Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Phantom City of Coney Island

I was a five year old in 1958, holding tight to my dad's hand as we were ushered into the ROCKET TO THE MOON at Disneyland.
It was a darkened ampitheater with seats that surrounded a large screen on the floor ensconced by a scant barrier, like the portal of a vast glass-bottom boat. Looking down from above, we rocketeers watched the orange-tinted moon grow larger and more luminous until we were hovering over the craters. I was moved to go down to the edge and peer down at the mountains and blue-shadowed "seas', shuddering at what would become of me if I fell overboard and became a lunar castaway.

Back in 1901 at the Buffalo Exposition, similar wonderment gripped those voyagers embarking on the TRIP TO THE MOON; suspended in an airship moving through starlit darkness as they beheld the approaching moonscape. Upon landing they met up with spiny haired Selenites in subterranean grottos and moon-midgets offering them green cheese.
Though the Exposition's organizers intended a cultural edification of the masses, the TRIP TO THE MOON, off the midway, was the runaway hit. George P. Tilyou, who ran Steeplechase Park at Coney Island by the sea in Brooklyn, was there to see the TRIP and offered it's creators, Thompson and Dundy, a spot on his grounds. The partners moved to Steeplechase, then capitalized on the ride's popularity by throwing all the earnings into a new park next door - to be called LUNA PARK after Skip's sister Luna in Bayonne Park, New Jersey.

The gates of LUNA PARK opened at 8:00 on the evening of May 16,1903. The curious masses waiting on Surf Ave. blinked, and suddenly an oriental OZ of minarets and towers switched on with 250,000 incandescent lights, illuminating lakes and dazzling promenades lined with arches.
The Brooklyn Eagle reported the next day," seemed that huge mantle of light had been let down from the sky to disclose the domain of an unknown world."

Unlike Disneyland, Luna Park was not designed for "kids" or even "kids of all ages" -the turn of the century was a new era where people had come to the end of their rope with "reality". The working class, middle class, leisure class were all ready for fun and getting "out of this world." Frederic Thompson, the artist/designer of the Luna Park partnership, also designed the sets for "Little Nemo In Slumberland", now a very successful Broadway musical taken from the comics. Transport via dream to the moon, planets, and beyond came along at the right time.
Thompson wrote, "Straight lines are necessarily severe and dead. In building for a festive occasion there should be an absolute departure from all set forms of architecture. One must dare to decorate a minaret with Renaissance detail or to jumble romanesque with Art Nouveau, always with the ideal of keeping his line varied or broke and moving..."

Day and night people flocked to LUNA to ride Chute the Chutes waterslide, new-fangled elevators, gyroplanes, weave down the Helter Skelter, enter the Dragon's Gorge or the 20,00O Leagues Under the Sea submarine or any number of small circuses, sample exotic foods, and delight to historical tableaux, naval battles, clowns, acrobats, trick elephants, a village of genuine Phillippine tribesmen, oriental dancers, men shot from cannons; the whole works - and of course, the TRIP TO THE MOON. Sexual mores were changing and any amusement that could bring men and woman (even strangers) within touching space for a dime was a new pleasure.

Between 1903 to 1911 Luna Park, Steeplechase, and a new neighbor park, Dreamland reigned supreme together on Coney Island.
Then in 1911, Dreamland burned down,and soon after, Thompson went bankrupt, and Tilyou died and World War 1 was on its way. Slowly Coney Island slipped away from the singular realm of the fantastic and back into the Carnival it emerged from - still a thrill to the end, but much like the thousands of amusement parks that sprouted up around the world.

Ric Burns and Lisa Ades released "Coney Island: the American Experience" in 1991, a landmark, beautifully filmed and choreographed "documentary" history of Coney Island from the beginning to present, but largely focused on Luna Park. It includes commentary from contemporary writers, actors and vaudevilleans from Coneys past as well as readings and reminiscences of Henry Miller and other writers long gone. The soundtrack, old film footage, photographs and interviews make it a well-rounded feast of the senses.

One image haunts me most; footage of Luna Park at night as if seen from offshore; a spectral city of floating lights flickering together with the shimmering decay of the film and sparse notes of Harold Budd's "White Arcade" marimba/bell tiptoeing over a wash of nocturnal hum making the soundtrack.
Maxim Gorky wrote of his visit to Luna Park:

"With the advent of night, a phantom city of fire rears itself skyward from the ocean. Thousands of glowing sparks glimmer in the darkness. Threads of golden gossamer tremble in the air, weave translucent patterns of fire, hang motionless, in love with the beauty of their own reflection in the water. Fabulous beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful is this fiery scintillation."

* to read about Luna Park and Coney Island i highly recommend Amusing The Million by John Kasson, and The Kid of Coney Island: Frederic Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements by Woody Register