Thursday, June 10, 2010

Coney Island

On Memorial Weekend, Coney Island rallied for another season with an address by its “officially unelected Mayor” and the first new amusement area in almost 50 years.  The pin wheel crescent moon design wasn’t quite complete and not all the rides were in place but still the new  Luna Park was a welcome addition. With only 12 of the 19  new rides by Zamperla  operating , it seemed an improvement over the old Astroland in its final years.
At the Coney Island Museum, unofficial mayor, Dick Zigun, delivered his annual State of Coney Island Address that left a few people confused about where he stands on various issues.  Beachie on the Coney island U.S.A. bulletin board suggested that Zigun was throwing up his hands in surrender. I mostly agreed with Zigun and feel he was being realistic under the current situation.
Despite the large week-end crowds, the  doomsayers were also out and about. The Village Voice calling it the old razzle with the amusement park still in its death throes. According to the Brooklyn Paper, ” just how amazing Luna Park will be remains in doubt.”
And of course there was Joe Stitt, Thor Equities, stating once again his plans to demolish a handful of historic buildings. This naturally brings out the preservationists and historians screaming in protest.  The Historic District Council talks of Thor’s rush to begin demolition. However he does not seem in a rush. What intrigues me is that Stitt keeps talking about it. If  Stitt was absolutely serious about demolition why doesn’t he go through with it?  I keep getting the feeling that those buildings are being held as  hostages for some future bargaining deal.
As a theatre historian, I served on two Coney Island landmarking panels and was an advisor in trying to rescue Henderson’s.  The recent articles I have read on Henderson’s repeat over and over the same two bits of  information: built-in 1899 and Harpo Marx made his stage debut there. Historically speaking there was a lot more than that.

Henderson’s Music Hall

The New York Real Estate and Building Guide, November 4, 1899 lists a building permit for a “2-sty  brk concert hall” at “2012 Bowery, n.w. corner Henderson’s Walk.”  The architect was J. B. McElfatrick & Son, the leading theatre architects of the period. The building featured one of Coney Island’s top restaurants on the Surf Avenue side and a variety theatre on the Bowery.
Fred Henderson booked through Keith-Albee, the top vaudeville chain in America. Basically this means that most of the big names in variety performed at Henderson’s. Harpo Marx, as part of the Four Nightingales (listed as just “The Nighingales”) , was a supporting act in June 1908. The same for Al Jolson, when he appeared with his brother Harry as the “Hebrew and the Cadet”,  in 1903.
Eventually Fred Henderson became West Coast manager for Keith-Albee and died on the golf links of California. His music hall lost its western facade (and stage) with Stillwell Avenue widened in 1923. Some of the upper floor  windows follow the rake of the old balcony.
I don’t know what to say about landmarking Henderson’s. So little of the original building remains (partly due to a 1903 Bowery fire). Still, I would hate to see the place where the likes of Sophie Tucker trod the boards torn down.

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