- 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
What they built, at a cost of nearly $ 1,000,000, was Luna Park, a magic fairyland of spires and minarets and towers, over which they had strewn a profusion of entertainments. By day Luna was sufficiently captivating, but by night it was breath-taking: every building with its architectural ornaments was picked out against the black velvet sky by hundreds of thousands of lights. “Ah, God,” murmured one enraptured visitor, “what might the prophet have written in Revelation, if only he had first beheld a spectacle like this!”
Luna’s immediate and stupendous success was attested by the fact that there was an immediate and stupendous attempt to imitate it. Just across Surf Avenue from Luna, a real-estate speculator named William Reynolds spent $3,500,000 to build Dreamland, where everything—size, conception, decor—was on an exuberant scale. At Dreamland there were one million incandescent light bulbs; one hundred thousand of them were used to pick out a tall tower against the night. It was estimated that the cost of this lavish display added $4,000 to Dreamland’s weekly overhead. All this radiance was shed on flower-topped columns, an esplanade where a band played seemingly without pause, and a great ballroom built on a pier reaching out into the ocean.
By 1905 a child who went to Coney Island could, thanks to Luna and Dreamland and the other spectacular exhibits, arrive at a fairly approximate idea of the universe around him and, in the bargain, be magnificently entertained. He could visit an Indian durbar, the streets of Cairo, an Eskimo village, an island in the Philippines complete with 51 allegedly headhunting Igorots, a garden in Japan, the Alps of Switzerland, or the canals of Venice; he could watch Mount Pelée erupt, killing 40,000, or sit enthralled while in front of him the dam burst and the rivers engulfed Johnstown; he could be taken through the Great Deep Rift Coal Mine of Pennsylvania; he could see the huge tidal wave destroy Galveston; he could go under the sea in a submarine or whirl giddily aloft in an airplane; he could crawl into a tepee or an igloo or a Lilliputian village; he could see a petrified whale or a performing flea; he could ride on a camel or feed an elephant. It would take him a week to absorb all the marvels proffered and a lifetime to remember them.
But all these delights had by no means crowded Steeplechase into the ocean. George Tilyou enthusiastically welcomed the competition: the more attractions, the bigger the crowds, the greater the gaiety, the higher the profits. Nor did he fret over the fact that at Luna and Dreamland the diversions were more expensive and spectacular. His intuition had equipped him with a different formula. There is only one creation, this formula insisted, endowed with infinite variety—this is the amusement devised by the Peerless Showman—it is people. All that Tilyou needed to do was to contrive the most appropriate backgrounds for his star performers. By 1905 he had invented five of these. His inventions were:
The Wedding Ring, later called the Razzle Dazzle and still later the Hoop-La. This was a great circle of laminated wood suspended by wires from a center pole; as many as seventy persons at a time could perch insecurely upon it while four muscular and acrobatic attendants rocked it back and forth. This was 1905, and when a girl lost her balance her ankles would show, and she would have a reason to clutch at her escort. Hoop-lal
The Barrel of Love. This was a modest adaptation of the Switchback Railway. Passengers were strapped into seats in a revolving drum that rolled gently down one incline and up another. A nearby sign read: “Talk about love in a cottagel This has it beat a mile.”
The Dew Drop. Its patrons climbed by leisurely stages to the top of a tower perhaps fifty feet high, climbed in, sat down, and were whirled feet first down and around and around again and out, upon a billowy platform. Once again, did you see those ankles?
The Whichaway, a swing that whirled its passengers eccentrically in any of four directions, but invariably catapulted a girl into her escort’s lap.
The Earthquake Stairway. A flight of steps split down the middle so that one half could be jerked suddenly up while the other half was jerked a few inches down. A practical joke on the same level as the pail of water that tumbles down when a door is opened, this aberration was described as “the most unique and side-splitting fun maker in existence.”
Remarkable as it may seem, each of these simple entertainments was notably popular in the early years of the century; around each of them thronged scores of people eager to see their fellows make fools of themselves; summer after summer they drew the same throngs back. In 1905 Steeplechase boasted 25 attractions, “every one of them original, up-to-date, and snappy,” and since most of them were owned and controlled by Tilyou they could all be sampled by buying a combination ticket for 25 cents.