- 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
This was Coney’s heyday. “Here it is,” said Albert Bigelow Paine, “that the cup of of gaiety and diversion overflows.” Maxim Gorky came upon the Island by night, from the sea: “With the advent of night a fantastic city all of fire suddenly rises from the ocean into the sky. Thousands of ruddy sparks glimmer in the darkness, limning in fine, sensitive outline on the black background of the sky shapely towers of miraculous castles, palaces, and temples. Golden gossamer threads tremble in the air. They intertwine in transparent flaming patterns, which flutter and melt away, in love with their own beauty mirrored in the waters. Fabulous beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful, is this fiery scintillation.”
Fire, sparks, naming patterns, fiery scintillation. The phrases were prophetic, for all three of Coney’s great parks were to be ripped by fires in the following halfcentury, Dreamland in 1911 and Luna, after a long period of economic difficulties, in 1949. But only at Steeplechase—which was leveled in an eighteen-hour conflagration in July, 1907 —would there be a disposition to repair, to rebuild; only George Tilyou insisted on maintaining his park. The day after the fire he set up a large sign where the entrance had been:
In a sense the fire that razed Steeplechase was a boon, for it enabled Tilyou to design a park expressly to fit his formula. Up went a pavilion of steel and glass over a five-acre hardwood floor. This was the Pavilion of Fun, and here he concentrated all his earlier devices, improved now, and added still others.
Once, the story goes, Tilyou had seen a baby mouse trying to escape from a deep soup bowl; every attempt straight up the side was futile, and not until the mouse started racing around in a circle, gathering momentum, and always climbing a bit higher, was it able to escape. From this brief drama, Tilyou evolved what was first called the Human Roulette Wheel and later the Whirlpool, a whirling concave disc of polished wood, a melting pot in which the ingredients were laughter, exhibitionism, and sex. When one or two dozen youngsters lay sprawling and scrambling on the sides of this disc, there would always be two or three dozen others standing outside at the rim, laughing, pointing, clutching each other to point out some particularly ludicrous mishap inside and gradually growing sufficiently fascinated with the tangle of arms and legs (“Come on, let’s try it!” “You wanna?” “Sure! Where’s the guy punches the ticket?”) so that at the first opportunity they too would be sliding and scrambling and sprawling with the others.
Another of Tilyou’s additions was the Human Pool Table, a set of sixteen flat spinning discs, and with fiendish cunning he rigged these up at the foot of his old Dew Drop. Now, when a girl came whirling down and around the polished slide, she came dizzily to split-second rest on one disc, was flung to a second, a third, now whirled this way, now that, her skirts flying, her squeals rising to the roof, her friends doubled up with laughter as they watched, and the entire company inside the pavilion infected with her mirth, the laughter spreading, rowdy, spirited, adolescent, uncontrollable, sensual, irresistible. And the Barrel of Love was now a great revolving drum of highly polished wood, ten feet in diameter and perhaps thirty feet long, slyly placed at the main entrance to the park so that two or three girls coming giggling in together might enter the Barrel without escorts but find, before they had negotiated the sliding, slippery, treacherous thirty feet, that escorts were thrown into their arms.
With the coming of the subway Coney gained millions of patrons and lost some of its old effervescence. But neither these changes nor Tilyou’s death in 1914 have made any difference to the Steeplechase formula. Whether Coney is glittering or dowdy, cheap or expensive, raffish or respectable, secure or facing a questionable future, Steeplechase packs them in. Season after season the crowds flock into the park, as many as fifteen thousand at a time. Once within, if they are not too distracted by the sophomoric horseplay, they may notice, set in the middle of the Pavilion of Fun, what is surely the most magnificent carrousel in the world. Bedecked with handsomely carved horses, pigs, ducks, cupids, and gondolas, this splendid toy was originally built for William II, emperor of Germany; his imperial seal still adorns one of the chariots.
But whatever attracts the patrons to Steeplechase, sooner or later they end up standing in line to ride on the Steeplechase Horses, as people have done now for two generations. For the horseplay that follows this ride is a distillate of the redoubtable Steeplechase formula.