Illusion, innovation, and amusement: The history of Coney Island, one of magic’s most influential landmarks

January 2, 2018

New York has long been a thriving hub for the development of American magic. You can chalk it up to the city’s reputation for entertainment and theater, or write it off as just another feature of the modern metropolis. But zoom in a little closer on Brooklyn, and the very first spark of New York’s magic scene unfolds all the way out in Coney Island over 100 years ago. Coney Island was one of the first places in the United States that audiences could regularly see and appreciate magic, but Brooklyn wasn’t exactly the seat of glamor. In fact, East Coast magic’s gritty reputation—as compared to the glitz of the West Coast, Vegas world—traces all the way back to Coney Island at the turn of the century.

It’s said that in New York’s early days, back in the days of New Amsterdam, the strip of undeveloped land we now know as Coney Island was overrun with rabbits. The island was named for konijn, the Dutch word for rabbits and probably the only future early New Yorkers saw for an island way out there at the edge of nowhere. But by the late 1800s, Brooklyn had become a whole new world. Coney Island was a burgeoning destination, a beach escape for local residents and even the brave Manhattanites who would take the ferries or later the overground train out to Brooklyn. Clam bars lined the beach, three independent music halls drew huge crowds, and the Elephant Hotel stood tall.

In the late 1800s, standalone rides like the carousel and the Razzle Dazzle paved the way for the full amusement parks that solidified Coney Island’s reputation. Sea Lion Park started it all in 1895, followed by Steeplechase Park in 1897. By 1903, Luna Park revived the land and attractions where Sea Lion Park once stood. By 1904, Dreamland was up and running with a mission to compete with the glory and appeal of the sparkly new Luna Park. Both on the stages of these early major theme parks and in the space created by the conversation they started, magic flourished.

When Sea Lion Park opened in 1895, it was the first enclosed amusement park in North America. Founder Paul Boyton (occasionally seen as Boynton) built a fence around the park and charged an entrance fee, establishing his intentions to create a permanent space in contrast with the one at a time, pay-as-you-go attraction booths that were more popular at the time. Boyton worked hard to keep up with the changing times of Coney Island by adding rides like the Water Chute and a rollercoaster called the Flip Flap Railway, which was closed down when its upside-down loop was deemed too dangerous for riders. Boyton even acquired a well-loved Elephant named Topsy in the hopes of boosting attendance, but much like Sea Lion Park itself, Topsy’s enduring fame was mostly born of her untimely death.

Eventually, Boyton admitted he couldn’t keep up and sold Sea Lion Park to new owners, who quickly reopened the newly renovated park as Luna Park. And although Sea Lion Park didn’t last, all the amusement parks that followed managed to incorporate magic effects and illusion shows into their success. Luna Park co-owner Elmer “Skip” Dundy got his start as a magician while working as an assistant to Frederick Eugene Powell. Illusion shows like “Trip to the Moon” made Dundy’s name as a magician, and were all founded by his Luna Park partner, Frederick Thompson. Branching out from their rapid magical success in Luna Park, Dundy and Thompson later went on to found the New York Hippodrome, where Houdini would go on to make his 10,000 pound elephant disappear, among other world-famous illusions.

Dreamland Park was an idea with magic at its very core. British magician Roltaire created the park, promoted it widely, and also performed his own illusions on the main stages of the park. Roltaire’s illusions included acts called “Pharaoh’s Daughter” and “The Creation”, complex theatrical presentations that would hold audiences for half-hour long seated magic shows. Positioning himself as a headliner, Roltaire’s auditorium shows stood under the spotlight in contrast with Dreamland’s Temple of Illusions, where spectators would walk through a series of booths or rooms, each displaying a single illusion. “Those who know say that the amount of plate glass and mirror glass used was measured in acres,” wrote Arthur Leroy of the Temple of Illusions in the August 1950 issue of The Sphinx. The “Midget Village” in Dreamland Park also featured magic, where at the “Midget Magic Theatre” a “Midget Kellar” and his fellow “midget” assistants presented their own takes on famous illusions and popular tricks of the day.

Beyond the enclosed amusement parks that featured magic as mere aspects of their overall alure, the Illusion Palace on Surf Avenue offered a rotating cast of illusions as the main event. As many as 40 illusions featured at a time, on a roster that was updated every season to reflect new technologies and spotlight talented performers. Pepper’s Ghost was on display, groundbreaking as it was at the time, and big-stage classics like the Sword Box, levitations, and the Blue Room drew huge crowds. Meanwhile, appearances by the Four-Legged Girl and the Two-Headed Girl heralded the golden age of the sideshow.

While a “Midget Village” certainly wouldn’t pass muster today and the sideshows that do still exist are met with plenty of external resistance, this kind of entertainment was par for the course in Coney Island. Take Martin Couney, for example, who struggled to raise funds to finance his commitment to nurturing and caring for babies born premature. Forced to find another way to realize his vision, Couney’s Infant Incubator operation ran from 1903 to 1943 as just another Coney Island attraction. Audiences paid 25 cents to enter the facility and coo over the tiny, fragile babies encased in cutting-edge incubators that Couney imported from Europe. The “attraction” was so successful, not a single family had to pay for the neonatal care their premature babies wouldn’t have been able to access anywhere else.

While “Midget Villages” and “Infant Incubators” were the amusements audiences craved at the turn of the century, magicians were forced in many ways to adapt to the demands of the times. Coney Island was quickly becoming a haven for magic, serving performers and fans alike. But what must it have been like to entertain an audience that smelled bad? How could magicians pull crowds when preemies and bearded ladies were the dominant trends?

Certainly no history either of magic or of Coney Island would be complete without Al Flosso, who played a crucial role in shaping the New York City magic world both in Brooklyn and beyond. It was in Coney Island’s seedy underbelly environment that Flosso got his start, blossoming in front of audiences who wanted to see horrific, disturbing, just-plain-wrong experiences and converting those crowds into magic-lovers.

Flosso worked the sideshows and performed the hugely popular Punch and Judy puppet shows of the day, touring his acts all over New York. For his magic act, Flosso was first known as “The Boy Magician”, and later, when his world-famous Miser’s Dream routine put him on the map, as “The King of Koins”. But it was the almost accidental moniker of the “Coney Island Fakir” that stuck—an MC introduced him with the name before a performance at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, and from then on, it became his identity. Flosso had become famous as much for his quirks as for his strict magical skill, quirks like his brash attitude, handsy approach to volunteers, and penchant for eating lunch while performing on stage. While less polished than the white-gloved stage spectacles of the day, Flosso’s grittier, straight-to-the-point style of magic won over audiences of laymen and impressed generations of magicians. Perhaps it was precisely this roughness that allowed Flosso such incredible mastery over randomly selected audience members and enabled him to draw huge crowds (and a following of devoted magicians that has far outlived him) during the darkest, seediest days of magic at Coney Island.

“By the 1920s, magic was a bedrock part of Coney Island,” said Richard Cohn in the New York Sun. As a popular summer retreat dedicated to entertainment, Coney Island touched the up-and-coming careers of plenty of early magicians whose names today are legend. David Bamberg (perhaps better known by his stage name, Fu Man Chu) appeared in Coney Island, as did Louis “Pop” Krieger and the “Queen of Magic,” Adelaide Herrmann. Dai Vernon was cutting silhouettes on the Coney Island boardwalk for 50 cents a piece in the 1920s (two silhouettes would cost you a whopping 75 cents), when he met his wife Jeanne Hayes. Jeanne herself was in Coney Island that summer after being recruited by an outside talker to work in Jean Hugard’s illusion show as part of his Sawing a Woman in Half act, so in a way, it was magic that brought them together.

Harry Houdini’s love for Coney Island has also been well documented. His brother Hardeen lived near Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue at the time, just a short distance away from the magic and wonder in the neighborhood’s amusement parks and attraction tents. The Brothers Houdini were playing Coney Island in 1894, the same year that a young woman named Bess was performing with a singing and dancing troupe called The Floral Sisters. After Harry and Bess were married, it’s said that they visited Coney Island every year on their anniversary to walk the Boardwalk or pose for a photograph on the beach.

Today, Coney Island’s farflung location feels like a mere echo of its rambunctious past. It’s no longer an island, first of all, and the subway makes a day trip or even an afternoon at the beach an easy adventure. Although many reminders of Coney Island’s magical history remain, much has changed. The smiling cartoon face of Tilley that hangs over the entrance to Luna Park these days is a stylized caricature of George C. Tilyou, who first founded Steeplechase Park more than a century ago. Performers of all kinds stalk the boardwalk—some even use shills to sell souvenirs and draw crowds. In homage to the history of the place, Coney Island USA hosts regular magic shows in their upstairs museum space. And if you listen closely, if you wander the side streets and alleys of Coney Island and squint just right, you might even glimpse the shadow of the giants who paved the way for the magic of today.