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A Coney Island ReaderThrough Dizzy Gates of Illusion$

Louis Parascandola and John Parascandola

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780231165730

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231165730.001.0001

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Ruins Help Draw 350,000 to Coney

Ruins Help Draw 350,000 to Coney

(p.164) Ruins Help Draw 350,000 to Coney
A Coney Island Reader
Louis J. Parascandola, John Parascandola
Columbia University Press

On May 27, 1911, the recently bankrupted Dreamland was largely destroyed in a fire. Since the park was not insured, it was never rebuilt. However, true to the Coney traditions of resilience and making a buck from any situation, manager Samuel Gumpertz quickly opened exhibits on the site of the ruins. The Dreamland Circus Sideshow operated for years. The animals from Joseph G. Ferari’s Trained Wild Animal Arena that had survived the fire were on display. The main event, however, was the sideshow, which included such human oddities as the fat lady, the elastic-skinned man, the giant, and the tattooed lady. A tent was erected to house the show, and on May 29, 1911, the New York Times proclaimed: “To the freaks fell the honor of reopening Dreamland.”

the first of the burned-out shows of Dreamland reopened for business at 3 o’clock yesterday afternoon, and an hour later the organ of Ferari’s Animal Show struck up and the public was invited to step in and see all that remained of the wild beast collection. That is the spirit in which Coney Island is taking the big fire, and on every side yesterday were evidences of determination to make the best out of a bad business. Indeed, the great waste, five blocks square, was considered an attraction, and it was reckoned that the desire to see the piles of blackened timbers and bent steel helped bring 350,000 people to the island. A plan for clearing the debris to make room for all sorts of small shows is already being considered.

To the freaks fell the honor of reopening Dreamland. A tent was pitched on the edge of Surf Avenue, and by hard work all Saturday night a complete installation of water and electric light was accomplished, canvases displaying the fat lady and the elastic-skinned man were hung out in regular (p.165) country fair style, and the spielers took their places on the platform and urged the passers-by to come in.

“All that’s left of Dreamland, beautiful Dreamland,” was the burden of their cry, and a good many visitors were induced to part with their dimes.

The freaks looked a little uncomfortable, each seated in a sort of loose box, but the arrangement had its advantages for the spectators. They could lean over the edge and ask the tattooed lady whether it hurt much to have a beautiful cross worked in indelible ink on the chest and American flags on the arm, and they could chaff the giant in a much more familiar way than if they had been seated in state on a dais.

The remnants of Ferari’s show consisted of five lionesses, four leopards, six ponies, and an unestimated number of monkeys. Ferari sent for the traveling outfit he uses in the Winter, and set up his stage under canvas. He was able to put on a show of five acts, half as many as before the fire, and Mme. André with the leopards, Capt. Bonavista and Vincent Rivero with the lionesses, Ricardo with the leopards, and Ferari himself with the ponies, drew good houses all day long. Particularly welcome to the visitors was Marguerite, the baby lioness, seven months old, who had been reported to be dead. But there she was yesterday afternoon, about the size of a small collie, pulling at the rope to which she was tied or working herself up to a playful fury at the sight of one of her kindred in its cage. She had lost, however, her playmate, a terrier, who was stolen in the confusion.

Next door the menagerie was a tent in which the stuffed form of Sultan, the lion which was shot on the Rocky Road to Dublin was on view for a dime. The animal had been prepared for exhibition by “Doc” Hewitt and Melvin Howard, well-known Coney Islanders, and the fame of his exit with burning mane and his flight through the crowd brought in a small harvest to the enterprising taxidermists. The police had had it that it was Black Prince that had gone on the rampage, but it was explained yesterday that that animal had been ill for several days before the disaster and was hardly able to walk when it came.

“The fact is,” said Frank J. Wilstach, Dreamland’s press agent, “the poor brute had never seemed himself since he bit that Spaniard a few weeks ago. I don’t know how it was, but it didn’t seem to agree with him, and it was just like Oliver Goldsmith’s mad dog. ‘The dog it was that died.’ We hardly (p.166) expected Black Prince to live through Friday night, anyhow, and so he had no chance of escaping.”

The carcass of one lion was found among the ruins yesterday morning, and the relic hunters scrambled for his claws and teeth. Harry Smith, who is employed by Ferari, declared that so keen was the competition that a policeman took a hand in it and got some of the claws himself, driving Smith away when he claimed a certain proprietorship. […]

Dreamland may perhaps have some kind of a regular show in order within a week, Mr. Gumpertz said yesterday:

“Of course, it all depends on what the Directors decide at their meeting to-morrow, but I hope that we shall clear a street right through to the ocean and install immediately old-time Coney Island shows. That would carry us through the season, and we should not have any of the tremendous expenses that the old park had to carry. Moreover, it would give employment to the 1,600 people we had on our wage sheet.” […]

So as fast as temporary arrangements can be made Coney will improvise means to meet the situation. Already yesterday a man balanced a piece of board on a box, displayed a handful of damaged curios on it, and announced, “The 5 and 10 cent store is now open.” The concessionaires put tables in front of the brick ovens, all that remained of prosperous restaurants, lit the fires, and sold frankfurters. At tables balanced on half-burned beams, on chairs distorted by heat, it was possible to drink beer, of course accompanied with a sandwich. […]

A roaring trade was done yesterday on the Iron Pier Walk in certain half-burned photographs of “Little Hip,” the performing elephant which was burned. They were sold as bona fide relics of the fire. They appear to have been genuine enough pictures of the elephant, but some one wandering through the wreckage came across a small boy crouched behind a pile of timber with a candle on one hand and a photograph in the other. He was singing [sic] the edges of the photograph and preparing it for the market. (p.167) (p.168)