Today there are only two major Coney Island amusement parks -- Luna Park and Denos Wonder Wheel Amusement Park -- but this was not always the case. (Credit: Library of Congress)
Credit: Getty Images / Michael Nagle
The Parachute Jump attracted crowds with ‘screamers’
The 250-foot Parachute Jump had all the characteristics of a terrifying amusement ride when it opened at Steeplechase Park in the 1940s. Designed to train paratroops and put into entertainment service at Coney Island, it simulated the experience of falling to earth in a parachute.
But it struggled to be a viable business. So the operators of the ride came up with a novel idea, Denson told amNewYork. The operators would entice young women who looked like "screamers" to jump on. But they would keep the ladies hanging suspended in the air, so that the women, as expected, would scream in terror.
That brought out crowds, but even these guerrilla marketing tactics weren't enough to keep it from closing down with the park in 1964.
And in spite of rumors, no one was ever killed on the ride, which is now a landmark, according to the Coney Island History Project.
Credit: Courtesy Charles Denson
Coney Island’s beaches were once all private
Before 1923, sunbathers and swimmers had to pay at bathhouses to gain access to the beaches. The bathhouses — with names like Stauchs Baths, Ward’s Baths, Ravenhall Park and Brighton Beach Baths — stretched all along the beach front. The price of admission ranged from 10 to 25 cents. Each bathhouse had its own swath of beachfront divided from the others; they offered amenities like food, drinks and games. They rented lockers and rooms for groups.
“People belonged to them,” Denson said. “They were like cliques.”
The city bought up the private beaches and built the boardwalk by 1923 to open the sands and surf to everyone. Only one private beach remains at the closed community of SeaGate. Today the great bathhouses are gone.
Credit: Charles Denson
The oldest candy store on Coney Island
Williams Candy, a classic New York City sweets shop, has been on Surf Avenue for over 75 years. “It’s kind of a beacon of sweets,” Denson said. “It’s the last of its kind.” You’ll find its windows stocked with candy apples, marshmallow sticks, marshmallow balls and other retro treats. Owner Peter Agrapides has been working on Coney Island since 1949, when he was 13 years old.
Credit: Library of Congress
Woody Guthrie penned dozens of famous songs while living in Coney Island
“Mermaid Avenue that’s the street/Where all the colors of goodfolks meet,” Woody Guthrie wrote in his famous tune, “Mermaid’s Avenue,” on Jan. 24, 1950.
At that time, Guthrie was living with his family at 3520 Mermaid Ave. in Coney Island—from many accounts an idyllic stretch in his life from 1943 to 1954 — when he wrote dozens of classics that would become part of the enduring American songbook.
Although the home where the family lived no longer stands — a retirement home is now there — the Coney Island History Project has placed an unofficial plaque near the site.
Credit: Library of Congress
Nathan didn't invent the hot dog
Although Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs has become synonymous with the Coney Island frankfurter, it wasn't founder Nathan Handwerker who invented the hot dog. But it's also not entirely clear who did.
Historians haven't even been able to agree on whether the hot dog was invented at Coney Island at all. They do know, however, that it was popularized as a street food at Coney in the late 1800s.
Various possible originators have been named, including Charles Feltman, who was a baker at Coney Island before opening his seaside Ocean Pavilion restaurant. It was sometime between owning the bakery and the restaurant that he may have come up with the idea of wrapping a frankfurter in a bun to save money on plates and forks.
But, according to "The Great American Hot Dog Book" by Becky Mercuri, subsequent reviews of newspaper stories and his obituary have cast doubt on those claims, especially since Feltman was quoted as decrying the "sausage stand nuisance." Still, he did sell a lot of hot dogs anyway.
Another possible inventor of the hot dog may have been a fellow by the name of Ignatz Fischmann, a baker who was said to have created the "oblong roll that frankfurter men needed in their business."
Credit: Charles Denson
The yellow submarine and the graveyard of ships
Stand at the shore of Kaiser Park looking into the mouth of Coney Island Creek (yes, there is one) and you'll likely spot an odd looking wreck of a ship listing in the water. Yes, it's a yellow submarine, though the Beatles had nothing to do with it.
It's a relic of one Coney Island man's dream to salvage the remnants of the S.S. Andrea Doria, an ocean liner from Italy that infamously sank off the coast of Nantucket in 1956, killing 52 people.
Jerry Bianco, a welder at the Brooklyn Navy Yard who had worked on ships and submarines, got the idea to start a salvage business by building the submarine, and he started building it in the late 1960s. But the stock market crash in 1973 dried up financing for the idea.
Luckily, there was another business literally lying around him in the creek: dismantling old ships and barges that were routinely scuttled in the creek, nothing but rusting cans ready to be stripped for lucrative salvaging. Though Bianco never got to bring up the ruins of the S.S. Andrea Doria, his dream remains for anyone to see at Coney Island Creek.
Credit: Facebook/Rita's Italian Ice
The birthplace of the frozen custard
In 1919, Archie C. Kohr sought a solution to a problem that vexed ice cream sellers at Coney Island: How to keep the frozen dessert from melting too quickly in the summer heat. His solution was to add egg yolks to the usual mixture of cream and sugar of ice cream, creating the world’s first frozen custard. This new frozen dessert melted more slowly, and had the silky texture of soft serve ice cream. Legend has it that he and his brother sold over 18,000 cones the first weekend it went on sale.
Soon frozen custard was the creamy confection synonymous with the people’s playground. But over the decades, the Kohr brothers moved their business to New Jersey and the frozen custard disappeared.
That is, until 2014, when Rita’s Italian Ice brought it back to Coney Island with much fanfare.
Credit: Nina Ruggiero
Before there was the Cyclone, there was the Switchback Railway
The Cyclone was constructed at the site of one of the world's first roller coasters, the Switchback Railway, built by "father of America's rollercoasters" La Marcus Thompson in 1884.
The Switchback Railway consisted of two parallel tracks, 600-feet long, that would convey riders down one track at about 6 mph to one end where the passengers would then have to climb up a second tower as the vehicle was switched to the second track for the return trip.
"Benches on runners fit into a narrow track in this trough, and half a dozen people are whirled around this track at a frightful rate of speed," the New York Herald wrote on June 2, 1884. The ride was a screaming success, passengers paying 5 cents a ride.
Credit: Coney Island History Project
Spook-A-Rama is home to ghoulish props of a dark past
Spook-A-Rama is the last "dark ride" at Coney Island. Extensively refurbished after Superstorm Sandy's surge tide flooded it, the ride continues to spook with its ghoulish props.
But what few people realize is that it has long become the final resting place of props from the former dark rides that populated the island.
Case in point is the recently retired Giant Skull, which was designed by Bill Stabile to appear in Harvey Feinstein's 1984 play "Spookhouse" and later had a starring role at the Coney Island Hysterical Society's Spookhouse. But once that closed, the skull was sold to the owners of the Spook-A-Rama, where it continued to scare up chills. It's been on loan to the Coney Island History Project since 2015.
Credit: Coney Island USA via Twitter
The origin of Coney Island’s Funny Face logo
He's seemingly everywhere at Coney Island, both clownish and also somewhat unnerving with his cheek-to-cheek libidinous smile.
According to Denson, there's a good reason for the duality: The Funny Face logo was originally the mascot of Steeplechase Park, where buffoonery and sexuality mixed casually.
Blowers at the entrances would send girls' skirts up over their heads; a dwarf in clown makeup chased visitors with an electric paddle. "Somehow this represented the fun and sexuality of Steeplechase," Denson said of the Funny Face mascot. That duality persists, of course, at today's Coney Island.
The most romantic ride in the world
In 1948, Denos D. Vourderis, an immigrant from Greece, pledged to his bride-to-be Lula that he would buy her the Wonder Wheel if she married him. She said yes, and for the next several decades Vourderis worked his way up at Coney Island. He ran bars, then children's rides at Ward's Park in the shadow of the Wonder Wheel.
By the time that the owner of the Wonder Wheel decided he wanted to sell it and retire, it was only natural that he would pick Vourderis to take over for him.
The Wheel was sold to Vourderis for $250,000 in 1983, according to "Amusement Parks of New York" by Jim Futrell. Lula Vourderis must have been one happy wife to get such a large ring as a wedding present! Today the Wheel is one of the city's prime spots for couples to get engaged.
Credit: Denos Wonder Wheel Amusement Park
Grandma’s Predictions has been supplying fortunes since the 1920s
Gray-haired and with a kind smile, Grandma at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park sits in a wood booth purveying predictions to the delight of Coney Island visitors for decades. In fact, it’s the oldest and most rare arcade machine on the island. But that doesn’t mean she’s stuck in the past — she even has a Twitter account these days. Expensively refurbished after flood damaged caused by Superstorm Sandy, Grandma’s Predictions remains a popular oracle by the beachside.
Credit: Getty Images
The Wonder Wheel didn’t come with an instruction manual
When Vourderis purchased the Wonder Wheel from its original owner-operator in 1983, the ride did not come with an instruction manual. All that was passed on was a piece of paper torn from a cigarette packet with a few scribbled notes. After learning to maintain the wheel from his father Denos, son Steve Vourderis wrote a manual that was certified by an engineer. The wheel, built in 1920, has a perfect safety record.