The phone rings at the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, and 86-year-old Matt Kennedy answers a common question: “Yes, of course Coney Island still exists. Yes, it’s bigger and better than ever. Thank you.”
Kennedy is one of many longtime Coney Island employees whom producer David Isay interviewed for this audio portrait of Brooklyn’s famous shoreline amusement park. Many of Coney Island’s institutions are still around, even if Coney Island’s hey-day has passed: Philip’s Candies (founded in 1907), Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs, and the legendary Cyclone roller-coaster.
According to the Cyclone’s devoted repairman Walter Williams, Coney Island — and the Cyclone in particular — are here to stay. “The Cyclone will stand forever. It will be here as long as peoples is here. And as long as peoples is here, I feel though that the world will be here and as the world is here I think the Cyclone will be here too . . . as long as it has someone to take care of it as I do.”
Recorded in Coney Island, New York. Premiered August 19, 1990, on All Things Considered.
I first met Matt Kennedy in June, 1990, when I was producing a feature about Coney Island for Weekend All Things Considered. 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. I enlisted Matt Kennedy, who’d been with the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce since 1924, as my narrator.
Matt was a trouper. 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. “In my opinion,” Matt declares, “Coney Island is still the most wonderful place in the world!”
— David Isay
Well, my name is Matthew Kennedy, and I’ve lived in Coney Island all my life. My grandfather was Italian. He came over from Genoa just prior to the Civil War, and he kept the lighthouse at Norton’s Point at the very westerly tip of Coney Island during and after the Civil War. The light, of course, was turned by hand so it would face the channel at one time and the bay at another time. It was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job, and he practically lived on the beach. My mother was born in that lighthouse in the 1870s, and of course I was born in Coney Island in 1904.
My grandmother — she was born in Russia and came here to escape the Czar — she was the proprietress of a tintype photo gallery in Dreamland. She lived over the photo gallery, and I used to stay with her a great deal. I was just a youngster, but I remember Dreamland quite vividly. I remember Lilliputia — that was a midget city where everything was miniature, and a colony of midgets lived there. I remember the Animal Show, Bostock’s Animals. The lion tamer was a fella named Boniviture, and he had one arm (the other arm was torn off by the lions on a previous occasion). It certainly intrigued us to see him tame the lions and have them jump on pedestals and things of that nature. In fact I was at Dreamland about two weeks before the Dreamland fire in 1911. That’s when this picture was taken — it was my seventh birthday. That’s me in the center. It’s a tintype. I remember the fire very vividly, because my father was the police lieutenant that sounded the alarm at the precinct down here. I remember that Bostock’s animals got loose, and they were running up and down Surf Avenue. They had to shoot two or three lions — they just ran rampant.
It was always a great day to go to Luna Park or Steeplechase. We got in there quite frequently, because my father was the head of the police department, and we had passes. Luna Park had the old chute-the-chutes (the most famous ride in the world, in my opinion), where you went down a long incline in a boat and bounced into the lagoon at the bottom. In the middle of the park they had a building that they set on fire, with people trapped in the third-story window (it was just fictional of course). And they had the pavilion that depicted the Johnstown flood at Johnstown, Pennsylvania: it showed the dam burst and the houses being swept away, all in miniature, in tremendous tanks twenty-five feet across. Then, of course, there was Steeplechase Park. You could go in there and buy a combination ticket with fifty rides on it for fifty cents. The main ride, of course, was the electric horses that went around the circumference of the park. Then, on Surf Avenue they had the “Coal Mine,” which was a dark ride — the two-seater lovers-lane-type operation. We didn’t go in that much, because we couldn’t get the girls to go with us — they knew what they were in for!
At the present time, I’m the executive secretary of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. I’ve been associated with the chamber since its founding in 1924, but I didn’t become the director until 1950. It’s a one-man operation, and our job is to furnish tourist-type information to the general public throughout the country. Sometimes people call looking for lost relatives who used to live in Coney Island at the turn of the century. A lot of people call and want to know the temperature of the water. I have fun with some of them. I tell them to wait a minute and I’ll go down and see. Then I go out and take a whiz, and come back and huff and puff — course I never go near the water — and tell them sixty degrees or seventy degrees — and they seem to be satisfied.
I still love the job, especially at this time of life. You’d be surprised how busy it is. ‘Course there’s no comparison to the old days. Today, when people come down to Coney Island they see it through the eyes of a child. They don’t see what we see — the empty lots and the neglect — they just see the lights and the rides and forget what’s around them. I still have high hopes for Coney Island, though. There’s an old tradition of those of us from around here. We say: :When you’re born with sand in your shoes, it remains with you as long as you live.” I guess I’ll always have sand in my shoes.
Director, Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. Brooklyn, NY
This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.