Friday, June 5, 2009

Coney Island - Land of Enchantment

If you know that the object pictured is an old admission ticket from Coney Island's Steeplechase Park, then you are indeed a lucky (and old) person my friend. Steeplechase on the boardwalk at Coney Island was the nation's first "pay one price" theme park. They had a big rotating barrel that you had to walk through to get into the park. If you walked straight through you fell down, you had to walk sideways and inch your way to the end.

The park was a favorite stop after spending a day at the Coney Island or Brighton beaches. Just shake the sand out of your sneakers and hit the rides.The park featured rides like the Panama slide, the giant ferris wheel and of course, the park's namesake ride, the mechanical Steeplechace Race Horses. I seem to recall as you exited the ride, there was a clown with an air hose and air vents in the floor, all intended to blow air up the girls' skirts. Good fun, and sorry ambulance chasers, nobody sued for sexual harassment.

Then, I think just outside the Steeplechase Park grounds, was the Parachute Jump, bought by Edward Tilyou from the 1939 New York World's Fair. The ride was opened for the 1941 season. It stood 262 feet at its tallest point and had twelve chutes, each with a seat that held two passengers. The Parachute Jump was purchased in 1940 from a retired naval officer who originally had it built to train real-life paratroopers for service.

We rode the Brighton elevated train to Coney Island. I still remember the straw seats, and the little enclosed compartment near the conductor's station on the train that every kid make a bee line for because of its exclusive and private location. It was like a first class compartment on the Orient Express.

Always an option was a stop at "Nathan's Famous" for a mandatory hot dog, some french fries in a cup, and maybe even Chow Mein on a bun. (I know, it sounds disgusting but it was good.) Nathan’s Famous was founded by a Polish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, and his is truly an authentic “only in America story.” He started his business in 1916 with a small hot dog stand in Coney Island, New York. He sold hot dogs that were manufactured based on a recipe developed by his wife, Ida. In the over 90 years that have passed since opening day, Nathan’s has gained worldwide recognition with over 360 million hot dogs sold annually in all fifty states, but none will ever taste as good as the originals. I think it was the salt air.

Sadly, Steeplechase, our generation's Disneyworld, closed in 1964 after a general decline in the neighborhood. I always wondered why Coney Island remained undeveloped over the years. They are now planning a series of residential condos for the area, which I guess is good for the Brooklyn economy, but the real essence of this magical place will be lost. Maybe on a quiet summer night, if they listen carefully, the condo residents will be able to hear the ghostly squeals of delight from the millions of visitors to Steeplechase Park who left a piece of their childhood behind.



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