One summer morning in the late 1960s when Sheila Fitlin opened up her family’s pitch game on Coney Island’s Bowery, there was a fellow already waiting with a handful of quarters. She took her time with the metal awning and the plush prizes that had fallen from the hooks. She counted out the change in her till and made small talk with the guy, who wasn’t anxious, just wanting to start his day with a couple of windups.
He took only three shots, so it wasn’t but about 10 a.m. when the guy hit the bulls-eye and won the grand prize—a six-inch black and white television. Probably Zenith. But by the time Sheila had gotten her brother-in-law down to the arcade to lift the TV from its top shelf, the busses were already unloading on Stillwell Avenue. When the day-trippers climbed down to see a man walking away with his new TV, they made a beeline for Sheila Fitlin’s stand. That day she made double her usual weekend take by noon.
Four decades later, Sheila’s son Scott stands outside the arcade, which his family still owns, and takes stock. A perplexing holiday called Brooklyn Day (“Hey sweetheart, even the Bronx closed down for Brooklyn Day,” shouts a carny at the derby race) has pushed the crowd at Coney to 10 or 15,000—a good count for a weekday. The beach is full, the benches are packed, and the line for the Cyclone is double switch-backed for the first time all season. But the Bowery, aside from the powerful speakers at the hoop shot, is quiet. West of Fitlin’s El Dorado arcade, the street is completely shuttered up to its dead-end at a chain link fence.
“When I was a kid,” says Fitlin, “you had everything down here. You had two or three food stands on every corner. You couldn’t get through the crowds on a Saturday, you had so many people down here. And they were looking to spend their money with anybody who’d take it.”
Fitlin’s a stocky guy who stands with his legs braced wide when he’s surveying the fenced-up lot across from his arcade. You notice three things on his round face: stubble going gray, a turned-up nose, and warm eyes that look directly, comfortably, into yours. When Fitlin emerges from the lair of the arcade for some sun, he carries a pack of Newports and a lighter. He usually doesn’t find time to smoke. He’s too busy talking.
“I was 11 years old when my dad opened the scooter ride,” he’s saying, referring to the El Dorado, which in 1973 expanded the family’s budding empire of game stalls, including the pitch game with the TV prize. “Scooter ride” is carny parlance for bumper cars. The cars are still there, the same ones, though now you enter the track from Surf Avenue where the ticket booth and the “Bump, Bump, Bump Your Ass Off” recorded invitation runs all day. The Bowery side houses an assortment of coin-operated games, none of them over $1. For 120 tickets (or about 45 minutes with an eight-year old boy), you can get a pack of cards, a super bounce ball, and a plastic frog. For about 1,000 you can get a watch, batteries not included. There’s also a TV for the taking, if you have the patience to collect 10 times what it would take to get a watch.
“To bring crowds, you need coasters. They were designed by trial and error and by the time we were riding them they were just about perfected.” “I remember the first song we played when we opened the bumpers was ‘Cisco Kid’ by War. Soul music was the thing then. And there were just all these people. All this music. I thought—this is amazing. I just fell in love,” says Fitlin, who looks much more like an Antony (no “h”) or a Bud or a Sammy the Slide, (in honor of his roller coaster erudition), but whose eyes look like they’re welling up and who is really Scott, son of Sandy and Sheila, grandson of Joseph and Dorothy Buxbaum.
Joseph Buxbaum, Fitlin’s paternal grandfather, came to Coney in 1905 and sold Mrs. Stahl’s knishes and Eskimo Pies on the beach. In the 1930s he opened three stores in the zone with his brother and sold French fries and juices. During the Depression, the Irish Shamrock Bar next door to the present El Dorado was up for sale, and the Buxbaum brothers bought it and turned it into three stalls: a water balloon race, a cat rack, and the pitching game.
In all that time, the action on the Bowery was changing. And also diminishing.
During Coney Island’s heyday, at the turn of the century, the Bowery stretched from West 10th Street all the way to the Steeplechase entrance at West 16th. Hearkening to its Teutonic origins (bouwerij means “farm” in old Dutch), it ran up to the back entrance of a popular beer garden. It would become victim to the same New Amsterdamish interpretations that befell Manhattan’s Bowery: a popular condemnation of Coney Island as the “Sodom by the Sea.” At one point the six blocks housed 260 saloons, dance halls, baths, and theaters of varying degrees of bawdiness. There were also a handful of bordellos, the first to be rebuilt when fire swept the Bowery in 1903. One of them was in the building next to El Dorado, says Fitlin.
During World War II, the Bowery became primarily a destination for drinking. But after armistice, the sailors and soldiers were few and far between. So the games moved in. Coney had graduated from the “Nickel Empire” to a realm of Penny Arcades; all offering prizes at a dime or quarter a pop. They made good money thanks to the big draws—the roller coasters.
“To bring crowds of 100,000, to get the masses, you need coasters,” says Fitlin, and now his gaze has strayed into the middle distance of didactics—this is a man who knows his stuff. “You had five of them then. The Jumbo Jet, the Bobsled, the Tornado, the Cyclone, and the Thunderbolt. They were designed by trial and error and by the time we were riding them they were just about perfected.”
By now Fitlin has been joined in his reverie by Stanley Fox, another Coney native who managed the Playland arcade in the ‘60s and ‘70s and now advises the Coney Island History Project.
“Remember how the kids would come looking for the Bobsled? Who’s Bob? They wanted to know. And remember that ride had ‘snuggle seating,’ so you really wanted to get your girlfriend on that one,” remembers Fox.
The Tornado, erected in 1926, had burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1977, and the Bobsled was gone by then too. “Now that was a labor-intensive ride,” says Fitlin, all business. “It was wooden. And made to mimic a bobsled ride so when you banked at the rim of the bowl, it was like 2,000 pounds of pressure. Now how would you feel holding that up?”
“Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week,” adds Fox. “It required constant maintenance. Just the other day I saw John Bonsignore—his father owned the Bobsled—and he said to me ‘that ride took my youth.’ He was always working on it. ‘That ride took my youth,’ he said.”
“The Tornado and the Thunderbolt—these were the first deep-drop coasters,” continues Fitlin, all business. “Up until then coasters were sort of rolling hills, you know. But back then you didn’t design a ride with expensive models. You built it. And you made modifications.”
Fifty-plus years of modifications. The Thunderbolt, the first coaster to be erected in 1925, made its last run in 1984 and survived in neglected grandeur until 2000, when it was sacrificed for the Keyspan ballpark. The Tornado, erected in 1926, had burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1977, and the Bobsled, which came to Coney Island after the 1939 Worlds Fair, was gone by then, too. Though Coney is a cleaner, safer place than it was in Scott Fitlin’s youth, the Cyclone on its own (80 years old this year), he says, is not enough to save the penny arcades in its vicinity. There are only five of them now. There have never been so few.
Fitlin still hasn’t smoked any of his Newports, and now he and Fox are discussing the merits of coasters around the country—Six Flags, Disney’s newest, L.A. Thompson’s is still running in Willow Grove Park, Pa. Fitlin’s father, who has retired to the south for winters, walks by, as he does most days in summer. His mother Sheila drives up and jumps out of her car, jangling a heavy ring of keys.
Across the street is the lot where the Himalaya used to be, as well as go-karts and bumper boats. The property now belongs to Thor Equities, the developer that has bought up a huge chunk of Coney’s amusement-zoned property. In late July, a flume ride will go up and a circus will decamp here for six days.
“Day late and a dollar short,” says Fitlin, who thinks that if Joe Sitt, president of Thor Equities, really wanted to save Coney Island as he claims, he would have brought a fantastic midway to the Bowery in time for the summer. “Sure—bring the circus, but also bring carnival rides, big rides that we don’t have,” he says. (There’s a flume ride in nearby Astroland Park, which Sitt has also bought and declined to extend the lease on.) “It takes more than lions and tigers,” says Fitlin.
He’s a paragon of sincerity, though, when he says yeah, he would work with Joe Sitt, the guy whom all of old Coney is spending their summer suspecting, puzzling, and despising. If Joe Sitt came to Scott Fitlin and asked his advice on what sort of coaster—steel or wood, banked or looped, full-circuit or lift-hill—he should put on one of the half-dozen lots he’s bought up in the past three years, then yeah, he’d find a willing consultant.
And if he offers him, oh, $20 million for the small lot that El Dorado has sat on for 35 years now?
“OK, give it to me. That would let me move onto the next phase of my life,” shrugs Fitlin. Then he reconsiders. “But I don’t want to do anything else.”
Three little boys have been standing nearby, listening in on the conversation. They’re Coney Island natives too, living in the nearby housing projects.
“There’s gonna be a circus here?” one asks eagerly.
“And a water slide,” says Fitlin.
They exchange glances, like, it sounds pretty good. And then their attention is drawn to a small mouse scuttling down the Bowery and they run to catch it.