Coney Island Museum returns to form
Photo by Bill Scurry
BY TRAV S.D. (travsd.wordpress.com) | Among Coney Island’s many attractions — the amusement parks, the beach, the boardwalk, the eateries, and Brooklyn Cyclones baseball — there lives one that is less noisome but just as significant and true to the spirit of the neighborhood.
Nestled on the second floor of Coney Island USA, the same organization that produces Sideshows by the Seashore and the Mermaid Parade, one can find the Coney Island Museum. The creation of a museum was part of Coney Island USA’s mandate since the organization’s inception in 1980. It has been a going concern since 1985.
The museum had been closed for 18 months to allow an extensive city-funded renovation that included restoration of the 97-year-old building’s decorative architecture and the installation of a new heating and cooling system. This is welcome news to longtime visitors, who will remember the stifling temperatures that once were an expected feature of a trip to the Coney Island Museum. This reporter attended opening day (Memorial Day Weekend) and was pleased to observe a veritable gale of Arctic breezes flowing out of the vents.
New features include interactivity, 3D
The bulk of the museum’s floor space is devoted to the permanent collection, which contains an abundance of artifacts related to the culture of Coney Island’s recreational beaches and amusement district: fun house mirrors, show posters, passenger cars from amusement park rides, souvenir post cards, a Mermaid Parade float, an entire wall of vintage picnic gear, photographs, ephemera such as tickets to long-gone rides, and oddments like a game-of-chance doll prize topped with the grinning face of the Steeplechase man. Documentary footage of Coney Island’s amusement parks in their heyday is projected onto a screen on a continuous loop. An interactive exhibit displays several postcards with fun glow-in-the-dark elements.
Also on view at present are several exciting new features.
Longtime Coney Island USA performer Fred Kahl, a.k.a. “The Great Fredini” has opened the Coney Island Scan-A-Rama 3D Portrait Studio where, for a fee, visitors can immortalize themselves in 3D scan plastic sculptures, a kind of modern updating of the old time Coney island photo booth. His ultimate creation in this cutting edge format now sits upstairs, occupying an entire room of the Coney Island Museum. Called “Thompson and Dundy’s Luna Park: 3D,” it is a 1:13 scale replica of Coney Island’s original Luna Park (different from the current one by that name) which operated from 1903 through 1944. (Frederic Thompson and Elmer Dundy were the visionary entrepreneurs who built the original park.) In addition to depicting Luna Park’s historic structures, the piece is populated with 3D images of people, all of whom were modeled on players in the contemporary Coney Island scene: sideshow performers, burlesque dancers, Mermaids, etc. — and standing at the center of them all, Coney Island USA Founder and Director Dick Zigun.
“The brilliance of this piece is that it recreates the lost architecture of the original Luna Park even as the new Luna Park finishes its build-out,” says Zigun. “It is the largest 3D printed art project ever attempted.” Kahl plans to expand his Luna Park by adding new pieces to it throughout the season.
Directly across from the exhibition, something a little different: an exhibition of visual art by a Coney Island native. “The Darkside of Dreamland” is a showing of paintings, collages and sculptures by local artist Africasso (Daniel Blake). Some of Africasso’s work seems to be about the culture clash between the amusement district (and its rubber-necking hipsters) and the urban poor who live only a block away, but seldom seem to factor into public discussion about the present and future disposition of the neighborhood. Other pieces, such as his mixed-media “Miles Davis” are more celebratory, or like the mural “Negroes on the Corner,” politically suggestive in a more general way.
Zigun says, “Africasso is the most prominent artist living in Coney’s often forgotten residential West End. We were attracted to the way his works deal with the surrealistic nightmare of violence juxtaposed to the business of fun.”
In addition to the ongoing exhibitions, the Coney Island Museum is the site of a variety of public programs, such as events in the recent Congress of Curious Peoples, an annual collaboration between Coney Island USA and [the Gowanus] Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum. (Full disclosure: this reporter gave a talk there just a few weeks ago).
Now that summer is here, visitors can also enjoy the return of the annual film series put on by the Coney Island Film Society. This year’s season is a mix, including documentaries about Coney Island, historical oddities like the 1923 Harry Houdini silent, “Haldane of the Secret Service,” and co-presentations of B-movies with the likes of Phantom Creeps Theatre and Ghoul A Go-Go.
Admission to the Coney Island Museum (1208 Surf Ave.) is $5, and only $3 for students, seniors, and residents of the 11224 zip code. Summer hours are 1-6 p.m. For more info on the Museum: coneyisland.com/programs/coney-island-museum.
Trav S.D. has been producing the American Vaudeville Theatre since 1995, and periodically trots it out in new incarnations. Stay in the loop at travsd.wordpress.com, and also catch up with him on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al. His books include “No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous” and “Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YouTube.”