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Monday, July 11, 2022

Phantom At Fairground

 "Old-Time Movies" Among Coney Marvels

Coney Island for me was merely a place movie characters went to. Real people attended too of course, in droves as to be startling. Here seemed spot where one stood in line just to wade into vastness of surf. To gather where you’ve no space to turn seems anything but inviting, though I’m told stress of the city made any retreat a godsend despite gobs of humanity pressed firm together. There surely was joy at Coney, an East Coast Disneyland decades before there was a Disneyland, nights lit to splendor few experienced before, a best yet exhibit of modern miracle that was electricity. For New Yorkers, it was a World’s Fair built to last. I never went and assume little remains of what once-mobs beheld. There are myriad Coney postcards among attics yet, trickle from these to eBay a never-will-end process. Of ghosts to awake me was above glimpse of boys regarding “Stauch’s Original Old-Time Movies,” which I understand rolled up its screen in 1940, so this was mid-late thirties. I thought for a while we were in 1925, youngsters gathered to see Phantom of the Opera when it was new, too good to be true, though this will more than do, us close among tough troop of ragamuffins there to see if stuff so ancient still has juice to quench them.

These boys being “show me” sort would have missed Lon Chaney when fresh, but heard of him from parents. The Phantom unmasked sent mom-pop screaming into streets and legend of that persisted. Not from this troupe would screams come. “Ironic” generations were incubating here, poised to jeer what unnerved a public of years past. Were nickels or dimes fair fare to go in and face Phantoms? The fact latter won’t talk is known to these scruffs, “old-time” films code for screen silence. Charlie Chaplin lends support with comedy gone back to 1914 (Caught in a Cabaret), seemingly before anybody in the world was born. This group looks like what Rocky Sullivan corrupted upon release from stir and coming back to his old neighborhood. One looking at the camera w/ripped shirt suggests Billy Halop with mouth curled close to a snarl. I would not have liked passing this bunch on my way to violin lessons at age twelve. So NY/NJ boys smoked openly in the street? Grown-ups onlooking are tentative, knowing potential trouble when they see it.


From where did Stauch’s book the print? Surely not Universal, done and out of Phantom trade by this time. I’ll guess they used 16mm Kodascope. As to advertising out front, there is a half-sheet for the 1930 reissue, with sound and Technicolor scenes, a “Now Playing” snipe to cover up promise of these. Promo leaned on pageantry rather than the Phantom himself, policy upon ’25 release and some period later to keep mask-less visage off placards. Think what a cloudburst would do to all this, like the Liberty letting its Panther Girl of the Kongo one-sheet get drenched by elements in 1967. Would storms send Stauch staff hurriedly out to drag standees to safety? --- or did they say never mind, it’s only paper. Looks like 11x14 lobby cards on display in addition to 8X10 stills, a temptation to rogues. Did our Dead-Enders take home souvenirs? Co-attraction Chaplin was rote matter for more than mere “old-time” engaging. His two-reelers had been in recent circulation by RKO at member houses all over and well-received by all. Did Coney fans figure on flicks as adjunct to ice cream and cotton candy? Shows ran to midnight at least. Note loudspeaker out front. Oh, for a recording of the barker’s spiel. Bet Phantom was never so fun before this or since.

Coney Island was much about open air and water everywhere, but there were attractions behind doors, some revolved around water as well, punishing and devastating downpours, as in a building dedicated to the Johnstown Flood and all its horror, a place you’d enter to experience death up close. People then as now were fascinated by doom onrushing, nature turned upon all and claiming victims indiscriminately. Imagine a structure built upon premise of fate inescapable. Did it become a grocer's or warehouse later? Reminiscent this is of when the 1904 St. Louis fair saluted Galveston on graphic terms. Folks like learning how others go about perishing, being nature of beasts we are. Coney had rides that look dangerous, would likely be banned now. “Shoot the Chutes” was hazardous enough to knock Fatty and his date sideways and into drink for his 1917 comedy made on site, but more of that later. You could empty a day and night at Coney. It was cheap, and for everybody. A “frankfurter and roll” cost ten cents. When did we start calling them hot dogs? (Answer: they already were, per trade ad below)

There were bath houses and steam rooms where boys shunned fat men giving them glimpse of what they might one day become. Dance halls of sufficient enormity were places you'd enter alone but not necessarily come out that way. Bands were everywhere and songs became hits at Coney. Go Where the Crowds Go to hear Al Ferguson play “You’ll Do the Same Thing Over Again” as diners look off balconies to enjoy the dance, but there’s eerily Coconut Grove-ish aura to raised space with obscure means of egress. I perused You Tube and found “You’ll Do the Same Thing Over Again,” a 1911 recording on Edison wax. It so far has 68 listens, so I am in rarified company. The song amuses and has true things to say of people and life, as much of popular tuning did in that day. After-meal cigars were had from counters bigger than anything we see today to sell any product. What made men give up cigars so completely? To be defined by your smoke … who was the last to do that --- Clint Eastwood in his spaghettis? … Arnold Schwarzenegger? I’ll paraphrase Buster in The Playhouse saying “This fellow Stauch seems to be the whole show.” Did Stauch own Coney Island? “The Capitol of the Pleasure City” was his, but Stauch had lots of capitols, as building fronts attest. Louis Stauch was loved, and generous to charity. He lived to see Coney decline and most of his structures demolished.

Coney Island peaked before World War One, so Fatty, Buster, and Al going there in 1917 may amount to valedictory for the place. All doors, parks, and places swung open to Roscoe. Him enjoying Coney was guarantee we all could, whatever a distance getting there. If someone had shown Arbuckle a crystal ball of what was going to happen to him, I don’t think he could have believed it. For that matter, how could anyone so in grip of Fatty love? Prints of Coney Island are gloriously upgraded from how they used to look, varied specimen sprinkled about You Tube. Action begins on the beach, a quiet spot, for folks knowing Fatty was present would have pushed waves back. As it is, we see onlookers distant from a pier. Imagine Coney management holding closer crowds at bay. Fatty has a nag wife and can’t get shed of her, tosses sand down the front of her shore outfit then buries himself altogether near the waterline, using a periscope to see from under the pile. How miserably uncomfortable silent comedy making was. Could there be enough showers to keep slog from under one’s very skin? Roscoe was known as dapper offscreen, maybe his way of asserting, I can be pristine clean as any of you, despite grime to which I’m daily plunged. Part why all gravitated to Fatty was his willingness to take punishment and be chipper about it, a gladsome friend for all. Loss of that is something we’ll never quite conceptualize from such time distant. Buster Keaton of immortality Arbuckle had taken away gives forecast of his own varied things to come, at one point doing a backflip that looks more special effect than feat humans could perform, but there is Buster doing it, and we are yet amazed. Al St. John is sans necessary teeth, more likeable the more you endure him. Still can’t believe he appeared in person at the Liberty, during the fifties (in “Bad Fuzzy” guise). Look please at the very studied still above, one of first I suspect so carefully composed, Buster with the sledge, Fatty’s hat headed skyward, an image endlessly reprinted and forever emblematic of silent comedy as utterly carefree epoch it was.


Blogger DBenson said...

Fascinating stuff. In old photos and in films like "Speedy", the place is astonishing. In movies Coney Island is usually cast as a working class paradise, where financially embarrassed young men would take their girlfriends, or perhaps try to find one. The feature "Lonesome" romanticized it. In "The Cameraman" Keaton and his lady get as far as an indoor swimming pool, but there's the same feel.

By the 30s Coney Island was presented as less grand, usually impersonated by more modest Californian amusement piers. Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts are sick of it, the default choice of cheapskate dates. In "Dante's Inferno", crafty drifter Spencer Tracy turns a Coneyesque pier into a spectacular firetrap. In "The Devil and Miss Jones" undercover tycoon Charles Coburn joins some employees for a picnic on the crowded seashore, very much out of his element. The Broadway musical "Sweet Charity" set a musical number on a stalled Coney Island ferris wheel.

Atlantic City had the Boardwalk, but fancy hotels made it a little more upscale. It was an out-of-town trysting place for errant New Yorkers. England had Brighton, Blackpool, Scarborough and other middle-class getaways, boasting such entertainments as Punch and Judy on the beach, donkey rides, and concert parties (see "The Good Companions" and "Sylvia Scarlett").

While Walt Disney was expressly trying to avoid the less savory associations of the old-school amusements, Disneyland's Main Street definitely evokes a small-scale Coney Island with its popcorn lights at night. And it too had "Old Timey Movies" on display in the Main Street Cinema -- but more as a museum exhibit than a sit-down show.

6:43 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

A piece on the Johnstown Flood, including an ad for the Coney Island attraction:

"Don't Spit on the Floor! Remember the Johnstown Flood" was a slogan on multiple nickelodeon slides.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

On a recent Facebook post the current Luna Park in Coney Island announced that they are installing a reproduction of the Shoot The Chutes. I find a lot of charm and magic still exists at Coney...tho so much has changed ... the continued existence of the Wonder Wheel and Cyclone strike me as a near miracle.

8:30 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

I love location footage of actual amusement parks in vintage films! Men in suits and women in fancy dresses jumping around attractions that would quicken the pulse of any modern day personal injury lawyer. A lot of what passes as "Coney Island" in Hollywood movies was filmed, I believe, at The Pike in Long Beach.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

In the early '60s, my family went to an amusement park that still featured hand cranked Kinetescope-type machines that used photos rather than film to simulate motion. And judging by the condition of the photos, they must have been there over 50 years.

11:46 AM  

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