Coney Island, only one of Marcus Charles
Illions' loving masterworks remained after 1964. This
was Leonard McCullough's three-abreast
Virginia Dare vintage 1927, restored to Surf Avenue
through the grace of Prudence Bonds. This operated
for years between
Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets,
across the street from Steeplechase. In later years,
McCullough moved it to a niche
just east of the subway
terminal. It was a beautiful machine with one
horse bearing Illions' signature
and a king horse blanketed with hundreds of flowers in full relief.
As a rare oasis of charm
in the tawdry atmosphere of modern
Coney, the ride attracted more
wreckers than riders. Increasing vandalism and the risk of
outright destruction of the
open-air structure forced McCullough to dismantle that last
mechanical monument to
Coney's most creative artist following the season
Illions died on
August 11, 1949 at the age of 78.
He lived on in spirit
with his proud, indomitable chargers as long as they pawed their
wooden turf on the island of their birth. He is gone from Coney
now, but there is a part of him
in each of the figures of animated timber that carries the
unmistakable flourish of his
And what of the myth of
the German carousel? How was Coney Island responsible for the
"imported" label on so many distinguished American
machines? Because Coney imported
the mythical German
By any standard
was an extravaganza.
Built by Hugo Hasse of
at a cost of $150,000,
was imported in 1910 by John Jurgens who had to
pay more than $30,000 in customs charges alone.
It was installed at
Surf Avenue and West Fifth Street
in a pavilion lighted
with six thousand lamps and
flooded with music from a gigantic organ. The machine itself
contained three platforms arranged in
ascending tiers, each revolving
at a different speed. Towering over all to a total height of
forty-two feet was a crown-like canopy rimmed with art-nouveau
grillwork and forming a ceiling painted with sylvan German
scenes set off by rows of lights and carved
For all the glitter of the packaging, and for all the
opulence of the incidental carvings, the horses and
pigs and barnyard animals that rocked along
platforms of El Dorado were stereotypes of European
styling, almost indistinguishable from their
many counterparts in
Austria, France, Holland, and Belgium. And for all the novelty of
mechanism, the platform-bound mounts could not
compete with the soaring sensation provided by the native Coney
Island jumpers. Nevertheless, the ride
gained enormous publicity both when it was installed
when it was blistered almost to oblivion in the
Dreamland fire a year later. The blackened
redeemed by George C. Tilyou and placed
within the glass enclosure of
Steeplechase Park where
fame continued until the demise of Steeplechase
And so the habitual hoop-la and hyperbole of the
Surf Avenue flacks led Coney Island to eclipse itself
the artistic birthplace of the American carousel.
Instead of promoting the homegrown genius of
the Looffs and the Mangels and the Illions who carved
an American idiom between the bays of Graves-end and Sheepshead, the nation was bedazzled
pastiche from abroad whose main appeal was the
superlative and the spectacular.
The lore of the exotic, the extraordinary, and the
expensive has been so entrenched throughout the
amusement industry that few showmen have been willing to
depart from the precedent of
acknowledge the proud origins of their beautiful
American masterworks. But there are signs of
change. The fact
that new amusement parks are willing to
invest up to a half million
dollars to restore a classic
merry-go-round should encourage new respect for the
value of the old carvings. The
growth of museum and private collections of carousel figures helps
to underscore the
artistic merit of the pioneer carvers. And
finally, the timeless appeal of
the merry-go-round coupled with a growing popular nostalgia
for the artifacts of a more
graceful age could create a new
spirit of conservation dedicated
to exploring and preserving the unique heritage represented
Coney Island carousel.
Baithwaite, David. Fairground Architecture.
London: Hugh Evelyn Limited, 1968.
Fried, Frederick. A Pictorial History of the Carousel.
York: A. S. Barnes and Company, 1964.
Hughes, Rupert. The Real
Mayer. New York: The Smart Set Publishing
Illions, Marcus Charles. M. C. Illions and Sons Catalogue
Coney Island, circa 1912.
Mangels, William F. The Outdoor Amusement Industry.
York: Vantage Press, Inc., 1952.
— Catalogue No. 4, W. F. Mangels Co. Carousell
Coney Island: circa 1909. Reproduced
S.D.: Royann Enterprises, 1969.
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957.
— World's Fair Midways.
Pilat, Oliver and Ransom,
Jo. Sodom by
York: Garden City Publishing Company,
Vol. 81, No. 52,
Coney Island by the Sea,
souvenir booklet published
Congressional Record -
27, 1965. New York Times, January 18, 1964, July 3, 1964.
We are indebted especially to those who have
given so generously of t heir time and offered personal
anecdotes and unpublished material to help bring
alive a neglected era in
American entertainment. We
gratefully acknowledge the
invaluable assistance of R. C. Illions as well as Frederick
Fried, Bernard Illions, Edo
McCullough and Leonard McCullough.
Additional thanks to Edo
McCullough, R. C. Illions and Ruth Illions Pease for editorial
review. Rolling Hills,
California, 1970 —Roland Summit