Park City Museum exhibit captures the thrill of Coney Island
“Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland”
Through May 25
Park City Museum, 528 Main St.
For the past 150 years, the 442 acres of Brooklyn called Coney Island has imbedded itself into American culture in novels, cartoons and plays.
What started out as a New York resort for the wealthy in the 1860s turned into a megalopolis of amusement parks in the early 1900s, and inspired developers to erect similar fun spots across the country like Utah’s own Saltair and Lagoon, said Courtney Titus, Park City Museum exhibit and collections curator.
Film watchers have also visited Coney Island vicariously throughout the years in films such as Fatty Arbuckle’s “Coney Island,” Walter Hill’s “The Warriors” and Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.”
The Park City Museum is bringing people closer to the Coney Island experience through an interactive exhibit, “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland,” which is on display in the Tozer Gallery until May 25.
The exhibit, produced by the National Endowment of the Humanities On The Road, and the Mid America Arts Alliance, features photographs, paintings, film and Coney Island artifacts, Titus said.
“While the exhibit has a lot of historical context, the focus of the exhibit is artists’ visions of Coney Island, and how they interpreted what they saw over the years,” Titus said. “The interpretations changed throughout time, and the art also reflected the changes that had occurred in America.”
The exhibit’s artists include photographers George Bradford Bainard and Weegee, the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig, painter Francis Augustus Silva and filmmaker Edwin S. Porter of the Edison Manufacturing Company, according to Titus.
The exhibit, which looks at Coney Island from 1861 to 2008, is divided into eras and is presented in chronological order, she said.
“It was originally a getaway for the wealthy, and featured several high-class hotels where the upper class could spend their summers,” she said.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Coney Island became a mecca of amusement park activities for the masses, Titus said.
“That’s when the resort divided into three large amusement parks — Steeplechase, Luna Park and Dreamland,” she said.
When the Great Depression hit the United States, Coney Island adapted and thrived.
“It became known as the ‘Nickel Empire’ because you could take a subway for five cents to get there,” Titus said. “The parks became a great way for people to distract themselves and forget about their worries.”
The crowds that visited Coney Island at that time spanned across demographics, according to Titus.
“From the beginning, it drew crowds from all social classes, races and ethnicities,” she said. “Everyone could come together and mingle, and people enjoyed the thrill of not knowing who they would see or rub shoulders with once they got to the parks.”
When America entered World War II in 1941, Coney Island remained an entertainment hub, again thanks to cheap subway rides.
“Because of gas rationing, people didn’t drive their cars, but they still could take the subway,” Titus said. “And there was a rise in target shooting games.”
Some of the original iron shooting targets are on display along with plush ball-toss targets and an original carousel horse that was hand carved by M.C. Illions and Sons, Titus said.
By the 1970s, New York had become a hot spot for gangs and violence, which led to the decline of Coney Island attendees.
“Police deemed the subway line to Coney Island was too dangerous to ride, and many of the attractions had been taken down,” Titus said. “But artists were still inspired by what was still standing, and, today, arts organizations have tried to keep the spirit of Coney Island alive, even though it’s a shadow of what it once was.”
Titus had visited Coney Island when she lived in New York in 2004, and said the exhibit makes her want to travel back in time.
“I wish I could experience Coney Island in its heyday,” Titus said. “This exhibit shows us that we really missed out.”
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