- 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
But during each of these mutations, the Tilyous have had a controlling hand in the Island’s destiny. That this is so is largely due to George C. Tilyou. No one in the outdoor amusement field, not even Phineas T. Barnum, had a better psychological insight into what people wanted when they sought entertainment and into what would make them come back again and again. Barnum is credited with the judgment that there is a sucker born every minute; Tilyou, mining this rich lode further, brought up an even more priceless nugget. He showed that people will pay good money over and over again for the privilege of supplying the entertainment themselves. During the season the Steeplechase pavilion resounds day and night with the merriment of those who have shelled out to make themselves look ridiculous and to watch others in the same foolish predicament. At Steeplechase the paying patron is the show. It is the apogee of canny showmanship.
George C. Tilyou was born in New York City in 1862. When he was three years old his parents leased one of the huge goo-foot ocean-front lots then available on Coney for $35 a year, and on it they built the Surf House. The elder Tilyou’s father had been a recorder in New York; thanks to this political background the Surf House over the years became a favorite resort for New York and Brooklyn city officials and their families. By the time young George was fourteen he had already displayed a precocious insight into the psychology of the holiday pleasure-seeker.
Coney, in the summer of 1876, was crowded with tourists from the Midwest who, drawn east by the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, had wandered down for their first glimpse of a real, live ocean. George showed the true Coney Island instinct. Correctly guessing that these simple folk would believe that an article had value only if it had a price upon it, he filled medicine bottles with salt water and cigar boxes with sand and sold them by the score at a quarter apiece.
In 1879, when he was seventeen, the real-estate business beckoned. At that time land on Coney could not be sold; title was firmly held by the township. But there was a brisk and piratical traffic in leases and subleases. What happened to one lot on Ocean Boulevard was common gossip. One of the more venal of the town’s commissioners had leased the lot for $41 a year; one-eighth of it he subleased for $1,000 a year to a woman who in turn leased a modest fraction of her one-eighth for $4,000 a year. Where pyramids like these were a-building, there was room for a man of seventeen with vision. Presently young Tilyou was netting $250 a month, operating out of an office he had constructed by cleating two bathhouses together.
But this was just money, and it bored him. He thirsted to be a showman. Here were all these people down from New York and Brooklyn for the sun and the sea breezes; was it enough that they had a splendid beach and an ocean? Didn’t they want entertainment as well? Tilyou bet that they did. When he was twenty, he and his father put up the Island’s first theater: Tilyou’s Surf Theatre; Pat Rooney, Sam Bernard, and Weber & Fields were among those who appeared on its stage.
A successful real-estate operator, the manager of a profitable theater, Tilyou in his twenties was already a man of substance. But he had, nevertheless, his problems. The difficulty was with McKane, who held Coney Island in his firm fist, extracting from every businessman a tithe that masqueraded as a license fee, encouraging the most disreputable elements to open saloons or hotels on Coney, and, although chief of police, conniving at the fracture of every statute against gambling or prostitution. Indeed, affairs had been building to a climax for some time between the Tilyous and the Pooh-Bah of Coney Island. McKane, to their way of thinking, jeopardized grosses. By appointing ruffians and rascals as his justices of the peace, by winking at prostitution, by plundering the community, he was making Coney a stench in the nostrils of decent folk everywhere; and the Tilyous wanted these decent folk as their customers.
And so when, as was inevitable, McKane’s misrule of Coney Island became the subject of a legislative investigation, George Tilyou did a brave thing. He singled out for the investigators the most corrupt of McKane’s henchmen. He stood alone. He was the only resident of Coney Island who dared, fiatly and without qualification, to blow the whistle on the Chief. He named the houses of prostitution and placed them; he told how a doctor who was McKane’s assistant police sergeant and health officer got a weekly fee of two dollars for each prostitute he examined. He had seen McKane’s justices of the peace in gambling places and named names and dates. He had seen McKane’s captain of police in regular attendance at one bagnio; the same man had tried to rent land from him to run a gambling joint.
In short, Tilyou reported what was common knowledge, giving chapter and verse. But while the legislative committee could stigmati/.e McKane as “an enemy, and not a friend, of the administration of justice,” his friends in the State Assembly were too powerful; his grip on Coney, for a time, stayed secure. Young George Tilyou found it necessary to retire from the real-estate business. His capital dwindled. His father was stripped of his property and forced oft the Island. It never occurred to George, however, to move away from Coney; he had sand in his shoes, and there is a saying on Coney that you never shake it loose.