This week there was a news announcement that ground was broken for the construction of a new Thunderbolt Rollercoaster for Luna Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn. This new steel version is replacing the wooden Thunderbolt that ran from 1925 to 1982 and was unceremoniously demolished in 2000. It was the first of three mammoth roller coasters – along with The Cyclone and The Tornado that provided chills and thrills to people of all ages. There was actually a house underneath The Thunderbolt that was occupied until 1988 – you may recall the homage Woody Allen played to the coaster and home in his movie, “Annie Hall.”
The new Thunderbolt will offer a two-minute ride that reaches speeds of 55 miles per hour, and will stand 115 feet tall with 2,233 feet of track. The ride, which has three cars running together will begin with a 90-degree vertical drop, followed by a 100 foot vertical loop, an 80 foot zero-g roll, a 112 degree over-banked turn, dives and corkscrews. It will look something like this:
I am sorry people- I know they are attempting to revitalize Coney Island and make it the play mecca it once was – but this is NOT even close – where are the wooden beams that shook and threatened to come apart at the seams – and the jarring ride that shook my brain so hard I thought my brainpan would crack? This sleek contraption is no match for the original.
The Coney Island of my youth not only had the most marvelous rollercoasters it also housed some of the most unusual rides, eating establishments and bathing houses. And this is not the boast of “when I was your age” superiority – take a look at some samples and you tell me if there is anything commensurate today.
NATHAN’S – Opened in 1916 and still operating – Coney Island and Nathan’s are practically synonymous. Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker started Nathan’s as a tiny hot dog stand using his wife Ida’s recipe. It was an instant hit, drawing customers that included Al Capone and Cary Grant. It is even said that President FDR thought them royally worthy and served them to the King and Queen of England. Crispy on the outside and spicy on the inside- Nathan’s frankfurters were the perfect Sunday afternoon meal along with crinkle french fries loaded with ketchup (more on this condiment addiction later) and my favorite ice-cold grape drink.
Of course, an alternative to the fries could well have been a Gabila’s Knish (noted in an earlier blog) or its rival Stahl’s (never my choice, although relatives did like them). Both had open air stores on the Boardwalk. There were also great choices for desert and a little aftermeal entertainment, leading to the next unparalleled establishment.
WAFFLES WITH ICE CREAM, SODAS’R’US AND A LITTLE SKEEBALL
The Coney Island Sodamat Arcade was one of the first automated stores where for a nickel, you could choose from some 20 soda dispensers lined up side by side , each with a different flavor. On the opposite side vendors offered great slabs of perfectly cooked waffles smothered with globes of creamy ice cream- the hot and cold together certain to produce instant ice headache.
Moving a little further into the interior- you could try your luck at Skeeball– a game that still exists today. Coins inserted into a slot released 9 wooden balls – the goal was to bank the balls up an inclined ramp in such a way that it would fall into the innermost hole within a series of concentric rings – thus scoring the highest points. At the end of the round(s) total points were tallied and tickets were received to reflect earned points, which could then be redeemed for prizes that lined the arcade- the more valuable, the more tickets needed. Obviously, as with any prize given out in such an atmosphere- the monies spent playing the game clearly were more than the actual value of the prize- but no one ever minded.
STEEPLECHASE PARK –See that eery smiling face in the above picture? That was the iconic logo for one of the most singularly incomparable amusement parks.
In 1897, land owner George C. Tilyou opened Steeplechase Park, a family oriented amusement park embracing the thrills of a horse race as its theme. The Steeplechase Horses, as Tilyou called the ride, consisted of 6 double-saddled mechanical horses that took passengers down 1,100 feet of undulating track, over a stream bed and a series of hurdles, all around the outside of the park. The tracks ran abreast, simulating a horse race in which gravity gave the heavier riders the advantage. Although you were strapped onto the horse – it was nonetheless terrifying, as the tracks went outside and around the buildings. And even when the ride was over- you still weren’t “safe.” At the exit of the Steeplechase ride you had to run the gamut- either over an opening that blasted air up your skirts while the crowd–generally recent victims themselves-looked on with approval (most women and girls, myself included wore skirts and dresses in those days) . Another path led to a clown who either prodded you with an electric shock or pummeled you with a cushioned club. Yeah – we thought this was fun!
Steeplechase Park had other crazy activities. The Human Roulette Wheel spun until passengers sitting on it were flung to the perimeter, in a king of the hill type quest to get to the top. There were also giant wooden slides, revolving tunnels, swing carousels – so many choices that it was impossible to go on all. And, all the rides were included – at least in the earlier days – for a single payment. Later on, a holepunch disk was given out – and you could ride until all your holes were punched – and the big rides like the Steeplechase used up multiple punches.
Next door to Steeplechase Park was (and is) perhaps the most iconic symbol of Coney Island: The Parachute Jump. However while undoubtedly unique it did not fit into my childhood at Coney Island as my parents told me I had to wait until I was old enough to date and THEN I could take a ride with my “beau.” The Parachute Jump closed down way before that happened so it is but a sad reminder of things NOT done:
WASHINGTON BATHS – While “pool clubs” are not unique- this early version is still provided some of my happiest childhood memories so I believe it is worth mentioning- and it is the site where this blog’s title happened.
My father didn’t make a great deal of money as a photofinisher at Berkey Photos (competitor that lost out to Kodak) and my mom was a homemaker as was the custom in those days – so we lived very simply, yet there were certain “inalienable” activities that my parents managed – ice skating at Prospect Park, bowling at the local lanes, countless visits to the Museum of Natural History, Planetarium, Bronx Zoo (I can probably be a docent at those last two) and family season passes to Washington Baths which was a few blocks west of Steeplechase Park. From July through early September we stayed at the baths daily (my father joined my mother, brother and me on weekends) from early morning to dusk – the men and women had separate locker facilities and as season pass holders – our area was a personally locked room, not as big as a cabana, but big enough to hold most of our summertime clothing and bathing needs. In addition there were sun decks where people could lie out sans clothes, hot and cold showers, makeup parlor with mirrors and shelves for bobby pins, combs (no portable hair dryers existed as yet) as well as steam rooms. I could never figure out if my inability to breath in those steam rooms was due to the intense steam or the visage of so much naked Shar-Pei like folds of flesh. And of course, from time to time people took a wrong turn on their way to/from the sundecks so we got quite an eyeful of both sexes in the jiggly buff – sadly people did not work out as they do today.
The Baths was a large complex – in addition to a very large swimming pool, there were picnic areas, tennis courts, ping pong tables, shuffle balll, rings, bocci and basketball courts, punching bags, ladders, uneven and even parallel bars- we tried them all as this picture of my brother proves:
Most of my days were spent in the pool- in fact at times I inhaled/swallowed so much water through my swims/jumps that I could barely breath. There were two or three diving boards, one of which was incredibly high – few people would dare- but my fearless youthful self had no problem taking that plunge:
There were two deck levels – one poolside and one a flight up where you could sit on benches or poolchairs. Also on the upper level, woith seating both facing the Baths pool and the Ocean (you could go through a passageway in the back to sit in the sand or swim in the ocean) was a stand that sold greyish looking hamburgers, sodas, and french fries served in a cone. And here’s the kicker: I was a ketchup addict in my youth- most likely due to the fact that my mother, athough with undoubtedly the best of intentions, was not a good cook. Most meats were broiled beyond existence and as a result I used ketchup to hide the fact that I was eating incinerated meat. This penchant followed me wherever I went – including the snack bar at Washington Baths. As my cousin reminds me, one day the owner had enough of my eating his profits away by using pretty much a bottle of ketchup at a sitting, and he grabbed the remains and yelled, “Miss, step away from the ketchup.”