A refurbished Coney Island
adds the national pastime to its lineup
By LORRAINE B. DIEHL
Live elephants hurtling down waterfalls, minarets and spires illuminating the night sky, chariots racing around a Venetian lagoon and a ride on a parachute, 250 feet above the ocean. All of this once existed on a spit of beachat the southern end of Brooklyn. Today's New Yorkers might remember Coney Island's Parachute Jump, but like Dreamland's shoot-the-chutes where the elephants took their plunge, and Luna Park's fantastic light show, the famous ride that was part of Coney Island's Steeplechase Park is gone.
75 years after its creation, the Coney Island Cyclone still attracts a crowd.
The Parachute Jump's metal skeleton is still there, standing in melancholy contrast to the future on which Coney Island is pinning its hopes: the new 6,500-seat baseball stadium — home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets farm team — that will officially open tomorrow.
"Just from the baseball field alone we expect to do better this season," says Norman Kaufman, president of Coney Island's Chamber of Commerce and owner of one of the park's favorite attractions, the Jumbo Jet ride.
Coney Island, all lit up and sparkling, was the first piece of New York old-time immigrants would see as they sailed toward Ellis Island. These days, there is an energy around the famous boardwalk, a sense that the place is about to undergo another sea change.
Back From a Roller-Coaster Past
If you are 97-year-old Coney Island resident Matt Kennedy, you remember the pre-Boardwalk days when silent-movie desert scenes were shot on the beach and not-yet-discovered actors worked in the park.
Residents hope additions like Keyspan Park return the area to its former glory.
"Clara Bow sliced hot-dog rolls for Nathan's," says Kennedy, whose grandfather ran a photo gallery in Dreamland. "Jimmy Durante was a singing waiter, and Cary Grant walked on stilts for Steeplechase Park." There was the Baby Parade that opened the 4-mile boardwalk in 1923, three years after the subway's arrival, which delivered the city's teeming masses to the wide beach.
A million day-trippers were now enjoying the sun and surf and the fantasy that the "Nickel Empire's" two remaining parks provided. (Dreamland was destroyed by fire in 1911.) Those with money in their pockets dined at Feltman's, where the frankfurter was invented, or Kirsch's on Surf Ave., or Child's on the boardwalk.
For 40 years, May Timpano, now 76, lived in the house tucked under the Thunderbolt, the one featured in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall." "I heard the ride every time it went up," says Timpano.
Thanks for the Memory
In 1944, Luna Park burned, and only George Tilyou's Steeplechase Park remained. Robert Moses' Jones Beach was drawing the car-owning middle class away. Still, through the 1950s, Coney Island had its own magic, especially if you were a child.
"I remember walking the boardwalk and smelling the French fries at Nathan's," says Mary Michaelessi, whose father would give her a dollar for an afternoon of fun. "I'd go on rides, buy hot dogs. It was a fantasy world. There was nothing you couldn't find there."
On the Boardwalk: Visitors tour Astroland.
Rudy Ocello was 11 when his family moved into the Coney Island Houses in 1956. "Steeplechase was terrific. For 50 cents you could go on 20 rides," says Ocello, who loved the famous iron horses that wrapped around the park's edge.
By the late 1960s, ill-planned urban-renewal projects drew crime and a drug culture to the high-rise projects that replaced Coney Island's bungalows. "The problem wasn't the people who lived in the projects," says Ocello, who worked for the Housing Authority. "It was the 'friends' who followed them there." Today, single-family homes are replacing the projects.
"We have a waiting list of over 300 families," says Judith Stern Orlando of Astella Development Corp., which works with the city to build affordable housing.
Back to the Future
Keyspan Park Stadium, which sees its opening pitch tomorrow, has its share of detractors, among them the merchants along Surf Ave. who cater to Coney Island's residents and are being told they must vacate.
"I've been here for 25 years," says Leo Turri, owner of Luna Park Furniture, whose store is on the site of the entrance to the now-vanished park. "Suddenly the mayor's task force is giving us notice."
Developer Horace Bullard sees the stadium as the destruction of his dream. In 1978, Bullard began amassing parcels in the area. "We designed a jewel," says Bullard of the elaborate plan to re-create Coney Island. The effort to obtain financing brought his plan into the Giuliani administration, where it ran into trouble. After his 75-year-old Thunderbolt ride was torn down by the city, Bullard was informed that the mayor wanted to build a stadium: "He decided to put it smack in the middle of our carefully designed park."
Whatever impact the stadium has, the Coney Island that was for years caught in a melancholy time warp is vanishing. "I've seen it change over the past five years," says Steve Urbanowicz, public-relations manager of Astroland. "The crowds are different. We're getting a lot of people from the suburbs."
The Rev. Albert Bellantonio, pastor of the nearly century-old Our Lady of Solace Church, is seeing a new year-round community. "I remember a great wasteland. Now, at night you see people coming home from work." Even Bullard is optimistic: "I think things will happen once a new mayor comes into office."
Whatever Happened To My Coney Island?
Some of it is still here. The 75-year-old landmarked Cyclone, in Astroland Park, still sends its riders down a whooshing, 85-foot first drop. The Wonder Wheel is still here, too — the signature ride in Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, another landmarked attraction; it's been around for 81 years.
"We had a British group this morning," says owner Dennis Vourderis of the slide-and-swing ride, which has an international following. (Just don't call it a Ferris wheel.) Also in the park are Spook-A-Rama, the Tilt-A-Whirl and a 19-ride Kiddie Park, with some rides — including the Pony Cart and the Fire Engine — whose cars were built in the 1920s in a factory on Coney Island's W. Eighth Street.
The 90-year-old B&B Carousel on the north side of Surf Ave. still has an arm of brass rings ready for catching. The ride, which once shared the block with Luna Park's entrance, costs $2.50, up a bit from the original nickel. The Jumbo Jet, the Zipper and the Graviton will spin and whirl you. You can take your road rage out safely on the bumper cars. And don't forget to get a look at the marine life at the aquarium at W. Eighth St. A sea-horse exhibit there will fascinate.
Baloney on a Roll?
Lorenz Hart may have been thinking of Nathan's, the hot-dog shrine at Surf and Stillwell Aves., when he came up with those words for "I'll Take Manhattan." Or maybe it was Gregory & Paul's, (10-01 Boardwalk), a favorite frankfurter emporium for many Coney Islanders.
The Clam Stop (W. 15th and Surf Ave.), for its part, still shucks the mollusks. And if it's fancy you want, you can't go wrong at Gargiulo's (2911 W. 15th St.), a Coney Island institution, featuring excellent Italian food. Come with 10 people or fewer, and you get a shot at La Tombola. Pick the correct number, and your meal is free! Carolina's, at 1409 Mermaid Ave., is another favorite featuring Neapolitan dishes.