Luna Park was a wonderland unlike anything the world has seen before or since. It was the brainchild of Elmer “Skip” Dundy and Frederic Thompson. According to the documentary “Coney Island” Dundy had sold the bankrupt Union Pacific railroad and Frederick Thompson was an architect with a drinking problem. Together this unusual duo created a ride called “A Trip to the Moon” and exhibited it at the 1901 Pan-American International Exposition. George C. Tilyou saw the ride there and told the pair to bring their “Trip to the Moon” with them to Steeplechase Park. After the 1902 season Tilyou asked for a larger cut of the ride’s profits, which prompted Thompson and Dundy to consider buying their own park. They purchased Captain Paul Boyton’s Sea Lion Park, a “ramshackle cluster of attractions.” The pair tore everything but the Shoot-the-Chutes down as a new style of amusement park was built over the winter of 1902-1903. On May 16, 1903 Luna Park opened at night. The legend has it that the duo had so little money they combed the beach for change for the ticket takers. As Albert Bigelow Paine said in 1904’s “Century Magazine”, “A long festoon of electric light leaped from one side of the park to the other, and was followed by a second and a third. Then there was a perfect maze of them. Tall towers that had grown dim suddenly broke forth in electric outlines and gay rosettes of color, as the living spark of light traveled hither and thither, until the place was transformed into an enchanted garden, of such Aladdin never dreamed.”
The good times did not last long. In February, 1907 Elmer Dundy died and Thompson was set a adrift. Five years later he went bankrupt and the bank took Luna from Thompson. Although the park was fun after he left all of the creativity was gone. Luna, under the direction of investors and money men, operated until 1944. Fires that year caused the park to limp through the end of the season and it remained closed throughout 1945. The next year the park was closed and sold to a group that demolished it. An undignified end to a beautiful play land.
This was the original gate to Luna Park. The heart says “The Heart of Coney Island.” The entrance, like most parks on Coney, was directly on Surf Avenue. It is sad that a furniture store now occupies the site of this magnificent park. (Photo on the left Courtesy of the Library of Congress).
The park’s entrance was altered for the 1905 season. The main square entrance was still there, but it was surrounded by red & white wheels and crescents.
A shot of Surf Avenue and Luna Park during the 1920’s. The park was not named after the moon (although Thompson and Dundy used that iconography a lot), but after Dundy’s sister in New Jersey.
“About 45,000 men, women and children strolling along Surf Avenue stopped and rubbed their eyes and stood in wonder and pinched themselves to see if there was not something wrong somewhere. The Coney Island visitor does not expect much variety in the attractions gathered at the great breathing space by the sea, here was a strange sight at Coney Island. Yawning on the dingy old pleasure thoroughfare was a monster arch, covering half a city block. The interior of this arch was a solid mass of electric lights and rising many feet into the air were four monster monoliths, traced in electric lights surmounted by great balls of fire, which shed light over the island.” The New York Times May 17, 1903
These two photos look different ways down the main throughway of Luna. The left photo looks towards the park’s entrance and the right photo looks into the park. At the end of this walkway the park opened up into a large area surrounded by restaurants and in the middle stood the Electric Tower. My favorite part of both of these photos are the fish that stand along the promenades. The ride shown in each postcard, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was a cyclorama that depicted a submarine trip to the North Pole. Much like the Trip to the Moon, 20,000 leagues featured riders getting in a craft, enjoying the trip to the destination and then disembarking to see the “frigid” town. The ride was replaced by the Dragon’s Gorge for the 1905 season.
What a beautiful scene at Luna! In an article entitled “The Summer Show” Thompson said, “When a stranger arrives at Coney Island, the great headquarters of summer shows, the first thing that impresses him is change- difference. His eyes tell him that he is in a different world- a dream world, perhaps a nightmare world- where all is bizarre and fantastic- crazier than the craziest part of Paris- gayer and more different from everyday world.” [The Independent: June 20, 1907]
The Circle Swing at Luna Park (Photo courtesy the Library of Congress).
The architecture at Luna was a hodge-podge of styles and one of the most recognizable structures within the park was the Electric Tower. At the tower’s base were four fish fountains where water cascaded down stairs into small pools. In the photo on the left the fish have been removed and replaced with a doorway, perhaps an elevator was installed to take waiting guests up in the tower.
This photo shows another restaurant and the Helter Skelter. It shows how detailed the park was and what care Thompson put into Luna when he designed it. He said, “Buildings can laugh quite as loudly as human beings. A beautiful but excited sky-line is more important in an exposition than the correct demonstration of any man’s recollection of the fine points of Sir Christopher Wren’s handiwork!”
Frederick Thompson put great care into the park. Click on the left photo and look at the great detail along the promenade. The fir trees, the flags and all the lights all combined to make a modern-day fairyland. Working left to right in the second photo we see the windmill (tucked in the back), the Electric Tower and the centennial tower & the front gate (in the distance). All of the employees that it must have taken to fill the individual stands is staggering by today’s standards.
The Gyroplane was an early version of the modern day flat ride. This attraction featured some unique visuals and was set out in the middle of the midway so there were almost as many spectators as riders.
According to historian Jeffery Stanton (http://www.westland.net/coneyisland/articles/lunapark.htm) the Pit was the result of a funhouse refurbishment. It cost $100,00 for the renovation and it was marketed as “A kaleidoscope of fun”.
This view shows the lagoon with the circus in place. Edwin E. Slosson wrote in “The Independent” magazine, “Now, line by line, as we watch in the twilight, as if lit by an unseen taper, as if drawn by the architect on the darkness by a pen of fire, the building slowly appears, until with a final flash it stands like a glorified ghost of itself in the night.” [July 21, 1904] (Photos courtesy the Library of Congress)
These two views are from the top of the shoot-the-chutes. The left postcard is the more accurate of the two, although the American flags were often added by the card’s artist. When it opened in 1903 Luna Park featured 250,000 lights and 100,000 of those were on the Electric tower.
The left photo shows the Dragon’s Gorge and the main gate is visible in the distance. The photo on the right is another view of Luna, this time closer to the entrance. The park at night was amazing. Russian writer Maxim Gorky said, “With the advent of night a fantastic city all of fire suddenly rises from the ocean into the sky. Thousands of ruddy sparks glimmer in the darkness, limning in fine sensitive outline on the black background of the sky, shapely towers of miraculous castles, palaces and temples. Golden gossamer threads tremble in the air. They intertwine in transparent, flaming patterns, which flutter and melt away in love with their own beauty mirrored in the waters. Fabulous beyond conceiving, ineffably beautiful, is this fiery scintillation.” [The Independent: August 8, 1907]
The Honeymoon Express ran from 1914 to 1927. It was a train ride with small railroad-style Pullman cars that circled the Shoot-the-Chutes lagoon.
The restaurant boxes along the promenade at night.
Luna Park at night was a wonderland that had no equals.
Luna Park offered rides on the came. In “Munsey’s Magazine” Guy Wetmore Carryl wrote, “Oh, that camel! Once the ship of the desert, decked in gaudy trappings and bearing his Arab master at breakneck speed across a sea of sand: what a derelict for any one to mount upon he is now become! The long, laborious course from Wara to Mourzouk has dwindled to a bare half hundred yards, but these he traverses as many times a day, rising and crouching again with protesting snorts, a sneer on his long lower lip, and a resentful gleam in his formerly patient eyes. He knows, though we do not, the proper way in which to mount and descend, and he has yet to see it exemplified at Coney Island.” (Photo courtesy the Library of Congress)
Thompson & Dundy’s herd of elephants roamed through Luna Park and some were used for rides. Thompson loved the animals and used several of them to help build the park. I do not know if either of the elephants pictured here are the ill-fated Topsy. (Photo on the left courtesy the Library of Congress).
Although Thompson controlled most of the creative concepts in the park, Dundy made one important request- Luna must have a circus. The elephants and their keepers were found performing in above the lagoon daily. Many said it added to the unique, childlike feel that Luna had. (Left photo courtesy the Library of Congress)
The Shoot-the-Chutes was the only thing that Thompson and Dundy salvaged from Sea Lion Park. The ride was simple, a boat was hauled up to the top of the hill, turned around and then splashed downinto the lagoon.
The postcard on the left shows the lift and drop of the Shoot the Chutes. The boat splashed down through the tunnel and out into the lake. After the boat slowed the operator steered it over to the dock where the happy Victorian passengers disembarked.
This is a great rendering of the ride by nightfall. Notice the large amount of space between the two “drop” tracks.
These fantastic pictures from the Library of Congress show some unique views of the Shoot-the-Chutes. For an amusement park ride of the day it really was a thrilling attraction.
The Dragon’s Gorge opened in 1905 and was designed by LaMarcus Thompson and John Miller. There was a large waterfall within the ride’s entrance and the exquisite detail amazed its many riders. The coaster remained a popular fixture within the park until 1944 when it burned.
The Helter Skelter may not be exciting by today’s standards, but for the Victorian women it was quite a thrill to “let loose” down the slide. Elmer Blaney Harris wrote in “Munsey’s Magazine”, “The descent itself is about fifty feet, with high side, like a bathtub, and it twists and turns suddenly, a man standing guard at the bottom to pick up passengers.”
The Teaser. There is not much information on this ride. It looked like it was essentially many individual seats group and put onto a spinning platform. (Photo courtesy the Library of Congress)