Archive for the tag 'coney island history'

RKO Tilyou Theatre exterior

The RKO Tilyou Theater. Built in the 1920s and now destroyed. It represents the rise of Coney Island as an amusement destination. (Source: Cinema Treasures)

The RKO Tilyou is one of those landmarks of Southern Brooklyn that have long been demolished but still live on through pictures and legacy. Originally built in 1926 on Surf Avenue, the theater belonged to a Coney Island family that helped define the waterfront neighborhood as an amusement destination.

The theater’s peculiar name comes from the family, the Tilyous, that opened the cinema. And the story of the theater is intertwined with the Tilyou family, a long line of people that the Brooklyn Museum describe as being “intimately connected with Coney Island as providers of entertainment.”

On the opening night of March 18, 1926, the theater featured vaudeville and the film Three Faces East, according to Cezar Del Valle. He has published two volumes on old theaters in Brooklyn called The Brooklyn Theater Index. There is soon to be a third volume that will feature the Tilyou theater along with many other oldies in Southern Brooklyn.

Cinema Treasures, another site for old theaters, writes this about the Tilyou theater:

This grand old theatre had its heyday in the golden era of Coney Island. It stood one block away from the Shore Theatre and Steeplechase Park, all on Surf Avenue. The Tilyou Theatre was opened by B.S. Moss on March 18, 1926.

The Shore Theater that is referred to above is last remaining theaters of the era still standing in Coney Island.

The Tilyous also enjoyed fame and glory during that time. Their legacy stretches back into the mid-19th century when Peter Tilyou opened a  Surf House in 1865 before Coney Island’s “golden era.” The neighborhood was beginning to transform into a world of amusement. The tavern quickly became a popular waterhole close to the terminus of the first rail line, according to the Brooklyn Museum. Peter’s son, George, went on to open Steeplechase Park in 1897 and the family eventually went on to open the RKO theater along with a Ferris Wheel “and other rides scattered along the beach,” according to Coney Island History.

The account continues:

[George] Tilyou became Coney’s biggest booster and a philanthropist who supported local orphanages, the Catholic church, children’s hospitals, and other charities.

In 1897, George moved his mechanical horse-racing-themed rides into an enclosed park at West 16th Street and Surf Avenue.

George died in 1914 and his children continued to run the park and the various other sources of amusement the family owned. Then in 1964, they sold the Steeplechase Park to a developer who demolished it. Not long after that, in 1973, the RKO Theater was also demolished.

In its twilight, it was running action double features at bargain prices.

Source: Daniel P. Fleming via Flickr

Source: Daniel P. Fleming via Flickr

For better or worse, New York City is the land of constant renewal. Over the last century, newer and higher skyscrapers overshadowed older ones, poor and working class neighborhoods transformed into expensive and trendy hotspots and the luxurious beachfront resorts of Coney Island evolved into an amusement center and then a source of urban blight. The long and winding history of the development of Coney Island real estate and its future is tracked in a great primer  by Salon.

We have spilled a lot of digital ink on the history of Coney Island, starting with the competing resort days of Manhattan and Brighton Beach, the days when the area was the source of bizarre spectacles like the public electrocution of an elephant and the efforts of those who failed to transform the area into a glittering paradise after it fell into decay.

Salon’s article, though, tackles the onset of modernity, and the woes it caused at the People’s Playground:

This was once a singular place, an amusement park so grand and unusual that on an average weekend in its heyday, visitors mailed a quarter-million postcards to friends and relatives. Luna Park, the flagship attraction that burned down in 1916, drew nearly 100,000 attendees each day. By the time the subway reached Stillwell Avenue, in 1918, the area drew still more visitors. Weegee’s iconic 1940 image of Coney Island beachgoers jammed together like sardines today hangs in restaurants up and down the boardwalk, a memento of the glory days.

In the ensuing decades, population loss, television, cars and air conditioning undercut Coney Island’s appeal. New York’s urban planning czar, Robert Moses, hated its tawdry arcades and thrill rides. He transformed the eastern end of the amusement district into a home for the relocated New York Aquarium. The housing projects with which he rebuilt Coney Island became some of the city’s most depressed and dangerous.

Jumping from Coney Island’s decay, the report delves into those who changed Coney Island through land use and zoning battles, property squatting and tenant evictions; the horrendous city planning pains that birthed the new New Coney Island, for better or for worse:

As the city grew rapidly in the ’90s, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani set his sights on Coney Island. Like [Robert] Moses before him, he bulldozed a roller coaster to build a recreational facility, this time a minor league ballpark for the Brooklyn Cyclones. The Bloomberg administration eyed the island as a potential site for the 2012 Olympics, and in 2003, commissioned the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC) to examine the possibility of revising the restrictive C7 zoning that since 1961 had sheltered carnies and coasters (and a few vacant lots, as well) from market forces.

But a Brooklyn developer named Joe Sitt stole the limelight from CIDC, announcing a $2 billion plan in September 2005 that made the Las Vegas Strip look dull. Sitt had shrewdly purchased over a dozen acres of the old amusement park in anticipation of a rezoning gold rush, and hoped to bring in marquee clients like Dave and Buster’s, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and the Hard Rock Café.

It’s fair to say New Yorkers were horrified by Sitt’s plan — he responded by toning it down in later renditions — but what happened next was worse. Unable to build on his new land, Sitt chose instead to destroy it. Two years after his gaudy dreamchild was plastered on the cover of New York magazine, his development company, Thor Equities, began to evict tenants in what was both a premature move towards development and, many observers reckoned, an attempt to force the city’s hand. Coney Island grew barren. “They paved paradise to put up…. what exactly?” asked the Brooklyn Paper.

The present reality of Coney Island, influenced by Bloomberg’s efforts to redevelop and rezone seemingly the entire city, and the events of Superstorm Sandy, has attracted a corporate presence to the boardwalk, no matter how nauseating some might see it. Salon’s report touches on the fears some have of the quixotic spirit of the area being stamped out forever:

What’s in store for the amusement area? “We will never make Disney here,” CAI president Valero Ferrari told the New York Times, ”but it will be something more… refined, cleaner, a little more year-round, if that’s possible, with sit-down restaurants and sports bars.”

The company hired Miami Beach restaurateur Michele Merlo to re-envision the boardwalk, with plans that call for, among other things, a food court with international cuisine. “Maybe one day,” he said in an interview with New York 1, “you can come and read your book outside on this nice boardwalk, sit in nice comfortable chairs and have a nice cappuccino or ice coffee.”

The report is well worth soaking up and you can do so by clicking here.

Moving the Brighton Beach Hotel (Source: New York Public Library via

Moving the Brighton Beach Hotel (Source: New York Public Library via

In the 1870s, Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach were some of the poshest digs this side of fancy-town; an exclusive getaway for New York’s monocle wearing upper-crust. A fascinating report by Curbed traces this history, a time when the two beach communities were once dotted with lavish hotels and resorts.

Right off the bat, we learn that Manhattan Beach had a “creator” in the person of wealthy railroad tycoon (and notorious anti-Semite) Austin Corbin. Corbin began investing heavily in the area when a doctor told him that seaside living would improve his son’s health. Curbed describes the birth and subsequent expansion of the early Manhattan Beach community:

Corbin was a guest at the Ocean Hotel owned by William Engelman, a man who made his fortune selling horses to the government during the Civil War. While there, Corbin set his sights on the uninhabited swampland east of Engelman’s property, realizing its potential as a resort destination. He chose the name “Manhattan Beach” in the hope that its cosmopolitan flavor would attract a clientele of the same ilk. Also recognizing that the remote location required transportation access, he used his power as president of the Long Island Railroad to construct the New York and Manhattan Beach Railway, bringing the shore within one hour of uptown New York.

After Corbin got the trains connected to the city, the luxurious Queen Anne-style Manhattan Beach Hotel opened for business on July 4, 1877. Attracting former President Ulysses S. Grant to the grand opening ceremonies, the hotel held the reputation as “the best hotel on the Atlantic Ocean” according to an ancient review in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Curbed described some of the amenities available at the four-story wooden hotel as well as Corbin’s continued expansion of the area:

[T]he hotel featured 150 guest rooms as well as an assortment of restaurants, ballrooms, and shops and offered first class entertainment—John Philip Sousa performed here and wrote the musical piece “The Manhattan Beach March” in the hotel’s honor in 1893. In addition, exclusive New York clubs such as the University Club, the Union League, the New York Club and the Coney Island Jockey Club used the resort as their summer headquarters. Based on the success of his first hotel, Corbin would build another three years later—the Oriental Hotel. An opulent hotel with a Moorish motif, this hotel catered to the wealthiest of families, offering them suites for extended stays throughout the entire resort season.

Engelman, the hotel proprietor who originally hosted Corbin in his own Ocean Hotel, was not to be outdone. He created his own resort, which he dubbed Brighton Beach, inspired by the British seaside location. Engelman built the Hotel Brighton in 1878 right by the shore but in 10 years time, Mother Nature had intervened forcing dramatic action to save the hotel:

The beach in front of the hotel would become so badly eroded that the ocean waves would lap up against the hotel’s façade. To save it from destruction, the hotel was placed atop 120 railcars and moved inland 500 to 600 feet [pictured above]. This massive job only took three months to complete, meaning the hotel was open for business again in the summer of 1888. Engelman failed to lure Corbin’s wealthier clientele, however, because they did not wish to be any closer to Coney Island.

The resort business was booming in the late 19th century as wealthy patrons enjoyed horse-racing particularly. The area soon became the top horse-racing spot in all of America. Despite the success of all the hotels and resorts, their popularity quickly waned due to a ban on gambling which killed the horse-race loving crowds. Curbed describes the gambling prohibition and other factors which led to the end of the resorts by the 1920s.

The amusement parks opening in West Brighton, the suburbanization of parts of Brooklyn, and the Manhattan Beach Improvement Company selling off parcels of land for residential development. But what truly destroyed these areas was the prohibition of gambling, forcing the once very lucrative horse tracks to close, thus causing many patrons to stop coming to these resorts. Between 1910 and 1920, both the Manhattan Beach (1911-2) and Oriental Hotels (1916) were torn down and the land was sold for residential development. Although once considered a negative, the Brighton Beach Hotel’s close proximity to Coney Island, which was at its peak during this time, meant that the Brighton Beach Hotel fared a bit better—it stood until 1926. Although these hotels were gone, the area remained popular for its Manhattan Beach Baths, a bungalow and bathhouse community with daily concerts and dance. The baths closed in 1942, marking the end of Manhattan and Brighton beaches as resort destinations.

While Brighton Beach has transformed into a Russian immigrant stronghold and the resorts of Manhattan Beach have given way to private homes, the last remaining artifact of that bygone Victorian era is the boardwalk and the view of the ocean. Am I the only one who wishes they had a time machine to visit the 1880s and see what these areas actually were like in fancier times?

Source: Thirsty Girl Productions

It’s time to get your history on and tap into your databank of Coney Island trivia during the Second Annual History Day at Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and The Coney Island History Project, tomorrow, August 11 (rain date: August 12), from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Everything old will be new again—especially if you dress in classic Roaring Twenties garb, which will entitle you to one free ride on the Wonder Wheel, so break out those spats, cloche hats and flapper dresses and get ready to do the Charleston.

Live Entertainment

Shake your booty with NYC’s legendary Hungry March Band, satisfy your soul with Ragtime and Dixieland from The Banjo Rascals and let loose with Benjamin Ickies & The Coney Island Screamers, who attack Golden Age Circus Music with a Rock ‘n Roll attitude. The always-amazing Lady Circus will also be on tap.

Performances and events will be held at The Wonder Wheel, at The Coney Island History Project, 3059 West 12th Street off the Boardwalk, and throughout Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park.

Plus: Ride The Wonder Wheel and receive a nostalgic Coney Island commemorative gift and have a chance to take your photo with old timey cutouts for free.

Live History

Test your Coney Island smarts at the Coney Island Trivia Contest with historian and author Charles Denson. Prizes include ride passes for Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park and souvenir postcards. You are invited to come and record your memories for the History Projects oral History Archive if you have a Coney Island story to share.

The public can also participate in Deno’s Draw-a-thon. Adults and kids are invited to draw a picture of the landmark Wonder Wheel, which will then become part of an online photo exhibit. Crayons and paper will be provided.

Additionally, a new exhibit on the cultural history of Coney Island’s bathhouses and the art of bathhouse key tags will open on History Day at the Coney Island History Project. There were once more than 50 bathhouses of all kinds lining the beach at Coney Island.

A century ago bathhouses provided the only access to the beach and, for many, a home away from home. Now hardly anyone knows what a bathhouse is. The shorefront facilities were a popular cultural phenomenon, providing entertainment, lockers, changing rooms, showers, swim suit rentals, steam baths, massive salt water pools, athletic equipment, game courts, restaurants, and fenced wooden decks for nude sunbathing.

This exhibit provides a history told in photographs, admission tickets, oral history, and the folk art of bathhouse key tags.

Celebrate Coney Island’s history and have a chance to make some of your own. This daylong event is not to be missed.

For more, go to and

Source: Barnes & Noble

You think you know Coney Island? Think you got the whole history of America’s most famous amusement park figured out by a cursory trip to Wikipedia?

Fuggedaboudit. You don’t know jack squat.

When it comes to knowing Coney Island — I mean really, really knowing Coney Island — that is a matter best left to professionals, the most knowledgeable of which is historian and Coney Island native son Charles Denson, author of the newly-released Coney Island and Astroland and definitive expert on All Things Coney. Denson, executive director of the Coney Island History Project (CIHP), will be signing copies of his book during a book release party, June 25 from 2 to 5 p.m. at CIHP’s free public exhibition center, 3059 West 12th Street (just off the Boardwalk, at the entrance to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park).

In Coney Island and Astroland, Denson explores the historic area’s changing architectural streetscape through more than 200 never-before-seen vintage images from the Astroland Archive, the Coney Island History Project Archive, and his personal collection. A limited number of pages from the book are available for preview on Amazon, and you can also watch a YouTube video promo. Sweet!

Signed copies of Coney Island and Astroland (128 pages, $21.99) will be available for purchase at the Coney Island History Project exhibition center and via the Coney Island History Project’s website. To learn more, email