Sunday, November 21, 2004

Amusing the Million, Part Two.
Kasson discusses George C. Tilyou, the developer of Steeplechase Park. Kasson describes him as an archetypal American businessman. Tilyou went on his honeymoon to Chicago, where he “viewed the spectacle with more than romantic eyes” (57). He offered to buy the big Ferris wheel he saw there, thinking it would be perfect for his Coney Island amusement park. But, in Kasson’s words, when “he learned that it had already been sold, he responded like a true showman” and “ordered another wheel, half the size, hurried back to Coney […] and put up a sign boldly announcing, ‘On This Site Will Be Erected the World’s Largest Ferris Wheel’” (57). Sure enough, he got the Ferris Wheel and built up other rides around it.

Another of Tilyou’s ideas was to enclose his amusement park. Steeplechase Park was “ringed by the gravity-powered steeplechase race that gave the park its name” (58). The result was that the walls kept out thugs and other “unsavory elements who might deter his customers” but also it meant that he could monopolize their business (58). Tilyou was also smart enough not to reveal his secrets of successful business in interviews. He only would say “We Americans […] want to be either thrilled or amuse, and we are ready to pay well for either sensation” (58). However, as a result, we don’t know that much about his theories of success.

Tilyou also was smart about the kinds of games he included in his parks. He knew that people wanted a return to childhood and tried to find games that fit that feeling, so “Instead of games of competitive skill, which demanded self-control, Steeplechase emphasized games of theatricality and of vertigo, which encouraged participants to shed self-consciousness and surrender to a spirit of reckless, exuberant play” (59). Even more specifically, Tilyou’s theme park wanted its visitors to feel as though they were “participants in a human comedy” (60). TIlyou himself called it “Steeplechase—the Funny Place,” and he made as its logo “the huge grinning ‘Funny Face’” (60). So that his “patrons [had] the opportunity to play the fool,” Tilyou offered “stunts designed to catch people off guard” like “the Barrel of Fun, a huge, slowly revolving cylinder which frequently rolled patrons off their feet and brought strangers into sudden, intimate contact” (60). Another such device was the “Blowhole Theater,” where “concealed compressed-air jets sent hats flying and skirts shooting upward,” which must have been extremely shocking at the time (61). Many others existed that caused “Momentary disorientation, intimate exposure, physical contact with strangers, pratfalls, public humiliation—conditions that in other circumstances might have been excruciating—became ritually entertaining” (61).

The entertainment was impressive to the audience because they, themselves, were the performers. “Arriving as separate, isolated figures, they became actors in a vast, collective comedy. The flamboyantly expressive surroundings had the effect of garbing customers in costumes and eliciting their own theatricality. At various moments on rides they might briefly grab the spotlight and attract the attention of the multitudes; at other times they might [...] watch their fellow revelers (65).

Now, I find very interesting John Kasson’s description of Coney Island’s descent from “exotic architecture and peoples to exotic animals” (70). It happened that Coney Island marketers began to give their audiences “the thrill of witnessing at least the illusion of death and destruction” with several different shows (71). There was “The Fall of Pompeii” where showmen recreated “the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the death of 40,000 people” as well as Mount Pelee’s eruption and “the devastation of Martinique in 1902” (71). So our fascination with violence dates back at least to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (72).

It’s also worth noting that the rides that people enjoyed so much were “directly inspired by modes of transportation in use in industry and society at large” or were intended to parody them—even the roller coaster mimicked the motion of the train or the subway (74).

So by the time Coney Island became the big three amusement parks, it began to be the time of “a new mass culture” (87). Cultural critics looked to Coney Island as a way to study trends. Some scholars found the signs there of a healthy culture, saying that in contrast to the time of McKane, “the crowds appeared orderly and thoroughly decent.” One report said that American crowds were “the best natured, best dressed, best behaving and best smelling crowd in the word; not vulgar unless we mean by that [...] being obviously and audibly amused” (95).

Kasson’s book was a fascinating read. It was interesting to find out what people did for fun 100 years ago. It was also interesting to find out what caused Coney Island’s demise, or at least its shrinkage and diminishment in American lore: the rise of the moving picture. Amusement park owners had to fight the threat of boredom constantly, trying to change their attractions regularly to attract new guests (109). Tilyou even sold tickets to the ruins of his park when it burned (112). Ultimately, though, these parks were “less extraordinary” than the movies (112), so Americans found something better to do.

No comments: