In this episode, we travel back in time to a Coney Island that has largely disappeared. During the early years of the 20th Century, Coney Island was the world’s pleasure palace, boasting three of the most spectacular amusement parks ever built. At Steeplechase Park, customers raced mechanical horses along miles of track. People also flocked to glittering Luna Park, lit up by more than a million lights and offering a simulated trip to the moon, and Dreamland, which was even bigger and more spectacular.
But in 1911, when Dreamland burned to the ground, Coney Island began a slow descent. By the time StoryCorps founder Dave Isay made a documentary about Coney Island for NPR’s All Things Considered in 1990, there really wasn’t much left.
As Dave remembers, “The piece profiled three vestiges of old Coney Island: the maintenance man for the great Cyclone roller coaster, the owner of Coney Island’s last remaining candy store, and two waiters (both named Sol) who’d worked at Nathan’s Hot Dogs for forty years.” For narration, Dave enlisted Matt Kennedy, who had been with the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce since 1924.
“Matt was a trooper,” Dave says. “We wrote and recorded his narration in his small office on Surf Avenue and had to take and re-take his lines because of the subways rumbling past on the elevated tracks outside his window. It didn’t faze him a bit. As president of Coney Island’s Chamber of Commerce, Matt Kennedy knows a good challenge.
“In his lifetime, he’s seen Coney Island transformed from the world’s pleasure palace, boasting three of the most spectacular amusement parks ever built (Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland), to a six-block strip of worn amusements in a crime-ridden neighborhood of poorly maintained housing developments and welfare hotels.”
Released July 11, 2017.