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Book Review 304: Coney Island: The People's Playground

December 15, 2013 - Harry Eagar
CONEY ISLAND: THE PEOPLE’S PLAYGROUND, by Michael Immerso. 198 pages, illustrated. Rutgers

If someone had to write an environmental impact statement for Coney island, the historical section would be Michael Immerso’s book. it starts at the beginning, when the island was a clamming spot for Indians, and covers main events in rather dry style.

For example, one of the strangest “attractions” was pediatrician Martin Couney’s “Infant Incubator,” and it’s here, but the dramatic background to explain why premature infants were nurtured on the Coney Island boardwalk is not.

While other memorials do a better job of capturing the excitement the millions felt when going to Coney, Immerso exceeds them in getting at the fascination the resort had for the intelligentsia. Jose Marti loved it, Maxim Gorki, somewhat surprisingly, hated it.

Immerso somewhat overplays his theme, that the park brought democracy to entertainment for the working people. Fairs had always done that. He underplays the decorum and orderliness of the crowds. Coney, just over two miles long and about 100 yards wide, drew 46 million people in 1943, about the same number that visit Las Vegas today. There was occasional violence. Both Kid Twists were murdered at Coney Island, but there were few or no examples of the murderous mobs that, for example, occasionally rampaged through English country fairs in the 19th century.

The level of policing was negligible: only about a hundred cops on days when millions crammed in.

Immerso emphasizes the tension between uplifters, who wanted the working masses to be edified; and the masses and the showmen, who wanted fun. Fun won, although the Puritans never left. There was a time when topless men were sentenced to 10 days in jail.

In the early days, there were whorehouses and gambling hells, but these were eliminated when Luna Park, Steeplechase Park and Dreamland became enclosed, family parks.

Outside, there was a midway with freaks and frauds, but Coney never exhibited the brutality of the English fairs where, for half a crown around 1725, merrymakers could watch an Irishman eat a live chicken, feathers and all.

Immerso blames Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, an uplifter if there ever was one, for putting the kibosh on Coney island, which was already in decline.

I visited Coney Island in 2002, the year Immerso published his book. It was late in October, the last day of the season (which had ended in early September in the park’s best years), and I was shocked to see that the beach was closed. It was too cold for swimming but you couldn’t even walk on the sand.

Not much was left. A few sad rides, Nathan’s Famous and, in a rundown building a good many steps away from the Boardwalk, the last freak show, without freaks but offering a little history lesson along with the sword-swallowing (tame compared to watching a naked woman swallow fluorescent light tubes in Manhattan the night before) and similar old tricks.

Eek the Geek implored the tiny audience to help preserve the tradition of the American sideshow, but a few months later I read an interview in which Eek announced he was matriculating at a law school with a view toward defending the interests of society’s unusual individuals.

And so the gaudiest, brightest, biggest show in our history slipped into darkness.


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