- Historic Sites
The Master Showman Of Coney Island
On the theory that the greatest show is people, George Tilyou turned a rich man’s resort into a playground for the masses
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
On every warm summer week end on Coney Island a great swarm of people may be found heading for a slow-moving line that leads always to the same entertainment device. Typically, they will wait nearly an hour to enjoy a ride that lasts for perhaps one mildly exhilarating minute, fudged as a thrill, the ride packs about as much punch as a cup of cambric tea. Yet it is a sale bet that at any given moment there are youngsters standing in this line whose lathers and mothers stood here a generation ago, and the odds would not be too high that there are even some whose grandfathers and grandmothers pressed patiently forward toward the same admission gate.
Nevertheless, this ride is, year in and year out, the most popular attraction in any amusement park in the world. On Broadway, smash hits have opened and had their laughably brief runs of lour or five years and closed, but still this ride unceasingly packs them in. Something like one hundred million admissions have been checked through its turnstiles, and the end of its success is nowhere in sight. Most perplexing of all, perhaps four out of five of those who wait patiently in line nearly an hour for their brief, tepid ride know that when it is over they will he obliged to pass through a tunnel only to emerge blinking onto a small stage where they will be teased, tripped up, tickled, prodded, and submitted to various adolescent indignities at the hands of frolicsome strangers, such as having their hats whisked oft or their skirts blown up about their faces, while all the time an audience of four or five hundred persons rocks in helpless laughter at their confusion and dismay.
This abiding phenomenon is called the Steeplechase Horses; it is the premier entertainment offered at Steeplechase Park, the last and only enduring amusement park at Coney Island. The Steeplechase Horses are, additionally, a lasting monument to Coney’s greatest showman, the man who in 1897 installed them as the principal attraction of his prototypal carnival grounds. This was George Cornelius Tilyou, whose formula, to lapse into the alliterations of the side-show spiel, was a matchless mixture of sentimentality, shrewd psychology, a sound sense of civic expansion, and a suffusion of sophomoric sex.
To win the title of Coney’s greatest showman is no mean achievement, for in the course of its gaudy history the five-mile sweep of magnificent beach has given houseroom to some notable and notably dizzy entrepreneurs. Coney’s history falls into three fairly welldefined periods—the scandalous, the elegant, and the garish—and the Tilyou family is unique in that it bestrides them all, in each era increasingly prosperous, in each increasingly significant to the Island’s bizarre economy.
The first period, roughly the quarter-century after the Civil War, was dominated by a political boss, John Y. McKane. Before that the beach had been a lonely and lovely place; occasionally here came a man to take clams or to shoot a rabbit; occasionally here came Walt Whitman, striding along and declaiming Shakespeare to the sea gulls; but that was all. After the Civil War, however, there was a boom on the beach; on every hand lager-beer saloons and hotels and bathhouses were hastily flung together, and crowds began to frequent the resort. The only man shrewd enough to appreciate what this new popularity portended was McKane. He swaggered to power at the head of a motley crew of barkeeps, sports, gamblers, pugilists, thieves, and bawds. “Houses of prostitution,” he declared, “are a necessity on Coney Island”; while he endured, the lid remained off.
And yet, for all the scandalous behavior, this was also a time rich in wondrous and loony invention. One man built a hotel in the shape of an elephant, and another man clapped a frankfurter on a milk roll and thereby contrived the hot dog. Attracted by these and other zany innovations, the crowds grew steadily; the resort was in the process of winning a national reputation as the last word in the business of outdoor amusement; at Coney, America was learning how to spend a holiday week end.
When McKane was finally tucked away in Sing Sing in 1894 for election frauds, Coney entered upon its period of elegance, with millionaire sportsmen anchoring their yachts in Coney’s waters, racing their horses at Coney’s three tracks, and squiring their ladies to Coney’s swank hotels and restaurants. The final advent of the subway, which reached this far-off resort about the time of the First World War, brought the third period, the garish, tinseled nickel empire: the masses descended upon Coney’s beach and boardwalk.