To Heaven by Subway (Fortune Classics, 1938)May 29, 2011: 10:17 AM ET
Editor's Note: Every Sunday, Fortune publishes a favorite story from our archive. On this Memorial Day weekend, travel back to August 1938 to New York City's Coney Island on a hot summer Sunday. The article profiles the narrow strip of land where Brooklyn meets the Atlantic and thousands of New Yorkers still pour out of the subway to eat hot dogs, ride roller coasters, visit bathhouses and watch freak shows. This was during the Depression, when Coney Island was struggling to survive as the "empire of the nickel." The paintings are by Robert Riggs.
For five cents Coney Island will feed you, frighten you, cool you, toast you, flatter you, or destroy your inhibitions. And in this nickel empire boy meets girl.
FORTUNE -- At night ships heading in to New York pick up the lights of Coney Island thirty miles out; and its voice is a muffled bellow that carries a mile and a half offshore. But on a hot, summer Sunday morning fog lies over the lower bay like a damp, too-often-slept-on sheet; and the only sounds are the flat clangings of the bell buoys along the channel. Toward six o'clock the fog rolls back, and there is a ten-mile basin of soupy water, empty except for a Hog Island freighter moving into quarantine or a party boat outward bound, crowded with holiday fishermen. To the south of this basin is the Jersey coast -- Atlantic Highlands and the long curving sand bar known as Sandy Hook. To the north are Brooklyn and Long Island -- an uneven line of smokestacks, wharves, warehouses, gas tanks, hotels, bungalow colonies, apartment houses, Victorian mansions, crumbling jetties; and beaches. At the western end of this shore line are two and a quarter miles of sand and boardwalk, a cluster of drab shacks, and a backdrop of grotesque shapes -- gigantic upthrust wheels, jigsaw towers, and roller-coaster tracks coiled and contorted like snakes trapped in a bonfire. These two and a quarter miles are Coney Island.
At close range, in the hard early morning light, Coney Island is almost incredibly banal. Shoddy shows through the tinsel; the shuttered false fronts are frankly two-dimensional; the gaily painted manes of the flying horses of the carousels are shrouded in canvas; and even the forthright, weedy smell of the sea seems weak and flavorless. At six in the morning Coney Island is like the stage of a very old theatre before the audience arrives -- like the empty waiting room of the Philadelphia Broad Street Station. But the voice and color of Coney Island are its people. And at the end of a five-cent subway fare, and less than two hours away, 7,000,000 people are waking to a hot and aimless Sunday.
Coney Island itself wakens slowly. On the sand a few early bathers discard their outer clothing and perform self-conscious calisthenics under a rising sun. Along the Boardwalk men in white sailor suits, from New York's Department of Parks, spear the leavings of last night's mob. Milk wagons and beer trucks rumble down Surf Avenue a block away. And in the Bowery and the side, streets concessionaires and ride foremen and spielers and counter men and ticket takers and shills collect in groups ... and peer anxiously at the sky.
The sun, rising higher, picks up the blue and white and red of the towers of Luna park. Smells of cooking -- hot dogs and clams and hamburger and fish and onion and garlic and corn-mix with the sweet smell of cotton candy and frozen custard. The light changes from cold silver to warm canary to hot, liquid brass. A dozen disheveled Shetland ponies patter up West Eighth Street toward the pony run on the Bowery leaving behind them the acrid stench of stables. A test car slams down the ninety-foot drop of the Cyclone. In Steeplechase park a cleanup squad works on the cropped green lawn between the carrousels and the airplane swing. At the counter of a shooting gallery on the Bowery a freak-show dwarf, off duty, gravely inspects a new target and gravely remarks, "That'll wow' em, Herman. That'll wow 'em sure." And up and down the island, from auto ride to waxworks to freak show to penny arcade, goes the most important phrase in Coney Island economy, "It looks like a good hot day."
At ten the dour, octogenarian Paddy Shea, "the original," "the old reliable," takes his seat at the door of his "Gilsey House" saloon. Coney Island is officially awake. And as though at the appearance of a concertmeister the Coney Island orchestra starts tuning up. A spieler tests his microphone with a sudden blast of sound. "Have you tried it? Have you tried it? It's Fascination -- that fascinating game." And a block away another answers, "Learn to play Bingo. Free game now going on." And down the street another picks it up -- and another -- and another -- a growing wave of sound flowing up the island and returning and flowing back again. "Get your hot dogs here. Red hot." -- "Three balls for a dime. Step right up. The ladies play it too." -- "Charlie McCarthy. Take home a Charlie McCarthy." -- "Test your skill. Everybody wins." -- "Get your thrill here. Fastest ride on the island." -- "Have you tried it? You'll like it. Oh boy, you'll like it." -- And the shills and the boosters move up to the game tables -- and a carrousel organ breaks into Bei mir hist du schön -- and the gaily painted horses with their necks arched high move off in stately procession -- and the tinsel changes to gold -- and adventure walks suddenly in the streets-and under the hot summer sun Coney Island slowly melts and comes slowly to a boil.
Into this fluid mass the subway pours the people of New York and its visitors -- young girls with firm high breasts and pretty legs and shrill, discordant voices -- hat-snatching adolescents and youths on the make -- children in arms and children underfoot and children in trouble -- harried, scolding mothers and heavy-suited, heavy-booted fathers -- soldiers and sailors and marines-virgins and couples in love and tarts -- Gentiles and Jews and the in-betweens -- whites and blacks and orientals -- Irish and Italians and Poles and Swedes and Letts and Greeks -- pushing, plodding, laughing, jostling. shrieking, sweating, posing -- shedding their identities. with their inhibitions, in the voice, the smell, the color of Coney Island.
No one knows exactly how Coney Island came by its name. There are those who claim that it derives from the cone-shaped sand dunes of the original beach. And there are others who believe that it is a perversion of Colman -- the name of a sailor on Henry Hudson's Half-Moon who was killed by Indians in an unexplained brawl. But the most heavily supported and most plausible tradition is that the early Dutch settlers found hordes of rabbits scampering across the sand dunes and called it Konijn Eiland or Rabbit Island, of which Coney was a logical and gradual derivation.
In any case Coney Island is not an island at all. Part of Coney Island Creek. which once separated it from the body of Brooklyn and in which the fishing was once very good indeed, was long ago filled in. And much of what was historically Coney Island is Coney Island no longer. Its western flank has become the eminently respectable, prosaic residential district known as Sea Gate. To the east it has become the bungalow colony of Brighton and Joe Day's development at Manhattan Beach. But although Coney Island has been decimated and although geographically and corporately it is a part of Brooklyn, and therefore a part of New York, it retains an intensely jealous civic consciousness and a chamber of commerce of its own.
The community that the chamber represents, in theory at least, is a city of 100,000 that swells in summer to 200,000 and is divided into two parts by a Main Street known as Surf Avenue. To the north is the year-round Coney Island of the commuters -- a section of drab rooming houses and inferior residences, tapering off in a blighted area along the polluted waters of Gravesend Bay and what is left of Coney Island Creek. On both sides of the avenue itself, and in the single long strip of land to the south that ends at the Boardwalk and the beach, is concentrated the Coney Island that lives only four months out of the year.
This narrow strip of land, about 800 to 1,000 feet in width and two and a quarter miles long, is assessed at $22,000,000. It is the home of sixty bathhouses, two big amusement parks (Steeplechase and Luna), seventy "ball" games, thirteen carrousels, eleven roller coasters, five tunnel rides, three fun houses, two waxworks, six penny arcades, twenty shooting galleries, three freak shows, a variety of other games, rides, shows, and souvenir shops, and some 200 eating establishments -- more than 500 separate enterprises in violent and continual conflict -- perhaps the greatest concentration of independent little businesses in the world. But while each of these little businesses is violently, continuously, and vocally in competition with each of its more than 500 competitors, each to a greater or lesser degree derives profit from the others. For it is the sum total of all the Coney Island attractions that creates the Coney Island market and its urge to spend. A single pitchtill-you-win concessionaire spieling alone on a Coney Island sand dune would draw few nickels into his till.
As it is, some 25,000,000 people pile into this area in a season -- as many as a million on a hot Sunday -- leaving behind them a sum estimated at anything from $7,500,000 to $35,000,000. But whatever the amount -- and whether derived from the family on relief or from the twenty-dollar plunger and his girl friend -- it is an accumulation of the smallest coins of the country; a flow of millions of dollars from the aorta of the city into its most minute capillaries. Coney Island is today the empire of the nickel.
This however, was not always so. Coney Island has gone through three incarnations. In its earliest days -- in the middle of the 1800's -- the island was pretty definitely unsavory. Three-card-monte men pitched their stands along the beach and split their take with roving gangs of blacklegs, spiritual ancestors of the modern racketeer. At low tide bodies were washed up on the shore with startling frequency. A minor politician, Michael Norton, extended his rule over wide areas of South Brooklyn operating from his own notorious roadhouse, the "Old West End." And the oldest trade in the world was plied in sight of the sea.
Toward the end of the century Coney Island, considerably regenerated, entered a period of greater prosperity and greater respectability, a period, however, that was not without its conflicts and uncertainties. The gay blades of Brooklyn and Manhattan and their pretty young women drove their spanking trotters out to the race tracks at Gravesend and Sheepshead Bay and to the luxurious new hotels at Brighton and Manhattan Beach. But in Coney Island people spoke of "a family resort"; and bicycle clubs gave picnic parties on the" sand; and the old Iron Steamboat line put a boat in regular service between the Battery and Steeplechase pier; and solid citizens moved in -- founders of the present Coney Island "families" -- the Tilyous of Steeplechase park, the Feltmans who made the frankfurter an American institution, and William F. Mangels, the gentle recreation philosopher, who invented the neck-cracking Whip, and who, with his son, still manufactures Whips and carrousels and "kiddie rides" within a half mile of the ocean.
Champagne was the occasional though far from universal drink; and along Surf Avenue were restaurants with kitchens as fine and menus as impressive as those of Rector's and Bustanoby's in Manhattan; and it was possible and not unusual to pay a $20 check for a dinner for two. But for every venison steak and purée de marrons served in Feltman's more exclusive dining rooms a hundred frankfurters were served across its counters.
The nickel empire, the third and greatest period of Coney Island prosperity, arrived with the extension of the subway and its five-cent fare to Coney Island in 1920. Or perhaps, more accurately, 1920 is a convenient line of demarcation between two periods that dovetail. As late as 1910 Coney Island might have gone in either of two directions. It might have emphasized its tonier restaurants and exclusive bathhouses and become a convenient summer resort for the well-to-do New Yorker -- a sort of glorified Atlantic City. Or it might have followed the frankfurter and the roller coaster and the public beach and become the playground of the masses. After 1910 it could still strike a compromise of sorts between the two. But the subway in 1920 forced a decision. Coney Island became the empire of the nickel.
Coney Island economy is founded primarily on weather. Most of its money is earned in a season only fourteen weekends long. Three rainy weekends may mean the difference between profit and loss; five can easily mean bankruptcy. For a slimmer Sunday cannot be postponed; once lost it is gone forever. The islanders tell you that you can make money by betting against the weather bureau. And because weather is largely unpredictable, and because the cost of rain insurance is prohibitively high, most Coney Island concessionaires roll their shutters up and down with the thermometer as the clouds roll by. And even big Steeplechase park must be prepared to open its gates on a half-hour's notice.
Secondary factor in the nickel empire's economy is the nickel itself -- and its abundance in the pockets of the Coney Island customer. The nickel was first a symbol of a new order; it became in time a reality. The mass market slowly forced Coney Island's time-honored price scales downward. The fifty-cent rides became a quarter. The quarter rides became fifteen cents. The ten-cent rides became five. And even the ten-cent frankfurter was by the latter 1920's reduced to a nickel. But until the depression of the early 1930's the abundance of nickels was unaffected by war or panic or depression. In 1907, and in 1914, and in 1921 -- when business indexes were off from 20 to 40 per cent-the Coney Island take varied practically not at all. And the more enlightened Islanders referred to their business as a depression-proof industry. But in the 'last six or seven years, and more, particularly in the first month and a half of the current season, Coney Island has felt the pinch. The empire of the nickel is frankly worried.
In terms of nickels Coney Island is today three-quarters amusement park and one-quarter beach. But in terms of numbers the position is reversed. And it is on the beach that any properly conducted tour of the island must begin.
It is a fairly good beach, but it includes only fifty-seven acres of sand at high tide. Armed with lunch boxes, water wings, baseballs, harmonicas, hot dogs, diapers, beer bottles, olive oil, and peanuts, and employing every conceivable stratagem for the nominal draping of their more essentially private parts, 600,000 nature lovers, seventy-five million pounds of flesh, black, white, and yellow, converge on this narrow strip on a good Sunday, occupying it to its last square foot of hot dun-colored sand. Perhaps less than a quarter of this army has passed through one or another of Coney Island's bathhouses. More than three-quarters are there through benefit only of the five-cent subway fare. Most of these have worn their bathing suits as underwear -- but a few liberated souls have changed briskly on the spot. So, despite the vigilance of the new beach patrol, one of the first and most lasting impressions of Coney beach is not the clothing that is worn -- the frankly homemade concessions to modesty, the patched and darned relics of a past prosperity, or the vivid plumage of Davega's, and Macy's basement, and Klein's -- but rather the clothing that has been discarded and lies over Coney beach and flutters from Coney jetties and hangs limply on the superstructure of Steeplechase pier.
The one-quarter or less that has yielded to modesty or comfort or convention and has changed its clothes in a bathhouse has had a wide range of accommodations to choose from. There are first the so-called big ten (including Ravenhall, Tilyou, Washington, McLochlin, Ocean Tide, Ward, and Stauch) whose lockers cost some forty to fifty cents a day -- a fee that may include the use of a pool, handball and basketball courts, and a solarium for sun-bathing, and that sometimes includes a bathing suit. (Eighty per cent of the customers used to rent suits. Only 20 per cent do today.) Between them these ten bathhouse aristocrats shelter 1,250,000 to 2,500,000 people in a season, collect from $300,000 to $500,000,and account for some 50 per cent of Coney Island's total bathhouse bill. Most of them, however, are doing little better than break even and their take is steadily declining.
Then there are the lesser boardwalk bathhouses, where undressing facilities are as low as fifteen cents, two for a quarter, which do another 20 per cent of the total bathhouse business. And there are the white-elephantine Municipal Baths (one-third closed), now under the supervision of the New York City Department of Parks, which entertained 150,000 people last year at fifteen and twenty-five cents a head-only an estimated 7 per cent of the island's business. And along the side streets are scores of rickety bathhouses, thrown together in alleyways and back yards. And north of Surf Avenue are the dozens of frankly illegal bedroom bathhouses whose dubious proprietors solicit business in the streets and where as many as ten mixed couples may share a single bedroom, hanging their clothes from the mantelpiece and draping them across the bed.
Compared with the relatively genteel Jones Beach, twenty-five miles down the shore, Coney Island is disorganized, uncouth, and bawdy. The Department of Parks, which has just taken over the island's beach and Boardwalk, may hope to turn it into another Jones Beach; but the fact remains that Manhattan families can spend the day at Coney Island with no expenditure other than a ten-cent per person round-trip subway fare, while a day at Jones Beach adds up to several times that sum per person for transportation alone.
To police the fifty-seven acres of Coney beach requires an infinite practical tolerance. This is the job of the park department's eighty lifeguards, who watch over the physical well-being of the splashing thousands in the water and less critically over the moral and esthetic welfare of the tens of thousands on the shore. Chief of the Coney Island lifeguards is John McMonigle. For ten years John McMonigle was a jockey -- riding the hurdles and on the flat. But for thirty-seven years he has been a lifeguard at Coney Island. His round lrish face belongs to a man nearing sixty; but his trim body is that of a plenty tough guy of forty, and you have the feeling that John McMonigle would be a good man to have on your side if the going got bad.
Who are the people who come to Coney Island beach?
"Just people. The same ones you meet in the subway or at the movies Saturday night or on the street goin' home from work. Only out here they're having a good time. And maybe they don't care quite so much. Maybe they forget a little. And maybe that's a good thing too."
What about drownings?
"Back in the old days they used to run fifty, sixty a year. Now it's down to three or four on the average. In 1935 there wasn't a one. Rescues are different. We have two, three hundred a year honest-to-God rescues ... not counting the belly rescues where you just go out in the catamaran and tow 'em in. Who are they mostly? Just dumb kids -- eighteen, twenty-one years old -- putting on a show for the girl friend back on shore. You get so you can spot 'em after a while -- the bad swimmers. All that running in, splashing around, don't mean a thing. Half the time the guy can't swim twenty yards. The fat dames is different. Hell, you don't have to worry about them -- can't swim a lick -- but they go in, dog paddle around two hours, an' never touch bottom. By God you can't sink 'em."
It must be hard for a lifeguard to keep his mind on his work with all those pretty little girls...
" ... An' especially when the girls make a play for the guy because he's kind of a hero. But we watch that all the time. A lifeguard can't let down at all. Hell, you never know when some poor slob might get in trouble. And the lifeguard off minding somebody else's business. We had a case just the other day. Nice kid... working his way through school. We found him down in one of the boats. 'And what were you doing?' I says. 'She was just sittin' on the side of the boat,' he says. 'I didn't ask you what she was doin,' I says. But I'm tellin' you that was something."
Does the crowd ever pull any rough stuff?
"Well not so often. The Communists come down and hold meetings and try to put up banners. And sometimes a guy gets a little too much to drink -- and you know, once in a while. But it's all in knowing how to get along with 'em. Be polite -- and never put a finger on one of 'em or you're in for a lawsuit. The trick is to talk 'em out of it. Hell, they don't mean it anyhow."
Which is in itself a benediction on Coney beach. And whatever the park department's plans may be it is probable that Coney beach will remain Coney beach for a long time to come. Kosher picnics will litter the sand; youths will chase baseballs across the backs of couples lost in earnest embrace; girls will parade by twos and fours along the water's edge; the physical needs of the youngest generation will be relieved in full sight of God and man; and the fat old women will dog paddle around for hours without being able to swim a lick.
Noon is a scarcely noticeable break in the Coney Island routine. There is simply a slight intensification in the eating that has been more or less general and continuous from early morning and will last until the lights go out -- cotton candy, apples on sticks, yellow corn. But now whole families fall to on chunks of rye bread and salami and hot dogs, and in the Negro section in front of the municipal baths there is a certain amount of fried chicken wrapped in oilpaper. As the day progresses, the discards and the leavings and the accidentally dropped portions of these tons of food begin to pile up despite the beach patrol and the numerous but half-empty wastebaskets, and the busy flies.
For those who have not brought their own food supply or who have run short there are many possibilities. There are the small "under the Boardwalk" concessions, dark, sunless booths selling hot dogs and ice cream and beer and knishes, Jewish potato cakes flavored with onion and koisha and fried in deep fat. Further afield, on the side streets toward Surf Avenue, are dozens of small restaurants and stands, kosher and non-kosher -- Rumanian tearooms, pop stands, hot-dog grills, and custard counters. For the very superior there is the chaste dining room of the Half Moon Hotel whose big second-floor windows look out across the Boardwalk and ocean. For the thirsty there are many licensed bars; but hard liquor puts a deep dent in a weekend budget, and beer is the accepted drink of Coney Island.
And then there is Feltman's -- Coney Island's largest, most elaborate, and most indigenous eating place.
Feltman's was founded on three things -- shrewd German common sense, an act of God, and the ten-cent frankfurter. The common sense and the frankfurter were brought to Coney Island by a German baker named Charles Feltman when he opened a restaurant on a 200 by 150 foot plot in 1871. The act of God was the addition of some 1,200 feet of free land piled onto this Flot by an obliging sea. This potent combination founded the first great Coney Island family dynasty and a practical long-time monopoly over Coney's restaurant business -- a monopoly carried on by Charles's sons, Charles L. and Alfred, and by Charles A. of the third generation, whose likeness to Franchot Tone of the cinema is frequently noted.
Feltman's bridged the three periods of Coney Island history, prospered in each, and reached its peak during the big days of the nickel empire. At the height of Coney's boom of the middle 1920's Feltman's employed some 1,200 men, could serve 8,000 meals at one time in its Alpine gardens and frankfurter bars and fisherees, boasted of serving 7,000,000 meals in one year, and illuminated this gargantuan scene with some 42,000 electric lights. Its gross volume and its net profits have never been revealed. But at its peak the gross was probably well above $2,000,000; and the Feltman block is today assessed at $1,200,000.
Unfortunately for Feltman's the ten-cent frankfurter could not be patented, and acts of God have a way of averaging off. What happened to Feltman's was a newcomer named Nathan who preceded the depression into Coney Island with a frankfurter at five cents.
Today Feltman's puts on a brave front. Its chef is from the Roney-Plaza in Miami Beach; its frankfurters are still stubbornly priced at ten cents; it still serves by far the best food on the island; and it is wooing its lost customers with a variety of new attractions. A carrousel blares in one corner of the Surf Avenue restaurant. New games and concessions, including a soul-shattering ride called the Boomerang, have blossomed in the long arcade leading to the Boardwalk. And in what was once an Alpine garden moving pictures of the past are now shown nightly at ten cents. But Feltman's 1,200 employees have dwindled to 300 or 350. And there is a persistent rumor that the entire property has been offered for sale. Meanwhile less than a quarter-mile away is Nathan's -- a corner lunch counter employing perhaps fifty people and occupying only a tiny fraction of Feltman's acres. But the crowd fills the sidewalk fifteen deep, overflows into the street, and blocks the traffic in Surf Avenue -- while above its head in endless succession is repeated the magic symbol -- 5¢ -- in letters of fire-engine red.
The Coney Island Boardwalk cost the people of New York City $4,000,000, and it is as free as the air, the sun, and the beach. Which is to say that on a Sunday afternoon it is alive from sea rail to concession booth. "H-e-e-r-r y-a-a-r-r. H-e-e-r-r y-a-a-r-r. Three balls for a dime. Test your skill." It's the exhortation of a passionate and profane revivalist. It's the voice of the concessionaire. . .
..."I been in this park an' carny racket goin' on forty years-the last ten right here on the island. I got a brother's runnin' a geek show in a carnival that's playin' Harlan County an' another that's got the cookhouse an' a pitch-till-you-win out in Nebraska an' my wife's a mentalist. An' I'm tellin' you I never see a year like this. Three weekends rainy in a row. And when the people come they don't spend. Why hell, there used to be a time you could set up a bottle game, cost you maybe one, two hundred bucks, an' clear that in a week, three balls for ten cents. Now you're lucky if you take that much in a season. Sure some of them big games is makin' money-but, what the hell, costs you maybe twenty, thirty grand-an' next year where are you? Maybe in business, maybe up the creek. Then there's this guy Moss -- Paul Moss the Commissioner of Licenses -- where does he think he gets off cuttin' out the bally an' handin' out tickets an' makin' you pay off in merchandise when the Jersey parks is payin' cash. Sure I believe in runnin' games on the level. You gotta keep this racket clean and decent. It's a family racket, that's what I always says. But where does that guy get off tellin' us how to run our business? Of course maybe some of the games was gimmicked a little; but what the hell. You gotta have a percentage with the house don't you? The people just ain't got no money. If there was another soldier's bonus -- Jeeze, we got halfa that the first week they paid it off. But that's all over. This new spendin' gag down in Washington oughta mean somethin' -- if they hand it out in cash. But it's too late to catch it this year. World's Fair? Listen, there ain't goin' to be no World's Fair. That's the way I figure it. People ain't goin' to pay the rents Whalen's askin'. The small men can't. It ain't in the cards. An' the big ones won't. But I'm tellin' you, mister, I never see a year like this one-an' if it wasn't for the old woman an' my youngest kid-she has the custard stand -- I'd be thinkin' about gettin' out on the road again myself where a guy maybe has a chance to pick up a little decent dough-so help me God."
Further along the Boardwalk, just beyond Steeplechase is a white-fronted entrance with a sign above it reading, "Life Begins at the Baby Incubators." Pay your twenty cents and go in; the Boardwalk is only a few yards away, but you are in a miniature hospital -- white-walled, immaculate, remote. Along the rear, behind a brass rail, is a row of eight airtight, glass-walled boxes, each with a bubbling oxygen tank beside it, each holding from one to two incredibly minute babies wrapped in fleece. To the left, behind a glass window, is a fully equipped modern nursery. Lined up at the rail a group of self-conscious young couples and wide-eyed elderly women listen to a youngish man who speaks in a low voice with a clipped Liverpool accent.
"Now this little baby came in nine days ago. It weighed only one pound ten ounces and we were afraid we might be too late. It was even bluer than that little fellow over in the other incubator... Yes, ma'am, it was a premature birth. About six months...
Baby incubators are one of the major paradoxes that have flowered in Coney Island. They appeal to an unhealthy morbidity; and they have been condemned as rank exploitation. Actually the display is completely humanitarian and has the endorsement of the archconservative American Medical Association. Baby incubators have been the lifework of an astonishing individual, by name Dr. Martin A. Couney, a seventy-year-old physician who combines two diametrically opposed qualities-showmanship and scientific integrity. Dr. Couney developed his first baby incubator in the early 1890's when he was a young intern in a Paris hospital. His funds were limited, and the medical profession was apathetic. Showmanship came to his rescue. He decided to finance his work by direct public subscription in the form of admission fees. His first public appearance, at the Berlin exposition in 1896, was highly successful. There was, however, one minor embarrassment. The name selected for the new contrivance was Kinderbriitenanstalt, or baby breeding-place. And many a literal-minded German was disappointed to find on entering that babies were not being bred at all -- merely being kept warm.
Doctor Couney landed at Coney Island in 1904 and has been there ever since -- although he has maintained separate establishments at Atlantic City and at the Chicago Century of Progress. In his forty-odd years of work he has saved the lives of some 7,000 prematurely born babies -- 90 per cent of all those brought to him. These are as a rule children of the poor. Occasionally, however, when all hospital facilities are in use, he takes the children of well-to-do parents; but in no case does he accept a fee. He keeps the babies for from two to three months, then sends them home. To break even, the display must take in $150 a day at twenty cents a ticket. There are the salaries of five registered nurses (one of whom is Doctor Couney's daughter), two wet nurses, and the attendants to be paid -- not to mention the cost of equipment, heat, rent, and oxygen. Currently that $150 is not even covered during weekends, and there is a weekly deficit of some $600. But there have been times in the past when things have gone better and following the Chicago exposition Dr. Couney was able to present his entire equipment to the Infant Aid Society and endow it with a $16,000 fund.
Coney Island is peppered with the alumni of Dr. Couney's hospital. One is an electrician at Steeplechase; two others work at Luna park; and recently another won a "high sales " prize as a clerk at the five-and ten. Dr. Couney himself bought five dollars' worth of knickknacks at the last minute to help her win. At a recent birthday party for one two-year-old alumnus, six others were present to help him celebrate.
On hot summer afternoons thunderstorms rise over Coney Island with little warning. To a large part of the Island they mean sheer loss; but to Steeplechase park, they return a moderate profit. For many of the more solvent of the fleeing thousands seek shelter in its big pavilion, and the admission charge is fifty cents a head.
Steeplechase believes in a few simple truisms. It believes that most people never grow up and that even adolescents like to escape back into childhood. It believes that half the world likes to show off and that the other and less daring half is perpetually interested in the performance. And it believes that pretty legs, however trite, are never dull, and that ugly ones are always funny. And largely because of these truisms the crowds in Steeplechase park are big and noisy and predominantly young and almost frantically amused, and because of this Steeplechase itself is like all the Sunday-school picnics in the world gathered into a single fifteen-acre park.
Steeplechase has a swimming pool and a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel and an airplane swing and an Old Mill scattered over its acres of green lawn. But the heart of Steeplechase is its pavilion, five acres of hardwood floor under a vaulted ceiling of glass and steel. Around the outer edge of this pavilion sweep the famous Steeplechase horses, eight abreast, a couple astride each horse, on tracks that rise and dip and fall away. By leaning forward at the top of the inclines you can increase your speed and beat your seven competitors; but when you dismount, the only exit is into a labyrinth of passages. You emerge from the labyrinth onto a brightly lighted stage occupied by a clown and a dwarf who eye you beadily. Across the footlights you are dimly conscious of a noisy and delighted audience. As you walk self-consciously toward an exit door downstage right, a sudden gust of wind from below whips your partner's skirt above her waist; the clown touches you with a rod and you get a sharp electric shock; and as you clutch your wounded parts the floor buckles under you. The clown shouts a warning; your partner grabs at her hat; a second gust of wind lifts her skirt; the dwarf whacks you mightily with a dingbat; piles of barrels by the door suddenly totter above your head; and you stumble off stage into the grateful anonymity of the crowd with the applause or derision of the audience in your ears.
Across the pavilion from the stage there is a revolving platter of highly polished wood that spills you off against the sides of a crowd-encircled ring; from a platform under the roof the granddaddy of all slides drops you down into a depressed saucer in the floor; from a funnel you drop out onto a table on which a dozen small plates whirl rapidly in opposite directions; swings carry you out above the heads of the crowd; the giant Hoop-La, powered by four agile acrobats, swoops up and down and around; and on a half acre of ballroom floor couples gyrate in parodies of eccentric dances.
These are the simple ingredients of Steeplechase-good-natured horseplay and crowd hysteria -- exhibitionism and frank adolescent sex. And it is the crowd itself that puts on the show.
The monetary unit at Steeplechase is fifty cents. This covers a combination ticket including admission to the park, the pavilion, the ballroom, and all thirty-one of Steeplechase's rides and attractions. And it is this fifty-cent combination ticket that sets Steeplechase apart from the rest of Coney Island. High enough in price to exclude a vast majority of the Coney Island mob, low enough to attract some 30,000 on a good Sunday, and a fixed charge so that a couple or a family can budget its expenses for an entire day (it takes a good seven or eight hours to try each Steeplechase attraction once), the combination ticket has helped Steeplechase weather Coney Island's first depression and has made it by far the most profitable enterprise on the island.
Steeplechase, which is assessed at more than $2,000,000, is owned by Coney Island's first family -- the Tilyous. It was conceived and built by George C. Tilyou, whose father, a French Huguenot, was one of the early Coney Island pioneers. And it is operated today by his sons, Ed and Frank and George C. Jr., who boast that whenever the park is open at least one Tilyou and usually two are there. The park they operate, however, is not the original Steeplechase; that was burned to the ground in 1907 -- in one of Coney Island's six major fires. And a story the Tilyous like to tell is that before the embers were cool George Tilyou Sr. was selling tickets to the hot ruins at ten cents a head.
The problems of an amusement park begin where those of a more prosaic business end. There are such relatively simple problems as charity; Steeplechase entertained some 5,000 orphans last year free of charge. And there are the problems raised by the involved Coney Island economy of weather and the nickel. But the biggest and the most insoluble problem of all is human behavior -- the drunk who won't go home, the spinster who was pinched by a strange man in a cap, and the boy who wants to stand up in the roller coaster. Perhaps that's why the Tilyous get such a kick out of their jobs -- why it's so hard to leave the business once you're in it. As Frank Tilyou says, and he has tried both real estate and banking, "Once sand gets in your shoes, you're sunk."
There are three freak shows of a sort at Coney Island, but the islanders will tell you that there is only one showman. That's Sam Wagner of the World Circus Side Show, Inc., who has been in the business thirty-five years. Sam's two boys handle the spieling and inside lecturing. Sam didn't think much of the idea -- tried to persuade them to get into something else; but it didn't work.
Sam is discouraged -- on a big day he used to draw 20,000 people at ten cents each. Now he thinks he's lucky to get 8,000 on a perfect day, and that 8,000 means a take of only $800. Sam's payroll runs about $1,000 a week and his rent and overhead come to about $600 more; so it takes only a few rainy weekends to put Sam in the red for the year. Sam believes that one reason business is bad is that people just haven't the money to spend any more. Another is that freaks are harder to find. Sam doesn't know why. It may be the competition and it may be just that fewer freaks are born today. Then there are the new regulations of Commissioner Moss, whose power to issue and revoke licenses is the power of life and death over Coney Island shows. Sam is pretty bitter about the new regulations, which prevent honest outside bally (preview of the show on an outside stand). It's hard enough to get them in off the street with the best spieler in the world.
Sam's present show, and he admits it isn't up to some others he's had, includes: The Spider Boy; Singing Lottie, Fat Girl (O Boy, Some Entertainer); Laurello, the Only Man With a Revolving Head (See Frisco, the Wonder Dog); Professor Bernard, Magician Extraordinary (He will fool you); Professor Graf, Tattoo Artist (Alive); and his star act, Belle Bonita and her Fighting Lions (Action, Thrills). Last year he had Jack Johnson at a whopping big salary but the take wouldn't stand the strain.
But Sam's favorites are his two famous microcephalic idiots, or pinheads, Pipo and Zipo, whom he dug up in the cracker country nine years ago, after a rumor had sent him scurrying south armed with a letter of introduction from Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York to the mayor of Hartwell, Georgia.
Since that time Pipo and Zipo have supported their normal cracker relatives with the money Sam pays them for their four months in Coney. (It's $75 a week this year.) In winter they go home for a visit. Pipo is twenty-six, and has the intelligence of an eighteen-months-old baby. His sister, Zipo, is thirty-eight and is much brighter. In fact she is rather horribly smart and winsome.
They are extremely amiable and are probably better off in the four months they spend with Sam than they are at home. Not only are they well fed, clean, and comfortably housed (their rooms above the side show include a shower). With Sam they have something to do -- something to look at; and each enjoys an audience.
Sam plays with his pinheads much as other people might play with a pet dog. He has taught them little tricks and mannerisms, and Zipo adores him. There is not the faintest trace of sadism in Sam as he plays with his pinheads. There is only an enormous kindness.
The Bowery runs from the western entrance of Steeplechase into Feltman's arcade. It is a narrow, congested alley, only three and a half blocks long. But at nine o'clock on a crowded Sunday night its impact is like a hard right hook to the jaw. Only slowly do single voices and smells and faces emerge from the cacophony of the whole. Above the sound of a hundred spielers shouting each other down and a dozen mechanical pianos and radios blasting a dozen different tunes you hear the sudden crash of a roller coaster dropping into space, and high above it all, a short shrill scream. Out of that single complex smell, which has, a thick, moist substance of its own, you pick the primary smells of corn and cooking sugar and seaweed and strong perfume. And out of the weaving bobbing sea of faces you catch the quick, primitive technique of the pickup. "Want a ride, baby?" "You want a sock in the puss?" In the Bowery the lifeblood of Coney Island runs rich and red out to its smallest, greediest capillaries. It is the concentrated distillate of all the midways of all the carnivals in America.
There are the games -- about evenly divided between those that offer something for nothing and those that provide a chance to show off. Packages of cigarettes and tall thin candy boxes stand alternately on a shelf. You shoot a cork from a popgun. You shoot till you win -- but what you win is a tall thin candy box with four gray daubs of taffy, a penny a box by the gross. It's what is known as a gimmick. For the shelf is wide, the cigarettes heavy, the candy light and poorly balanced. But if you know how, you can gimmick the game -- slip a thumbtack in the cork.
You throw a baseball at six bottles pyramided on a table -- three balls for a dime -- and you knock the six bottles down with the first ball. But you can't knock them off. A narrow band extends around the table top and keeps them in place. You may get a bamboo cane anyway. It costs the concessionaire nine-tenths of a cent.
There are the waxworks pandering openly to the morbid curiosity that always lifts newspaper circulations after a kidnapping or a good murder. But the tabloids and the confession magazines and the radio have cut heavily into their' take. There are the penny arcades that have blossomed out with dozens of new pin games. But the old favorites remain unchanged -- the same titles, After the Bath, Too Hot to Sleep, Too Many Kisses -- the same hot, choked adolescent discovery of sex. Only the gambling machines are missing. The racketeers were run out of Coney Island years ago.
And then there are the rides -- each going back to one of the old fundamentals. The roller coasters are frightening (although they are generally among the safest rides of all) but they also bring young bodies into hard, intimate contact. And the ninety-foot vertical drop of the Bowery's Cyclone is said to be the second highest in America. The carrousels or merry-go-rounds, simplest and oldest rides of all, appeal to the spirit of make-believe. The Wonder Wheel climbing up into the night offers the fear of height and the intimacy of a private seat in the sky. The auto rides and the boat rides with their furious, harmless' crashes appeal like the carrousels to the spirit of make-believe but they are also a convenient preliminary to a pickup. The Virginia Reel whirling down a zigzag incline, the Whip cracking around its turns, the long dark tunnel rides, the airplane swing, the fun houses, and the newest rides -- the Loop-O-Plane and the Octopus and the Boomerang -- the aim of each is to frigh ten; to color the imagination; or to help boy meet girl.
This nickel empire reached its peak during the middle 1920's. It has been declining ever since. To explain that decline in the depression-proof industry there are a number of theories. There is the theory that people are increasingly interested in active sports -- less so in the passive thrills of the midway. There is the theory that the movies and the automobile and the radio are cutting deeply into the whole amusement-park business. And there is the theory that with sixty-mile-an-hour locomotion an everyday matter, the amusement-park business has been signally lacking in imagination. As one Coney Islander puts it, "Nowadays you have to half kill 'em to get a dime."
But whatever the causes of the decline may be and however serious it may seem at the moment, it is probably a mistake to sell the nickel empire short. Amusement parks have lived a long time and have weathered a great many storms. And they still play a vital part in the lives of an enormous number of urban boys and girls. They are what the Caribbean cruise is to the stenographer -- what the chance to visit in a strange city is to the small-town girl. They are an escape from the narrow social boundaries of the factory, the block, and the public school. And garish, tawdry, aphrodisiac Coney Island is to a hundred thousand adolescent New Yorkers heaven at the end of the subway.
The late Frederick Thompson founded Luna park with his famous Trip to the Moon, and then named it, not for the moon at all, but for his partner's sister in Des Moines. But always Luna has meant light, and Barron Collier who owns it now has preserved the tradition.
Luna at night is almost impossibly beautiful -- an ultimate Christmas tree -- a Hans Christian Anderson magic castle-a spendthrift carnival of light. And the lights of Luna sell romance.
At twelve or one Steeplechase is dark and the lights of Luna follow shortly after. But the Bowery pounds on until after two when the lid goes on and Coney Island goes to sleep. On the deserted Boardwalk two sailors argue with a third who is very drunk and believes that the most desirable girl in the world is out somewhere on the dim sand. A single policeman paces by. The bell buoys sound clear and flat across the harbor water. And fog rolls up from the sea like a damp gray sheet.