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The Master Showman Of Coney Island

May 2024
17min read

On the theory that the greatest show is people, George Tilyou turned a rich man’s resort into a playground for the masses

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.

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.

In 1893 he married Mary O’Donnell and took oft on his honeymoon to see the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. There, on the Midway Plaisance, he was captivated by the wondrous invention of G. VV. G. Ferris. He looked about, noting how jaws dropped and eyes popped as people looked on this first Ferris Wheel, and he coveted it. The time was propitious; back on Coney, he knew, McKane was in trouble, perhaps at last on the skids. He was too late to buy the monstrous toy; it was already promised to the St. Louis Fair for delivery in 1904. But he could have a more modest wheel built.

The Ferris Wheel was 250 feet in diameter; each of its 36 cars accommodated Go passengers. Tilyou borrowed money and ordered for delivery in the spring of 1894 a wheel 125 feet in diameter, with 12 cars carrying 18 passengers apiece. He rented some land between Surf Avenue and the ocean and put up a sign that unblushingly announced: ON THIS SITE WILL BE ERECTED THE WORLD’S LARGEST’ FERRIS WHEEL . On the strength of this whopper he sold enough concession space to make payment on delivery. FIe studded his plaything with hundreds of incandescent lamps; it was the Island’s first big, glittering attraction, and its owner was making money before it had been in operation half-a-hundred days.

By that time his old enemy McKane was in Sing Sing, Coney Island was part of Brooklyn, and decent folk were once again Hocking to the beach by the scores of thousands on every summer week end. Tilyou decided to branch out. He had his Aerial Slide; he had his Ferris Wheel; he imported a something called the Intramural Bicycle Railway; he built another ride called Double Dip Chutes. But these were scattered all over Coney. It might never have occurred to Tilyou to group them all in one place and assist them to multiply had it not been lor the arrival on Coney of Captain Paul Hoyton, the first frogman and an international celebrity who had swum across the English Channel in an inflated rubber suit. At Coney Hoyton had opened Sea Lion Park—the first outdoor amusement park in the world—in time lor the Fourth of July week end in 1895. Here his stellar attraction was the Shoot-the-Chutes. an aquatic toboggan slide in Hatbottomed boats; but it was the idea of a park enclosed by a fence, with admission charged at the gate, that impressed George Tilvou.


Tilyou cast about for the one sure-fire device that would do for him what the Shoot-the-Chutes had done for Boyton. The most popular sport of the time was, by all odds, horse racing: for six months a year Coney was crowded with people who had spent the afternoon at the races at Gravesend Bay or Sheepshead May or Brighton Beach. When Tilyou heard of a British invention—a mechanical racecourse—he knew he had found what he needed.

He was obliged to tinker with it, to develop and improve it for his own purposes, but in time for the season of 1897 he opened Steeplechase Park on a plot slightly larger than fifteen acres. (Tilyou never said fifteen acres: he preferred to say 655,000 square feet. His sons, or their press agents, have gradually increased the size of the park. In 1922 his oldest son, the late Edward Tilyou, admitted that the daim of twenty-one acres was an exaggeration. “But who,” lie asked reasonably, “would ever think that the number twentyone had been made up?” Today the same plot measures twenty-five acres, at least in the park’s promotion material. As Milton Berger, the park’s current press agent, says: “I inherited the figure, and I never did learn how to count acres.”)

The premier attraction at the park, then as now, was the Steeplechase Horses: an undulant, curving metal track over which wooden (they are now metal) horses ran on wheels, coursing down by gravity and soaring up by momentum, in tolerable imitation of a real horse race.

Nineteen hundred and one was the year of the PanAmerican Exposition at Buffalo, and Tilyou went on a scouting trip. As eight years before the Kerris Wheel had dominated the Chicago Fair, at Buffalo the eyecatcher was a cyclorama, A Trip to the Moon. It was a spectacular illusion, the creation of a young architectural student, Frederic W. Thompson. He had designed it late one night when Inniger kept him awake, lie had subsequently formed a partnership with Elmer (Skip) Dundy, and by 1901 it appeared that he would never be hungry again. At Buffalo he was coining money faster than a machine could have done.

Besides A Trip to the Moon. Thompson and Dundy bad another cyclorama called Darkness and Dawn, a Giant See-Saw, and a half-dozen other lucrative conccessions. If they had a problem, it was how they would fill their time from 1901 in Buffalo to 1904 in St. Louis. Tilyou solved it for them. He offered them a minimum guarantee against 60 per cent of the net if they would bring A Trip to the Moon to Steeplechase. They came, and they brought their Giant See-Saw as well.


The season of 1902 was one of the wettest in Coney’s history. Old-timers claim that of the 92 days in June, July, and August rain fell on 70. Business at Boyton’s Sea Lion Park was macabre. But despite the gruesome weather, Steeplechase, thanks to A Trip to the Moon, did handsomely. It did so well, in fact, that Tilyou’s new partners, Thompson and Dundy, decided to build a park of their own so grand it would drive Steeplechase out of business.

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.

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:

I have trouble today that I did not have yesterday. I had troubles yesterday that I have not today. On this site will be erected shortly a better, bigger, greater Steeplechase Park. Admission to the Burning Ruins—10 cents.


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.

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.

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