The Moving Image of Coney Island

For the past four years I have had the pleasure of making motion pictures a major part of the traveling exhibition, Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008. The exhibition explores how painters, photographers, filmmakers, writers, and graphic designers depicted the amusement destination, from the time it was a Victorian seaside resort in the mid-nineteenth century until the closing of Astroland on September 7, 2008. Artists found inspiration in Coney Island’s changing identity, while the Brooklyn entertainment center has been indelibly shaped by representations of the place. Generously funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, the show opened at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford on January 31, 2015 before traveling to the San Diego Museum of Art on July 11, 2015. It is now at the Brooklyn Museum until March 13, 2016. Following this, the show will end its run at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio from May 11-September 11, 2016.

Working first as a research fellow and then as a programmer, documentarian, and author for the book catalog, my overarching role was to elucidate the relationship between cinema and Coney Island and to present this relationship in a compelling and accessible way. Cinema and Coney Island grew up together at the turn of the twentieth century and have been in dynamic dialogue ever since. Filmmakers tracked the amusement destination’s shifting social landscape or used it as a stage for Hollywood fictions. Coney Island was also a major site for exhibition and currently has a thriving film culture of its own.

Collaborating with head curator Robin Jaffee Frank, fellow scholars Charles Musser, John Kasson, and Charles Denson, and my museum colleagues Deborah Gaudet, Erin Monroe, Anne Rice, Cecil Adams, and Adria Patterson, I contributed to the show in four primary ways: developing methods for displaying movies within the museum; curating a film series; writing about film for the accompanying book catalog; and co-directing a short documentary on Coney Island banner painter Marie Roberts.

Thinking about the floor plan, I didn’t want to ghettoize film by playing a DVD compilation of clips within a secluded theater. As the show is divided into five major historical epochs, I advocated for placing selections from a variety of movies in each section. Whether displayed on flat screen monitors or projected onto the wall, films surface as discrete works of art alongside other works of art created within the same period. This strategy also encourages viewers to see stylistic or thematic resonances between different media. For example, in the first section, Edwin S. Porter’s Coney Island at Night (1905), which foregrounds the luminous performance of electricity against a pitch-black night sky, appears near Joseph Stella’s cubo-futurist painting, Battle of Lights, Coney Island Mardi Gras (1913-14), an image that celebrates all the frenetic energy of Coney Island’s own Mardi Gras festival.

The accompanying film series, Coney Island on the Silver Screen, offered the full-length versions of many of the movies that were excerpted within the show. Integrated with lectures, gallery tours, and performances, screenings occurred throughout the exhibition’s run at the Wadsworth’s Art Deco-styled Aetna Theater. The lineup of movies included The Crowd (1928), Speedy (1928), Lonesome (1928), Freaks (1932), The Gilded Lily (1935), Weegee’s New York (1948), Little Fugitive (1953), Annie Hall (1977), and Enemies, A Love Story (1989). In some instances, Coney Island figured prominently at a key moment in the narrative. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s persona Alvy Singer attributes his imaginative yet anxious disposition to growing up under the Thunderbolt Roller Coaster. In other films, Coney Island is the featured environment for a romantic plot, or a major subject of inquiry in its own right. In Weegee’s New York, photographer Weegee (Arthur Fellig) covertly captures the teeming crowds and risqué snuggling on the beaches and boardwalk.

A pre-movie introduction led by head curator Robin Jaffee Frank, professor Charles Musser, or myself contextualized the movies within the history of cinema or Coney Island. We also led post-screening discussions in which audience members shared their thoughts about the films or memories of visiting or living in Southern Brooklyn. These events were part cine-club, part home-movie day, and part oral history workshop. The series provided a more expansive space for audiences to critically learn about Coney Island.* Coney Island on the Silver Screen did not tour as an intact series to other museums; however, individual movies from our lineup played in the other venues as part of their programming.

The museum catalog, which was a finalist for the Alice Award for art book publishing, allowed for focused analysis of particular movies in relation to secondary literature and primary documents. The film section of the book is titled “Cinema by the Seashore” and includes four sub-chapters. I co-wrote with Charles Musser, “Twins of the Amusement World, 1895-1920,” which considers how early silent films and Coney’s big three parks (Dreamland, Steeplechase, and Luna Park) helped advertise one another as offering new, exciting, and distinctly modern experiences. Coney Island also became known as “Flicker Alley” during this period for the sheer volume of picture houses that dotted the streetscape. In “Creating the Hollywood Couple, 1927-1949,” I focus on films that portray Coney Island as a dreamy environment that draws characters together at a critical moment in the plot.

“Cameras at Coney, 1940-1953” (written by Charles Musser) looks at a small coterie of photographer-filmmakers who shot Coney Island as a place of social experimentation. The lives and artistic practice of Weegee, Valentine Sherry, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin were more connected with one another than most people might realize. These individuals also saw the amusement destination as a haven for exploring Popular Front ideas during a period of growing Cold War conservatism.

In “Nostalgia, Nightmares, and the Spirit of Resilience, 1971-2008,” I investigate Coney Island’s shifting appearance on screen in an era of urban renewal, changes in national patterns of entertainment, and new forms of film production. Weaving together moments and extended sequences from such films as The Wiz (1978), The Warriors (1979), The Goodbye People (1984), and He Got Game (1998), the chapter engages how filmmakers cast a romantic eye on the region’s past or attempted to breath new life into its present.

Writing the catalog essays involved examining motion pictures as a form of cultural commentary. Co-directing a short documentary with filmmaker/scholar Patrick Reagan entailed using film as a tool to investigate contemporary artistic creation in Coney Island. This Side of Dreamland (2015) features Marie Roberts. The film portrays Roberts enthusiastically practicing the circus craft of banner painting through her endeavors as a teacher, civic activist, and Artist in Residence at Coney Island USA.

The narrative arc follows the development of a painting from blank canvas to finished banner. We expanded on this attention to her process through capturing the vernacular street art beyond Marie’s studio as well as depicting her deep familial ties to the area. Interviews and observational sequences emphasize the intimate associations between what she paints and the broader cultural landscape that inspires her. Screenings at the Wadsworth and at film festivals led to lively conversations about the exhibition and the role of film within it. We were honored to receive the award for Best Documentary Short at the Coney Island Film Festival and excited to participate in creating a moving-image archive of the neighborhood.

Teaching the exhibition has been an enriching part of my scholarly life. I include Coney Island-related films in courses I teach on American film historiography, the history and theory of broadcasting, new media formations, and places of American amusement. I recently received an Odyssey Grant from Hendrix College to take four students from different arts backgrounds (painting/sculpture, writing, filmmaking) to the Brooklyn Museum and to Coney Island itself. They will document what they see, hear, touch, smell, and taste through their respective medium. Following our sensory-intense trip to Brooklyn, students will then produce an original representation of Coney Island or a work of art directly inspired by their experience. A public presentation of student projects constitutes the culmination of our journey.

* Correction, December 9, 2015: Due to an editorial error, this sentence inadvertently included language from a draft version of this article upon initial publication. It has since been corrected. Return to corrected sentence.

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