Sunday, July 20, 2008

Coney Island 1939


It was a major attraction at Coney Island. Well advertised and presented by George C. Tilyou. (Who was he?) It had a logo consisting of a face with a wide toothy grin, literally from ear to ear. (I was perhaps 10 or 11 years old, so I am writing through a filter of 70 or so years.) There was an entrance fee of perhaps a dollar, maybe more, but certainly way too much for me. But a cereal box had a coupon: free admission if accompanied by an adult. Not a problem. Wait at the entrance and ask adults to take you in. To my surprise, this always worked.

The wonderful thing about Steeplechase is that your admission gave you access about 25 “rides.” When you went on one of these, it was duly noted on your card. But the idea of going from ride to ride without paying was exhilarating. And what rides! There were the usual Coney Island rides – the whip, roller coaster (I think), etc. There were Horses: these rolled on a track, powered by some unknown source, fairly fast, simulating a run at a racetrack. The race was visible from the street, and may have served as an enticement for onlookers to come in. For me, the big attraction was a giant wooden slide. We were warned (perhaps it was common knowledge) to keep our arms around our chest, lest we get serious burns. A great slide. And I believe we had unlimited access to it. The slide was one of a kind, and I have never seen the likes of it again. Then there was the Barrel. Large and rotating. you had to run though it without falling. Many did not.

But wait! There was The Stage. At some point, you found yourself walking across a stage with a clown who was trying to get a laugh at your expense. He had a wand (probably a cattle prod) whose purpose was to give you a little shock and make you jump. There were people in the audience (mostly parents) enjoying the fun. If you were female and happened to wear a skirt (most did) and passed over certain places on the stage, you experienced a sudden rush of air under you, and were in a situation subsequently made famous by Marilyn Monroe. I quickly found the seats to this show, and waited patiently for some unsuspecting female to show up on stage.

I went back a few times, mostly for the slide and barrel and for the view of the stage. Many years later I learned that Steeplechase was no more. A fire ended its life. That part of my life was no more too, and I was deeply saddened. A similar attraction, Luna Park, which I had never visited, was also destroyed by fire.

This musing occurred to me when my wife, Shirley, one morning asked me the simple question, ”What was the happiest time of your life?” There was a more gallant answer, but I must admit that Steeplechase managed to pop into my mind.

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