Boardwalk Renaissance:

How the Arts Saved Coney Island

City Lore Gallery is open from 2 – 6pm Thursday through Friday and 12 – 6pm on weekends. To visit at other times or to schedule group visits, please email Abby Ronner at aronner@citylore.org. 

November 5, 2015 – May 8, 2016

After the closing of Steeplechase Park in 1964, Coney Island went into a steep decline. Like the Bronx, Coney began burning in 1965 and a series of fires continued for the following decade. In the early 1980s, at its lowest point, an odd assortment of passionate young artists were drawn to Coney Island with the dream that their art might return this legendary honky tonk neighborhood to its glory days.

The artists had a wide variety of backgrounds, creating a vital art scene on the boardwalk: playwright Dick Zigun, with a Yale drama degree; artist Richard Eagan, who had a series of dreams about reopening Steeplechase Park; Philomena Marano, who visited Coney as a child, worked with artist, Robert Indiana (of the LOVE sculpture) and founded the Coney Island Hysterical Society with Eagan. Along with renowned artists Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots, Hairspray) Charles Ludlam (Theater of the Ridiculous) and Peter Schumann (Bread and Puppet Theater), and photographers Hazel Hankin, Elaine Norman and Charles Denson, who documented the era, they sparked new life and a new love for Coney.

Drawing inspiration from Coney Island’s past, the artists’ conceptual marriage of honky tonk with the avant garde produced installations such as the tableaus in Madam Lily’s aging World in Wax Museum and the Spookhouse, an “arthouse” amusement park ride. As the ‘80s progressed, Zigun began to recognize that the future of Coney was in honky tonk—Sideshows by the Seashore, the Mermaid Parade, and his pioneering Burlesque shows helped establish that Coney Island was here to stay, and the city along with investors listened. The vision of these artists lit a creative spark that saw Coney through desperate times and ignited its future as the centerpiece of New York City and America’s love affair with honky tonk.

Boardwalk Renaissance takes visitors on a trip to the Coney boardwalk of the 80’s and 90’s with installations and artifacts from the era—including a life-size recreation of Spookhouse, an “arthouse” ride, with a hand-painted car and recreation of the Skull entryway, costumes and footage from the first Mermaid Parade, and art inspired by the house under the roller coaster (the same one immortalized by Woody Allen). The Boardwalk Renaissance exhibit brings the Coney spirit back to the heart of the city that started it all.

Sponsored by the Coney Island History Project, Coney Island Hysterical Society and City Lore.

Produced in tandem with the Coney Island USA’s exhibit, Sodom by the Sea Salon. Also, check out the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit Coney Island: Vision of an American Dreamland!

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