- 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
The ride begins inside the pavilion: a girl and her boy friend can both ride the same horse, he sitting behind her with his arms pleasantly around her waist. The course will take them outside the pavilion, a long gliding rise, a swoop around two graceful curves in the cool evening air, and then a race down the home stretch and back into the pavilion again. When they dismount, they may start down either of two ramps but in any event they will fetch up on a small, brightly lighted stage where their only companions are a clown and a dwarf, both of whom eye them beadily. The girl and her boy friend are self-conscious; they are dimly aware that beyond the bright lights there are people; they can sense the hush and hear expectant giggles. They look about. They see that they must pass through a narrow gate to reach an exit off to their right which seems to be guarded by an enormous papier-mâche elephant. Cautiously—ladies first—the girl takes a step into the narrow passage. A sudden spurt of compressed air from a jet in the floor whips her skirt above her waist; she shrieks and whirls about into her boy friend’s arms; the clown at the same time touches him with a rod, giving him a sharp electric shock; he leaps, and the floor moves madly under him. She reaches out a hand, and promptly the air jet sends her skirt soaring again. Thoroughly flustered, she scurries through the narrow passage, her boy friend on her heels; as he passes, the dwarf swats him with a slapstick. Again the floor moves; piles of barrels near the elephant suddenly buckle and appear to be tumbling down on top of them; they can hear an appreciative crowd howling with mirth as they stumble off through the exit into the merciful wide spaces of the pavilion.
If they choose—and very often they do—they may take seats, if they can find them, in the small theater and linger to watch others go through the same routine. Presently, like all those around them, they will be aching with laughter. There is something irresistibly comic about this adolescent procedure. There may be those who are skeptical, but a brief visit will convince even the dourest. Some who watch the routine for the first time are astonished at how seldom the victims complain. But in fact the clown, the dwarf, and the man who, from the howdah of the elephant, controls the compressed-air jets are a very smoothly functioning team. Years of experience have taught them which woman with the severe and pinched expression will not relish any monkeyshines, and which litigious man is spoiling for trouble; these are invariably passed through with no nonsense.
The audience is, curiously, predominantly feminine, so it cannot be said that the show’s attraction is exclusively sexual. No, the charm is the ancient one of the man slipping head-over-heels on a banana skin, of the pratfall, of self-conscious dignity finding itself in a ludicrously undignified predicament.
It is the founder’s formula, unchanged. It is the abiding proof that George C. Tilyou was a master showman.