Coney Island’s Dreamland Amusement Park 1904-1911 – Part 2
Continuing from part one of our postcard journey through Dreamland Amusement Park at Coney Island, we examine the other features of the park.
At the turn of the century, dancing was possibly the most popular amusement at Coney Island, even more so than bathing at the beach. The Dreamland ballroom reflected this popularity by being the largest ballroom ever built in the United States. The building was converted from a pier, with three sides overlooking the ocean. It had a 25,000 square foot dance floor with a 50 foot ceiling, illuminated at night by 10,000 electric lights.
There were a number of restaurants and strolling performers spread around Dreamland.
Pretty cash girls in long white college gowns with pale blue mortarboard caps tended the exhibit booths collecting money, while to the left and right and even above your head performances were taking place.
Their were two parts of Dreamland that would be very politically incorrect today. The Midget City and the Circus Sideshow, also known as the Freak Show, were among the most popular attractions, drawing as many as 20,000 visitors on busy weekend days.
The Lilliputian Village or as it was more commonly called Midget City was its own village with everything built to scale for the small people. The three hundred inhabitants lived in the village and had vocations that were the same as they would be anywhere else. The little people also performed their own miniature circus, opera and theatre acts and had their own police and fire departments.
The circus sideshow or freak show was a staple of Coney Island where gawkers could stare and sometimes pose questions to the living displays. Born freaks were considered the aristocracy of the trade and ranked higher than made freaks. There were also novel displays like an imported Somali Village from British Equatorial Africa.
The Dreamland Circus Sideshow featured performers such as “Elizabeth The Living Doll” at 27 inches tall, “Lady Little” and “Baron Paucci, The Smallest and Most Perfect Man.”
The Baron enjoyed wearing fancy clothes, drinking champagne and betting on horses at the track. He liked to consider himself a Casanova with the ladies and took special pride in the romantic conquest of “regular” sized women.
Other sideshow staples included, Jolly Irene the fat lady who weighed in at 689 pounds; Mademoiselle Burilian, the Tattooed Beauty; Jean Libbera a co-joined twin who had an extra set of limbs dangling from his torso, who was known as the Double Bodied Man and Toney the Alligator Skin Boy.
Besides Indian Rubber Men, Skeleton Dudes and Bearded Ladies (many of whom were actually men), who came and went, there were some unusual acts such as Sober Sir Edward who offered $100 to anyone who could make him smile. After his fiancee died this strange man insisted upon being married to the cremated ashes of his fiancees body.
The man responsible for the procuring performers for the Circus Sideshow and the manager of Midget City was Samuel Gumpertz, an entertainment impresario who scoured the world for continually smaller people, human oddities and other unusual acts that could draw customers. Gumpertz paid his performers very well and eventually he became the general manager of the entire park. Gumpertz would go on in life to be the managing director of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Dreamland’s end came suddenly and dramatically overnight on May 26, 1911 when workers were repairing the Hell Gate ride from a leak that had sprung in the base of the tunnel. The blaze started when the tar they were using for the repairs caught fire from a short circuit inside the tunnel and the manager of the repair crew made the mistake of trying to put out the fire himself instead of getting help immediately which allowed the fire to spread.
The entire park was quickly engulfed in flames. 33 fire companies with over 250 firefighters responded to the call, but it was too late.
The inferno could be seen for miles. The White Tower was brightly lit by fire against the black night sky. When it collapsed sparks and embers rained down in every direction.
In a fortuitous move for himself, Bostock who had run the animal show, sold out after the 1910 season to Colonel Ferari.
Many of the animals would not budge out of their cages as they were terrified of the flames and smoke. Some animals were released from their cages only to be shot by the police. One lion who was set free ran into the streets where it was clubbed to death with an ax. Colonel Ferari and the trainers Captain Jack Bonavita and Vincent Refire tried in vain to rescue the animals but they ended up shooting many, rather than have them suffer by burning to death.
No people lost their lives. But for the many performers, concessionaires, hoteliers and amusement operators who lived on or near Dreamland they lost their possessions, homes and businesses.
After the fire, Gumpertz and others set up a tent on Surf Avenue to continue the Circus Sideshow and urged passerby to see the ruins of Dreamland. 350,000 came out to see the devastation two days after the conflagaration and thousands paid 10¢ admission.
Barkers were hawking “authentic” souvenirs such as a the ax blade used to fell the escaped lion, a St. Bernard puppy that managed to escape, animal teeth and twisted molten wire metal. The number of ax blades and St. Bernard puppies that were sold was said to be numerous.
Two weeks after the fire a frightened lioness named Atlanta who was presumed killed by the blaze, was found hiding under the boardwalk in nearby Luna Park. The lion had been surviving on hens it was snatching from the rear of the park.
Due to the high cost of insuring Dreamland, the park only had $400,000 in insurance coverage. The financial loss was too great to overcome. Dreamland was never to be rebuilt and the city purchased back the land that it stood upon to turn it into a public park.
This panoramic photograph shows Dreamland in its heyday.
This one shows what remained of Dreamland after the fire.
I just finished reading Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things which has the Dreamland fire as it’s climax. I was really curious to see some photos and find out more about the park and the fire. Great site -glad I found it. Thanks!