Coney Island was Ric Burns’ second project independent of his brother Ken. Still, it deploys their usual earnestness in the service of populist history. The camera pans over fading photographs, under vintage writings read by notable personalities and meditative period music, all tilting towards “what it means to be an American.” Since the massive success of the Civil War series, the Burns’ subjects have come seem predictable and their treatment staid — baseball, jazz, the Old West. But Coney Island, produced for PBS’ American Experience series, is entrancing.
The hour-long documentary parallels the growth of Coney Island with America’s rise to power, from the late 19th century to the Depression, divided into four phases: Coney Island’s genesis as a day-tripping retreat for New Yorkers; the golden age of the three great theme parks (Dreamland, Steeplechase, and Luna Park); the popularity of the boardwalk per se; and the plummet into ghost town desolation.
The narration, both in its writing and frank delivery by Philip Bosco, is illuminating, unobtrusive, and at times almost comically understated. With nary a sarcastic inflection, Bosco sketches in the backgrounds of the theme parks’ go-for-broke founders, like Frederick Thompson, a “failed architect with a drinking problem,” and Captain Paul Boyton, who “paddled himself to international fame in an inflatable rubber suit.” The interviews with historians are similarly succinct. Less effective are the long-winded ramblings of historical figures like Henry James and Sigmund Freud, read by actors. (That said, I also found it hard to look at a hotel shaped like an elephant or a Tilt-a-Whirl adorned with lights not feel the need for ornate prose.)
The documentary doesn’t do much to put Coney in context of the era’s other popular leisure centers. It does point out that two early attractions came from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. But little is mentioned of the wide range of popular, often bawdy American entertainment that inspired Coney Island, from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to P.T. Barnum’s circus, and Bowery Lane’s theaters and dancehalls.
All these pleasures were aimed at the poor, primarily immigrant, population streaming into New York at the turn of the century. That Coney Island also attracted criminals and con artists goes without saying. In its earliest stages, three card monte and dice tables were set up along the beach, and, Bosco dryly adds, “Dead bodies were sometimes found rolling in the surf.”
But for the most part, Coney Island deals with the darkness beneath the parks’ bright surfaces with discretion, resisting the urge to play every clown image for maximum Carnival of the Soul eeriness. It brings up corruption, poverty, exploitation, and hazardous designs in segments introduced by a pulsing electric theme. The most horrifying moment is comprised of footage documenting the electrocution, by channeling Luna Park’s power supply, of a popular elephant named Topsy. Displayed for the crowd’s entertainment, the event’s metaphoric significance hardly needs elucidation. But Burns doesn’t depict the park as a hedonistic distraction. As Al Lewis says, “Those who criticized it could afford to go to the Riviera. They hated the fact that millions of poor people were having a good time.”
That “Grandpa Munster” Lewis, who worked Coney as a boy, emerges as the primary interview subject makes a fitting, carnivalistic sense. His wild hair and broad smile are reminiscent of the Steeplechase’s grinning mascot, and he evokes nostalgia for a time when the theme parks, ramshackle and unsafe as they may have been, offered something of the anarchic release that they promised and not the heavily controlled experience they are today.
The park back then maintained its fantasy. And the absurdity of “the island’s pioneer days” makes quite an impression now, recalled in extraordinary archival images. Along with stills, like Weegee photos and promotional materials, the documentary draws as well on newsreels, Edison’s very first kinescopes, comedy shorts, and silent features like King Vidor’s The Crowd. The energy of the age is palpable: the novelty of electricity, the defiance of gravity, the sexual energy of young patrons, and the rush of the mechanical horses in the Steeplechase, surely the most inexplicably lapsed of Coney’s rides.
The documentary closes with an unconvincing claim for Coney Island’s continued importance in U.S. culture. Rather than mourn or deny the passing of the great parks, we should be amazed they existed at all. To hear the breathless interviewees on Coney Island tell it, Coney was as much a strange dream to them then as it appears today.