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Saturday, July 8, 2023

"Coney Island Day: The Nickel Empire" by Richard Pepitone - 2021 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Finalist


Coney Island Day: The Nickel Empire

  by  Richard Pepitone


My traveling instincts began at an early age. My mother left me in front of our-third floor tenement while she cleaned the house. In 1943, when I was six years old, I was always the first one out of my family's third-floor apartment in the morning and the last one in at night. But I was not too fond of my school or the children who shared my Williamsburg, Brooklyn neighborhood. A hearing loss in both ears and slurred speech made it hard for me to make friends with other kids; they teased me, even those who said they were my friends. During the school morning, by the age of six, while my peers were lining up in the school's courtyard, I was usually hitching a ride on the back of a trolley car to the Prospect Park section of Brooklyn. I would decide where to spend my time between Brooklyn's Zoo, Botanical Gardens, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. A couple of years later, I expanded my reach to include Brooklyn's downtown entertainment district, which had a significant Art Deco movie theater cluster. 

At eight-thirty in the morning, I’d join the crowds waiting in line for the nine o'clock new film release, followed by an hour of live entertainment of various entertainers such as acrobats, vocalists, animal trainers, and comedians. The downtown area in those days was alive and magnetic. I was overwhelmed by the large theater marquees and the crowds of people there from morning to night. Once there, I hated to leave. The movies had a strong influence on me—they were my school away from school. With the cost of the admission in my hand, I'd ask someone to purchase a ticket for me. I was rarely refused. The year was 1944, and I went to the downtown theaters—The Fox Theater on Flatbush Extension, off Dekalb Avenue and the Brooklyn Paramount. There was another cluster of film housesalong Fulton Street: the Strand, the RKO Orphen, and the Majestic.

However, the entertainment began even before I arrived at the theaters because I’d need to take the three-storied Myrtle Avenue Elevated train called the EL. The EL passed within ten feet of my third-floor window bedroom as it traveled along Myrtle Avenue. As the train was sped by, it blew open the sheer curtains of the nearby open windows, giving me an intermittent glimpse of bodies strolling around in their underwear and even nude.

I divided my school day between the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Zoo, the Botanical Gardens. A couple of years later, when I had expanded my reach to include the downtown entertainment district, I’d join the crowds who were waiting in line to buy a ticket for the nine a.m. new film release, and the ninety-minute vaudeville show at the RKO Orphen of various performers, vocalists, comedians and, animal trainers. None of the downtown theatres could compare in architecture, or magnificence to the Fox or the Paramount. The street entrance into the Brooklyn Fox was impressive—three tall doors on both sides with brightly-polished brass centered in the middle of the doors; the cashiers’ booth projected out like a bay window on the house. There was a person whose only work assignment was to keep all the brass highly polished. The doors led into the first lobby, where a uniform employee stood ready to take your ticket. He was tall and handsomely dressed in a long Navy-blue overcoat with golden epaulets,  highly polished brass buttons lining both sides of his coat; the hat was made of the same material as his coat. Patent leather shoes finished off his distinguished military style. The orchestra had raked seating and was so massive that halfway down between rows of seats, an eight-foot opening allowed patrons to pass across the aisles on either side.

The Brooklyn Paramount, with lavish rococo trim, was as large and as elegant as theFabian Fox. On each side of the orchestra, there was an elaborate filigree design. A staircase was hidden behind the front wall. It was part of the theater’s built-in wall design that set off the soft lighting that remained on when the theater lights were shut off before the film. During the intermission, a musician played popular music on a giant organ. I always sat behind the front wall, so that the ushers wouldn’t notice when I smoked cigarettes.

To get to Coney Island, I boarded the train at the Myrtle Avenue subway station. Before the train arrived at the Bedford Stuyvesant station, it rose from the underground and became elevated. As we pulled into the last stop at Stillwell Avenue, I smelled cotton candy, sizzling hot dogs, and hot buttered ears of corn and heard the roar of the crowds and the sound of the Wonder Wheel, its steel cages holding four persons rolling and rocking inside a 150-foot disc. I was entering the “Nickel Empire,” my other summer home.

When I exited the station, the first thing I came upon was the freak shows. The barker called them “The World’s Greatest Living Curiosities,” but everyone knew he was referring to the freaks.

“Step right up, folks!” the barker shouted from the outside previewing stage, showing off glimpses of the attractions to the gathering crowd, offering a taste of what to expect for the twenty-five-cent admission. It worked every time. I could buy two hot dogs and a soft drink, and I chose the show instead. The Mule-Faced Boy looked like an ordinary boy from the shoulder downward, but he had a crop of hair that fell over his forehead, bushy eyebrows, and large dark brown glassy eyes. Wide flaring nostrils hung low on his face. Just above his chin, his mouth gave the illusion of being both nose and mouth combined. And his slender neck was swayed like a mule’s. He was as fascinating as he was frightening. Maybe I didn’t fit in at home or in my neighborhood, but this poor boy didn't have a chance of belonging anywhere—except on this tiny stage at Coney Island.

Here were the fun rides on the bumper cars and the Ferris wheel, and here was the Wax Museum. In a glass showcase at the entrance to the museum, there was a mechanical model of three life-sized chimpanzees sitting at a card table. They were so lifelike they were scary. Two of the chimps fixed bulging eyes on their card hands as they swayed back and forth. The third chimp held his cards in one hand, and his other hand was beneath the table, pulling out a card from under his foot.

The roller coaster was across from the Wax Museum, the tallest and fastest ride before the Cyclone was built years later. Next to the roller-coaster was the funhouse, a ride scarier than fun.At the entrance of the funhouse sat the ever-laughing, larger-than-life mechanical fat lady,with massive rolls of flesh that could barely fit in her giant chair. There was something sinister about this lifeless blob of plaster, paint, springs, and gears. She’d roar all day endlessly and well into the evening, her hand rising slowly up past her head, then coming down slowly to slap her knee. I would stand in front of her, entranced, until someone from the crowd bumped me.

Along the Midway, the outside-inside German beer garden restaurant had a sawdust floor, and the kitchen sent delicious aromas down the Midway. Checkered tablecloths covered thick, round, wooden tables that seated as many as eight. The waiters, a lively group of men in long white aprons and derby hats, balanced large flat oval serving trays in one hand as they moved swiftly around the floor. I’d wait for the moment—I knew the waiters would put down their trays and join together to sing in harmony: “Heart of my heart, how I love that melody / Heart of my heart, brings back a memory / When we were kids on the corner of the street / We were rough’n ready guys / But oh how we could harmonize."

When I left the sideshow, I blended in with the crowds. I was heading for Bay 14, the beach where I’d clam a two-by-three foot area on the beach sand, and lay out my towel. The aroma from the fresh surf penetrated clothing. I was drawn to the ocean and fearless of the surf, swimming for an extended period.

When I got tired, I turned on my back, and I did the dead man float, and I rode the surf back to the shore. I was a worry for the lifeguards, who kept a watch on me. When I swam beyond the off-limit zone, they blew their whistle.

When I had enough water, I returned to the beach, and I lit up a cigarette—a habit I picked up the first time I saw someone toss out a butt from a passing car. People on the beach stared and said, you are too young to smoke. They shouted,you'll stunt your growth.I didn't look at them or answer. I continued to puff away, contemplating the various body shapes lying shoulder-to shoulder on the beach. After awhile, my thoughts drifted to the Midway. I’d head to the boardwalk to change into dry clothes. There were always couples under the boardwalk embracing. Other people were around, looking to snatch a purse, or anything they could get their handson, unnoticed.

I devoted the rest of my time to George C. Tilyou's Steeplechase Park, which was also called “The Funny Place.”

Tilyou knew the value of gathering together exciting things—his predominantly indoor amusement park was the biggest single attraction in Coney Island’s history. I purchased a circular card displaying the “The Funny Place” trademark. Twelve printed dots circled the edge of the ticket, which was attached to a string, and worn around the neck. The enormous amusement park was surrounded by a fence; the only way out was the entrance.

As you entered each ride, an attendant punched out one of the dots. Steeplechase Park was named after a mechanical horse race that operated outside of the building solely by gravity. Ten steel horses attached to a single track departed every forty-five seconds and circled the enormous glass-domed pavilion that housed Tilyou’s park. Experienced riders knew that the horse carrying the heaviest weight was always the fastest. Most of the time someone offered a nickel if I’d ride with them.

The Pavilion of Fun was six stories high, with no obstructions clear to the ceiling, to accommodate the tallest rides: the Wedding Ring, a series of spinning swings.

A stairway led to the top of the giant slide, where I slid down a long series of thrilling undulations on the highly polished maple wood. I must have gone on that ride a thousand times.

My father knew where to find me on a summer evening. After he came home from work, he'd have his supper. Then, when he was ready, sometimes as late as eleven o’clock, he’d make the forty-five-minute drive to Coney Island. He parked his car on Stillwell Avenue and hunted for me onfoot with his belt in hand. He’d head for Steeplechase Park, where he’d usually find me at the giant slide. He would give me a couple of light whacks on my butt, but on the ride home, he put his arm around my shoulder, and we sang songs we both knew, or he’d teach me new ones to add to the repertoire that I sang when he and his musical buddies, Bill and Artie, played music together. That was our father and son ritual until I turned eight, when my father stopped coming to find me.

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