SIOUX CITY | Sioux City's ties to Coney Island go beyond the local hot dog shops that bear the seaside amusement park destination's name.
Coney Island, an entertainment mecca, influenced amusement parks and carnivals in cities and towns all over the country, including Sioux City, says Matt Anderson, Sioux City Public Museum curator of history.
"I put together a slideshow of photographs of Sioux City amusement parks and recreation areas. It was kind of fun to see examples of something in a big place like New York at the local level, too," says Anderson, who installed "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland" at the Sioux City Public Museum. The traveling exhibition is presented in partnership with the National Endowment for the Humanities and Mid-America Arts Alliance.
The exhibit, which is on display through Jan. 7, features more than 140 objects, including park passes, photographs, posters, architectural artifacts and carousel animals, alongside historical video and audio clips. Coney Island is shown in all its glory during the 1920s and 30s, when thousands flocked to the New York City neighborhood to walk along the famous boardwalk, ride the 150-foot tall Wonder Wheel or chow down on a Nathan's hot dog.
Jumping carousel horse
Anderson says he thinks the most iconic artifact in the exhibit is a carousel horse crafted by M.C. Illions and Sons.
Marcus Charles Illions, a Lithuanian immigrant, was considered the "Michelangelo" of carousel carvers in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn in the early 20th Century.
Many Jewish carvers, who got their start making religious decorations for European synagogues, found work in the United States carving furniture, figurines, carousel horses and other decorative elements for the amusement park industry.
"Just about any place that would've had an amusement park at that time would've had something like this," Anderson says of the painted wood horse accented with leather, gold leafing and a tail made of real horse hair.
"Step right up," the barker urgently calls from a small, robin egg blue transistor radio flanked by a sepia easel card of Daisy and Violet Hilton.
The Hiltons, conjoined twins who were born in England in 1908 and later sold by their mother to her employer, were trained to sing and dance. At age 3, they began performing in a circus sideshow that toured Europe, Australia and the United States.
Anderson says Coney Island's sideshows were extremely popular with audiences. These productions featured little people, a bearded lady and even premature babies in incubators.
Since the enclosed aparatuses had been rejected by the medical community, Martin Couney, a doctor and neonatology pioneer, opted to exhibit premature babies in incubators at Coney Island, in effect saving thousands of tiny lives.
"The people that were born with some type of malady, they were the ones people would pay the most to see, compared to the sword swallower or fire breather," says Anderson, who also notes that the practice "screams exploitation." "Yet, people that had real medical problems maybe wouldn't have gotten a decent job anywhere. They oftentimes made a decent living doing that."
Stereograph cards, two nearly identical photographs placed side by side on cardboard, appear three-dimensional when looking through a vintage stereoscope viewer included in the exhibit.
Anderson says the cards, which featured images of Coney Island, were sold as souvenirs.
"A lot times when you would buy these, you would also buy a set of stereo cards," he says of the stereoscope viewer. "(The cards) would have images of what you would consider exotic places, like Coney Island, if you lived in Iowa."
Coney Island's slow and painful decline after World War II isn't forgotten in the exhibit.
During the Great Depression, the amusement parks fell into disrepair. In 1944, Luna Park was destroyed in a fire. By the 1950s, street gangs and crime were rampant in Coney Island.
The wear and tear on Spook-A-Rama, which was billed as the longest ride on Coney Island, is evident in a black and white photograph that was taken in the 1980s by photographer Andrew Cohen. The photo's caption says the Spook-A-Rama took passengers, who were seated in high-backed chairs, underneath a "blood-red waterfall" and past "cheesy dramas enacted by monstrous spiders, junked mannequins and cult-horror characters."
"I believe the amusement park component kind of ceased to operate in 1964, and then it really fell into decay right at the time the inner cities of all kinds of places were starting to decline," Anderson says of Coney Island, which has seen a resurgence in recent years with the addition of new state-of-the-art rides.