Coney Island

‘Visions of an American Dreamland’: New book and Brooklyn Museum exhibit highlight Coney Island

November 16, 2015 By Peter Stamelman Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
“Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008.” Robin Jaffee Frank, John F. Kasson, Josh Glick, et. al; Published by Yale University Press, New Haven; to accompany exhibition opening this Friday at the Brooklyn Museum. Image courtesy of Yale University Press.

My parents first took me to Astroland, the amusement park at Coney Island, when I was 6 years old. The place terrified me. I told my father I never wanted to go back — and he told me I was a sissy. To this day, I believe he was secretly relieved; I had seen his face turn white (we were belted into one of the two-person canvas seats) on the Parachute Jump. My mother, on the other hand, who had been a WAC in World War II, showed us both up; she immediately went back for a second jump with her sister, my aunt Violet, a former WAVE.

These memories are occasioned by the publication of a dazzling, dizzying new book/exhibition catalog “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008.” The catalog accompanies the exhibition of the same name, which opens this Friday at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition was conceived and organized by Robin Jaffee Frank, chief curator and Krieble curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, where the exhibit started its run in January. (Jaffee Frank, not incidentally, is a Brooklyn native.) Via email, I asked her about the genesis of the exhibition: As a child, I had wondrous and strange experiences at Coney Island … My family and I still go there and we believe in its never-ending potential for magic … [This is the] first exhibition to look at the site’s enduring status as a muse for artists, from its rise in popularity as a seaside resort in the Civil War era through the closing of its space-age amusement park, Astroland, after decades of urban decline.”

As the gorgeously printed catalog makes abundantly clear, the exhibition is not to be missed. I predict “Jurrasic World”-like lines snaking along Eastern Parkway when the show opens. There will be a lot of buzz and I think it will be a “must-see” for most New Yorkers. The “Jurrasic World” analogy is deliberate: from 1861, when it opened, until 2008, when the analog world started turning digital, Coney Island was the real-life equivalent of a Hollywood tent-pole blockbuster. Before there was “Bruce,” the shark in JAWS, there was Topsy the Baby Elephant; in a 1903 public execution-by-electrocution (watched by an estimated 1,500 people), Thomas Edison’s camera crew filmed the cruel spectacle. As Charles Musser and Josh Glick, just two of the many distinguished contributors to the catalog, explain “The film, shocking in its brutality, has sparked an urban legend in which inventor Thomas Edison is said to have arranged for the execution of Topsy as part of a commercial rivalry that pitted his direct current against Westinghouse’s alternating current.” In her catalog chapter “Requiem for a Dream” (the title of which she takes from Coney Island-born director Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film), Jaffee Frank quotes poet laureate W.S. Merwin’s mournful reflection on Topsy’s execution from “The Chain to Her Leg” (2010): “If we forget Topsy/Topsy remembers…When we forget/The lit cigarette/The last laugh gave her/Lit end first/As though it were a peanut/The joke for which she/Killed him/We will not see home again.”

Merwin is just one of the literary heavyweights featured in the catalog. Norman Mailer, Langston Hughes, Henry Miller (who, in a passage from his book “Black Spring,” introduced “A Coney Island of the Mind” to the American lexicon), Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who borrowed Miller’s description for the title of his seminal 1958 collection of poetry), Eugene O’Neill, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jack Kerouac — and songwriters and lyricists Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg and Woody Guthrie — are all cited for the Coney Island references in their work. As are filmmakers D.W. Griffith, Woody Allen, King Vidor, Paul Mazursky, Lewis Milestone, Sidney Lumet, Douglas Sirk, Spike Lee and the aforementioned Aronofsky.

One of the cited filmmakers of particular note is Morris Engel, who was not actually a filmmaker at all, but a gifted photographer. In 1952, along with his wife Ruth Orkin, a celebrated photographer in her own right, they wrote, shot and directed (with Raymond Abrashkin) a 35 mm black and white film called “Little Fugitive.” Most of the film takes place at Coney Island. The movie, one of the first truly American independent films, influenced a generation of filmmakers. As Jaffee Frank writes, “Engel’s mobile, lyrical filmmaking and the improvisational, quasi-documentary script proved inspirational for American documentary filmmakers and members of the French New Wave.” The film’s impact on a young Francois Truffaut, for example, cannot be overstated; “Les Mistons,” “The 400 Blows,” “Small Change,” all owe a debt to “Little Fugitive.”

Two other masters of 20th century photography, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, documented the desolation and emptiness behind Coney Island’s deceptively jolly facade. In grainy black and white photographs, Arbus and Frank showed a post-war America riven by racial and ethnic strife, in a setting that was “perhaps America’s most famous gathering place for all ethnicities.” Jaffe Frank continues, “Under the leadership of New York’s so-called master builder Robert Moses, ‘slum clearance’ — bulldozing houses and other structures that were not modern — contributed to class and racial segregation…On the verge of a decade of social unrest, artists of widely varying media and styles understood the iconic power of Coney Island.”  

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The list of painters and illustrators associated with Coney Island imagery is equally impressive. Of course, Reginald Marsh is at the top of the list, closely followed by Joseph Stella, William Merritt Chase, George Bellows, Frank Stella, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker and Robert Riggs (there’s a Riggs illustration from an August, 1938 “Fortune,” called “To Heaven by Subway,” which is pure delight.)

After decades of urban blight, Astroland closed in 2008. But there are bright spots. In 2003, the Coney Island Development Corporation was formed; in 2005, the arts group Creative Time, Steve Powers and a group of artists formed the Dreamland Arts Club; in 2009, Coney Island got something it had never had: a master plan. Mayor Bloomberg’s rezoning was approved by the City Council and the Italian ride manufacturer Zamperla became the operator of the renamed Luna Park amusement area. There have been setbacks — Hurricane Sandy, the Parks Department’s absurd plan (which, sadly, has already begun) to turn the boardwalk into a sidewalk and the never-ending delay of construction of 5,000 units of high-rise housing in what had been the amusement zone.  

But, as Charles Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project, writes in the catalog’s final chapter, “The intensity of the Coney experience will never change. Filmmakers, photographers, painters, and poets are still drawn to its shores. Musicians evoke its imagery in song. The real culture of Coney Island is people, and it will forever remain the ‘People’s Playground.’”

An important book and exhibition, indeed.

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