Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Then and Now: Wonder Wheel in Coney Island

A Coney Island Wheel of Wonder

Coney Island Wonder Wheel
Bowery Street at West 12th Street, Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York, in 1993 (Gregoire Alessandrini).
Some scenes in New York just don't change much over time. When you do something right the first time, you tend to keep it just like it is. While most of the posts on this blog show places in Manhattan, that's only because it is the most recognizable part of New York City to a wide audience. New York City is much more than Manhattan, of course, so occasionally we venture outside the confines of that island to look at other neighborhoods. In this post, we look at a simple street scene in Brooklyn, specifically, at Coney Island.

The photo above was taken at the corner of Bowery Street and West 12th Street. The center point of the photo is the Wonder Wheel. This is located between West 12th Street and the famous Coney Island boardwalk, actually called the Riegelmann Boardwalk.
Coney Island Wonder Wheel
The Wonder Wheel in 1941, taken from the same location as the photo at the top of this page (Alfred Palmer, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress).
The Wonder Wheel is an institution in Coney Island. It was novel in concept, taking after the famous G.W.G. Ferris' giant wheel with some modifications, and designed by Charles Hermann. The new ride was constructed in 1920 by Hermann, William J. Ward, and Herman Garms along with the famous Coney Island Tilyou family, who owned Luna Park. The Wonder Wheel's original name was "Dip the Dip," though "Wonder Wheel" was always a term associated with it.
Coney Island Wonder Wheel
The original 1920 patent for the Wonder Wheel.
The Wonder Wheel survived the decline of Coney Island as a resort after the 1940s. It changed hands in 1983 when the Vourderis family took over. The portion of West 12th Street adjacent to the Wonder Wheel is now named Denos D. Vourderis Place after the family patriarch. He renamed the area around his new property Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park.
Coney Island Wonder Wheel
Another photo of the Wonder Wheel from the same location in the 1940s (Image courtesy of the Coney Island History Project).
While it looks like many other Ferris wheels, the Wonder Wheel is actually a bit different than many of them. It is an "eccentric" wheel. This means that riders can choose cars that drop away from the wheel at various times, giving the impression of free-fall. Naturally, that is exactly what some savvy fellows were looking for on dates as their companions squeal out in sudden terror and reached out to them.
Coney Island Wonder Wheel
The Wonder Wheel at its opening in 1920 (photo courtesy of Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park).
There aren't a lot of the original attractions remaining in Coney Island aside from the Wonder Wheel. There's the nearby Coney Island Parachute Drop from the 1930s and, well, not a lot else. So, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission officially designated the Wonder Wheel as a landmark in 1989. It remains a family business as of 2020, its centennial.
Coney Island Wonder Wheel
Bowery Street at West 12th Street, October 2019 (Google Street View).
As can be seen from a recent view, nothing much has changed through the years. The streets are the same, the Wonder Wheel is still there spinning around, and the usual touristy buildings surround it.
Coney Island Wonder Wheel
Bowery Street sign at West 12th Street, Coney Island in October 2019 (Google Street View).
One interesting thing is that the "Bowery Street" sign is badly faded - it may actually be the same one seen in the 1993 photo. Or even earlier. It's curiously befitting a scene that extends virtually unchanged back well before almost all of us were born.

I hope you enjoyed this brief trip down memory lane in an obscure corner of Brooklyn. The spirit of Coney Island lives on even as the community has changed and grown. Please visit some of the other entries in this series!


Saturday, December 26, 2020

Then and Now: Broadway at West 88th Street

Broadway at West 88th Street, NYC
Broadway at West 88th Street, NYC, in 1960.
The residential areas of Manhattan tend to change very little over time. While office buildings in some sections of the city can come and go, apartment buildings tend to have very long lives. Let's take a look at Broadway and West 88th Street then and now, a classic Upper West Side area, and so how it has fared over the past sixty years.

The picture of the intersection from 1960, above, shows a typical Manhattan scene. There are the usual solid edifices on either side of the street, with small businesses such as a drug store that catered to the local residents. The scene looks barren, everything aside from the people and cars being composed of lifeless rock and asphalt.
Broadway at West 88th Street, NYC
Broadway at West 88th Street, NYC, in 2020 (Google Earth).
The first thing we notice from a recent picture of the same scene is that the buildings haven't changed much at all. The building on the far (southwest) corner, 2389-2395 Broadway, is a 7-story office building that was completed in 1920. The building across from it, at 255 West 88th Street, is a 14-floor residential building completed in 1924. So, 1960 was just a typical and random year for this corner over the past 100 years, just as 2020 is and likely 2050 will be as well. Nothing much changes when buildings serve their purpose, and there's nothing wrong with that at all.
Broadway at West 88th Street, NYC
Broadway at West 88th Street, NYC, in 2020 (Google Street View).
A ground-level view shows that some things never change. People need drug stores, so Zelnick's Drug Store has given way to a Duane Reade pharmacy (though apparently, it has closed). The 2007 MillionTreesNYC initiative certainly has softened street corners like this, which previously looked like industrial wastelands.
Broadway at West 88th Street, NYC
Broadway at West 88th Street, NYC, in 2020 (Google Street View).
One last change that can be seen is that the variety of stores has gone down drastically since 1960. In the 1960 photo, you can see a drug store, a cigar store, what looks like a haberdashery (Bilks), and several other businesses. In 2020, you have the massive Duane Reade, a bank, and an eatery. You literally can find these same businesses on practically every other street corner in NYC these days. The invasion of the chain stores and bank branches has reached epic proportions in Manhattan shows no signs of stopping.

I hope you liked this entry in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. There's something to be said for permanency in residential areas like the Upper West Side, and if that's what you're looking for, you can do a lot worse than the corner of Broadway and West 88th Street. Please visit some of our other entries in this series!


Then and Now: Beacon Theater on Broadway, NYC

Faded Glory

Beacon Theater NYC ca. 1981
Beacon Theater on Broadway and West 74th Street, NYC, ca. December 1980.
New York City used to be the home of many monumental movie palaces. Most of them are long since gone, but a few theaters from the grand age of vaudeville in the 1920s and 1930s remain. Let's take a look at one of these grand survivors, the Beacon Theater at 2124 Broadway, NYC.
Beacon Theater
The Beacon Hotel and Theater not long after its completion in 1928.
The Beacon was a 2,894-seat, three-tiered palace designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager, who had just designed the nearby Roxy in 1927. Trying to duplicate the Roxy's glamour, the Beacon's first name was the Roxy Midway. With the building completed November 1928, and the enclosed theater opened in 1929, the Beacon contained the usual theater kitsch of the era, complete with seated golden lions on each side of the stage and a Wurlitzer 4 manual 19 ranks theatre organ. Warner Bros operated the Beacon until 1932, when it sold it to the first of many subsequent operators.
Gold Diggers of Broadway showing at the Beacon
The Beacon showing the technicolor "Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929) during its glory days.
As the decades rolled along, the old theaters succumbed to age and urban renewal. In the mid-70s, Steven Singer and Stephen Metz bought the Beacon and hosted a series of concerts by the Grateful Dead in 1976. The new crowds weren't as respectful of the kitsch and the theater began to deteriorate quickly.  By 1986, the Beacon was the largest surviving picture palace in Manhattan. It was in sad shape by the 1980s, though, as the picture at the top of this page shows. New owners in 1986 converted the theater into a disco, a bit late to that fad but better late than never! Unfortunately, that meant gutting the interior, so if the golden lions were still there then, they weren't thereafter. On November 4, 1982, the entire 24-story Beacon Theater and Hotel was designated a national landmark and is now on the Register of Historic Places.
Beacon Theater featured in "Who's That Knocking At My Door?"
Stars Harvey Keitel and Zina Bethune in Martin Scorcese's "Who's That Knocking At My Door" (1969), with the Beacon Theater looming in the background.
Martin Scorcese is a big fan of the Beacon and has featured it in his movies. While a student at NYU in the 1960s, he filmed "Who’s That Knocking At My Door?" (1969), starring Harvey Keitel, and the Beacon makes its first appearance in a Scorcese film. It reappears in his 2006 documentary “Shine a Light” about the Rolling Stones shows that year at the theater.
Beacon Theater
The same view as the one at the top of this page in May 2019 (Google Street View).
The Beacon obviously has been through a lot of incarnations through the years and no doubt has many more to come. Currently, Cablevision, which has been gobbling up New York City showplaces such as the Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden, holds the lease to the Beacon Theater. It has restored the Beacon to a much more presentable appearance that hosts top acts in a variety of entertainment formats. The interior is still majestic, though nothing like the original glamor of the 1920s.

I hope you enjoyed this trip through time with the Beacon Theater. Please visit some of our other pages if you liked this one!


Thursday, December 10, 2020

1890s Children in Color: Lumiere Films

Step Back Into 1896

Lumière Brothers films from 1896
An 1890s girl feeds her very large tabby.
I'm a fan of old films that have been restored and colorized using the most modern neural network techniques. Here we have some Lumière Brothers films from 1896 that have been processed so they look as if they were taken with Kodak film from the 1980s.
The Lumière brothers, Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas and Louis Jean (you can see why everyone just calls them the Lumière brothers!) made advanced film equipment. To demonstrate it, they made short films between 1895 and 1905.
Lumière Brothers films from 1896
The Lumière brothers filmed ordinary scenes of daily life. They didn't go out looking for train wrecks or anything like that. All they wanted to do was show how this new medium of film could be used. So, they recruited family and friends to make their films. The public quickly became interested, and the Lumière brothers are credited with the first cinema presentation of their work in December 1895.
Lumière Brothers films from 1896
So, what we see here in these 1896 films is not quite the first film the brothers ever made, which would have been in August 1894 (according to the brothers themselves) or March 1895 (according to historians). However, all of this film precedes the birth of Hollywood, which was established around 1911, by 15 years.
Lumière Brothers films from 1896
If you compare these snippets with the very first films, you'll see a great improvement in quality in just a year. The Lumière brothers quickly learned to set up scenes like a modern cinematographer and do close-ups of their subjects. Oh, and in case you're wondering about the films, yes, they are in black-and-white originals. However, a type of color film already was in development when these films were made and the Lumière brothers themselves patented a color photographic process in 1903 and began marketing it in 1907. So, the idea of actual color film from the 1890s is not quite as far-fetched as you might think, though it certainly wouldn't have had the outstanding quality of this sort of processing.
Lumière Brothers films from 1896
I hope you enjoy these brief visits to the past in ways that you might never have thought possible. If you do, consider giving some of these other films a look, too.