27th St, New York, 212 545-8000

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Here’s a trip you won’t want to miss! On Friday, October 16, Coney Island USA’s Burlesque at the Beach presents “A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy” by East Village performance artist and virtuoso “vocal acrobat” Zero Boy. As a longtime fan, we’re confident Zero Boy is the man to make the glorious hurly burly of Coney’s history come alive onstage.

“The audience is the nephew,” says the ad for the show. “Visit Dreamland, Luna and Steeplechase Parks! Ride the Colossus! Soar on the Parachute Jump! Explore the wonders of Coney Island’s previous centuries. Hot dog eating contests, amusement rides and games of chance. Ride the roller coasters and swim in the clean and pristine aural waters of Zero Boy’s latest vocally animated cartoon.” Here’s a snippet of the play performed this spring at the Ask Dr Hal Show in San Francisco…

In a recent phone conversation with ATZ, Zero Boy talks about developing the play from a three-minute bit to a 45-minute work-in-progress, the inspiration for the set design, fave things to do in Coney, and oh yeah, how he got the name Zero Boy. For the record, his answers were punctuated with lots of laughter and little onomatopoeic flourishes. Photos of Zero Boy used with permission of the photographer Scott A Ettin.

Q: When I first saw the notice for your show on the CIUSA website I was excited because of course I know your work and I love Coney Island. I thought, I have to see this! What will the show be like in relation to the history of Coney Island?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: Well, I do a comic romp through the past, present, and future of Coney Island. It’s sort of like a cartoon of certain big historical elements starting with the beginning of Coney Island all the way up to the 80s, 90s, to now. I did a thing called Stump Zero Boy where people would write in a two word scenario on the radio. I do a similar thing toward the end of the show. People say the Future of Coney Island is dot dot dot. Then I present the future of Coney Island via the audience’s suggestions.

Q: How did you get the idea to do a show about Coney Island?

A: It started as a routine last year I did in a show called “Astroland” at the Kitchen. They asked me to do a bit for it, three minutes of Coney Island Zero Boy style. That routine went from three minutes and developed into a 25, 30 minute routine. I knew I wanted to do a full blown play because the response to it in traveling around the country. When I was doing the routine in Seattle, Eugene, San Francisco, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and in New York, it was sort of like a sail boat. I didn’t have to put up the sail very hard before the thing was flying across the lake.

Every show, there’s a guarantee someone will come up and tell me, I went to Coney Island when I was bla bla years old. I saw Steeplechase. Or, oh I was too young to see it but… Or I went with da da da da. People come up and tell their stories. As I found out the history of Coney Island, I was really blown away. I developed the show and brought in a director from Seattle who really helped format the show for September 11 at Ars Nova.

Q: How did you research it?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: I read Charlie Denson’s book Coney Island Lost & Found, which I loved. It was a major inspiration for me and for the set design, along with the other materials we had. I did a lot of Internet surfing. This summer was the summer that I’ve gone to Coney Island the most. And I jumped on my bike and I rode around the whole island, which was a real interesting eye opener because most people just get off at Brighton Beach or the amusement district and that’s it. Seriously, people get off the train they just head for the beach. They never really go in the opposite direction.

On Labor Day Weekend we were wandering around Coney Island. When you get there at 11 o’clock on a Sunday no one is there, you get there at 12 the place is hopping. Then we came around the corner— and I’d read that article about the Bell in the newspaper how the divers pulled the Bell out of the water— and here we are and they’re pulling the Bell out of the Coney Island History Project and I was the second person to ring the Bell that day!

For me it was a special moment, I felt like it was Coney Island saying go, Zero Boy go, tell our story. I tell everyone this story. One, I tell people you should check out the Bell, and two, it really meant something to me, like history is coming back around. Because people really don’t know anything about Coney Island unless they really research it. I didn’t know anything. You realize the whole island was a giant resort that slowly melted away.

I hope folks from Coney show up and say, oh you’re wrong about this, you need to add that, because the show really needs about 20 minutes more worth of material in my estimation.

Q: How long is it now?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: it runs about 40 to 45. It is a Zero Boy style show in that it’s like Bugs Bunny going through history

Q: I saw that YouTube clip from San Francisco and I realized that it was probably a shorter, earlier version because it didn’t say anything about Luna Park or Dreamland. I love the intro Dr Hal gives you, he’s hilarious!

A: At that Dr Hal show this guy David Capurro the Yo-Yo King was on the fly. No matter what performer is going on he throws up images off the Internet. He was on the fly doing that and I started interacting with it. It inspired me.

The rest of the show, whole sections of it, I had gone out and done solo bits. So there were elements that had been tried and true with the audience. Now it’s a play rather than just a routine.

I’m going to start adding interactive stuff where I’ll be using old film footage and literally as people turn and look maybe speaking to them sort of Zelig style.

Q: Do you use props too?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: No, I do not. A la Zero Boy, the props you see are whatever I create via sound and simple pantomime and I have a beautiful set. As a Coney Island person you will love it. What was so funny was when we did the show at Ars Nova, there’s a reveal where I say “Welcome to Coney Island” and the curtains open, and there was the set. And the set got applause

Q: Wow

A: I thought so, too. I was like, wow. The visual artist who spent two weeks making it was crying he was so happy. But the other thing is the Elephant. It’s the centerpiece on the set actually. In the sideshow I don’t think there will be a reveal cause there’s no place to hide the set. But people who know the history will appreciate it. Aficionados are gonna go, yeah

Q: Personally what are some of your favorite things to do in Coney Island?

A: I’d say first thing you do is take the Q train to Brighton Beach and pick up your food. You’ve got that great neighborhood filed with all Russian food, Georgian food, great deals on fruit, then walk down the Boardwalk to the amusement zone. That’s what I tell people

Q: What’s your favorite ride or game?

A: My favorite would be the Cyclone, It scares me every time but I love it every time. The Cyclone is such a great old thing.

Q: The Cyclone is in the show, right?

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A: Oh, of course, it’s the height of the show. It’s funny, if I had my druthers, my favorite ride would be the Steeplechase. If I could go back in time and ride that thing, that would be one of my wishes of life. Part of the show is based on my friend, a Lower East Sider who grew up on 13th Street between 2nd and 3rd. He told me about going to Coney Island as a kid in the 1940s and riding the Steeplechase horse and thinking he was gonna fall off. Part of my show is Uncle Zero Boy talks about when your grandfather grew up on the Lower East Side and he loved to go to Coney Island and I tell his story of Steeplechase and Luna Park.

I talk about Dreamland, Luna Park and Steeplechase Park in one element of the show. You’ll get the reference to the Bell.

Q: Oh, the Bell is in the show?

A: Very briefly. I talk about the fire. I talk about everything went up in flames, and you hear bong bong splosh. I talk about the historical recreations they did. I talk about the Wonder Wheel… the Wonder Wheel, the largest ferris wheel in the world. It’s 600 meters in diameter.

I bring out Frankie Yale. I bring out Al Capone. I talk about the Fearless Frogman himself. I basically cover a lot of bases in a small show. It’s such a huge, huge thing, but there are a few more bases I need to cover. That’s why I’m taking a long process and developing the show.

I have this really great feeling about this Coney Island show. I’ve hit some universal vein. It’s the right time and the place is really wonderful. Coney Island was the template for so many things.

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

Id like to ultimately do the Fringe Festivals this coming spring and summer and fall. What would be cool is doing it in Times Square in a small theatre so people who are coming to visit New York get a little taste of this and go running out to Coney Island.

Q: How did you become Zero Boy? I thought, gee I wonder if he did this as a boy at school?

A: No this is what happened… when people interview me on the radio, how did you get the name Zero Boy, I say when I was a young kid I was hit by a radioactive mathematician and it gave me the superhero powers to make sound into reality, cartoon sounds. And then we moved to France and while we were in France, I was walking along the Champs d’Elysee and I heard non non non, which in English means no. And I look up and the Eiffel Tower is shaking and bolts are popping out. So I fly over and I turn on my welding finger. I hear “the hero boy the hero boy he saved us he saved the Eiffel Tower, the hero boy!” and I get the medal from the President. But the newspapers in America messed up and got it as Zero Boy. So I kept it.

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy. Photo © Scott A Ettin/www.tankboy.com

“A Trip to Coney Island with Uncle Zero Boy”

Written by Zero Boy
Director… Armitage Shanks
Dramaturge… Jodi Glucksman
Set Design…Adrianno
Audio and Media Design… Richard Reta
Set Construction…Terry McHugh
Booking… Gorgeous Management
Michael Wolk, Maureen Sebastian
Photography… Scott Ettin

Burlesque at the Beach at Sideshows by the Seashore, Coney Island USA
Friday, October 16, 2009, 9 pm, $15
1208 Surf Avenue at West 12th St, Coney Island

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