Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why the Miss America Pageant Should Be Abolished

Originally appeared in High Times, Jan. 1983

At the Greyhound Gate to Atlantic City, three ticket-holding blind persons were swiftly refused entry by the bus driver. The seats were oversold; the door pumped shut and off he drove. One of them began to cry because she had been separated from a blind companion already on the bus. The two others were shaken up, their dreams of attending Miss America pretty much shattered. A dozen last-minute beauty-pageant freaks stood cursing on the Greyhound ticket line at Port Authority New York, in a desperate attempt to make the show. It was the final night of the 1982 Miss America Pageant.

I was able to make a 5:30 New Jersey Transit bus, hoping to land an interview with the First Runner-Up on the morning after. Who cared about Miss America? The First Runner-Up was a hotter subject; she’d be neglected, bitter, dying for an interview, suffering from the pain of the greatest almost in her life. She wouldn’t get her face on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes or see herself in Nestle ads. But what were the functions of First Runner-Up? Was she sort of the vice-president, ready to jump in should Miss America get impeached or assassinated? Furthermore, I’d get to blurt out great questions, like, “Do you believe in premarital sex?”

During the three-hour journey, we passed through eight toll booths, which many folks can’t afford on the way back. At the outskirts of Atlantic City was a mile-long stretch of makeshift parking lot, filled to capacity on the climactic night of the seven-day pageant. From the bus depot, I made a beeline to the stadium-sized Convention Center, adjacent to the Playboy Hotel. Only four contestants were put up at the Playboy, the least of any hotel. The other 46 girls were divvied up by the remaining eight casinos, who boasted their pictures in the lobbies.

Swarming over the boardwalk was a Halloween-like procession of Miss America freaks—clean-cut families with little girls decked out in Jr. Miss America gowns and crowns, sending little boys into breathless double takes—for a minute, by golly, you might mistake one for a real contestant.

I made it to the Press Hospitality Center in the nick of time. Here was a spread of ham and cheese sandwiches, sodas, TV monitors, and eight courtesy typewriters. A few hundred members of the straightest press I’d ever seen warmly greeted each other at this blessed event. They would spread the good news into every town and hamlet in the USA. Priority One Badges were given only to “wire service personnel,” reps of “area newspapers meeting deadlines,” official Miss America Pageant photogs, NBC News. These folks were given runway seats, and first privileges for interviews and pictures. I don’t recall what publications Priority Two encompassed, but they invented a brand new Priority Three for High Times. I picked up my press badge, with my name badly misspelled, and was directed to two wrong locations before being seated light-years from the stage in these sub-bleachers. An old, drunken photographer shared my location, hiccupping in a stupor. Above me was a thirty-foot-high monitor screen, the transparent backside of which I could see through if I craned my neck. From this I observed the pageant.

Rules, rules, rules. Not even Wink Martindale could crash the dressing rooms.

But no matter. Miss America was a good thing, not a negative thing, the most glamorous high-school graduation ceremony around. Hundreds of girls won fat scholarships through the bush leagues of the Miss America system, learned poise, dignity, the spirit of competition. These fifty angels had won local and state pageants, they were the pride and joy of their communities, an inspiration to millions of little lassies who dreamed of someday winning the coveted crown. The Miss America Pageant could also be a springboard to talk-show hostom, the most sought-after goal among contestants. These were Positive Girls, my favorite kind.

The show opened with a slapdash medley of pop songs that contained so many metaphorical references to prostitution, I gagged on my soda. “I’m a Working Girl,” they sang, leading into a chorus of “Les girls,” and some out-of-context lines from “I Am Woman.” Next, they introduced ten semifinalists in evening gowns to the tune of “Send in the Clowns.” Gary Collins was host—a second-rate sub for the out-to-pasture Bert Parks. His wife, Mary Ann Mobley, was among the parade of former Miss Americas who walked the runway before the show. Miss America 1933 got the largest applause on the 50th anniversary of her title, and there were many missing and/or dead Miss Americas who couldn’t make it.

Among the distinguished panel of seven judges were Foster Brooks, professional “drunk,” Rod McKuen, who recently saw fit to publicize himself as a victim of homosexual child-rape, and Wink Martindale, host of some atrocity called Tic-Tac-Dough. Now, here were fifty gals who had spent years training for this, the Olympics of beauty contests, and it all rode on the judgment of Foster, Rod and Wink. Or perhaps they were befitting judges for these slick, well-packaged, professional beauty contestants, carefully groomed by their town fathers to give two-sided answers and smile on cue, as they sought TV careers. But something about Wink irked the shit out of me.

The most bizarre “talent” of the evening was displayed by Miss Arizona. Although the program described it as “Free Form Gymnastics,” it was nothing short of contortion. She whipped her legs back over her spine into some grotesque spiderlike posture and crawled around the stage. Apparently, her sponsors felt this hideous contortion would cinch the crown, but who the hell needed a tarantula-woman for Miss America?

When the new Miss America took her celebrated walk down the runway, a brigade of eighteen New Jersey state troopers followed closely behind the TV camera, in case one of those Priority One press people made a lunatic lunge for the Miss.

The drunken photog awoke. “I’m gonna see what’s-iz-name, Brooks Foster,” he bragged, tripping past me. “And then I’ll say hello to my good pal, Wink.”

The big press conference for the Newly Crowned was held in the carnival tent Press Center. With her splendid-girl Court of Honor and a police escort, Miss America, having had an ample half-hour to wipe away the tears, and probably change panties, posed for ten minutes of pix (photogs only) in a sealed-off tent. Then, with cameras still whirring, she was escorted to the podium for questioning. Miss California she was, and just a tad slurry-looking compared to last year’s Elizabeth Ward, who was as wholesome as bleached Wonder Bread. Debra Sue Maffett, blond, twenty-five, former drum majorette, all-round Positive Girl, first defended her nose job as a “medical operation for a deviated septum”; all of her family had required nose jobs to correct this breathing problem (amyl poppers, coke abuse? Huffin’ glue? Lacquer heads? Bus-fume suckers?). Debra Sue dated several men (“No one seriously”), and was a member of the National Man Watcher’s Association, which led her to hand out Well Worth Watching cards to men at random.

It was later revealed that this winner, Miss California, had failed in three attempts to be crowned Miss Texas. After the third try at Texas, she had “extensive cosmetic surgery” before entering the California Pageant, according to the muckraking director of the Miss Texas Pageant. “Her nose, her chin, and I’m not sure what else.” (Debra Sue hailed from a small town actually called Cut and Shoot, Texas.)

Besides the twenty-grand pageant prize, Debra Sue would bring in over $100,000 during her Miss A. reign from public appearances and ads. “I’m still just Debbie and I’ll still be just Debbie when it’s over,” said the sweet thing. “I’d like to have a talk show, be a wife and mother, there’s so much I want to do—”

After the Saturday-night broadcast, at midnight, the pageant officially relinquished its supervision over all contestants, save for the new Miss America. The forty-nine losers were on their own, and most would skip town first thing in the morning. I had to act fast, and spent the following hour seeking the whereabouts of First Runner-Up, Desiree Denise Daniels, Miss Tennessee. She was on the sixth floor at the Tropicana. Only four messages awaited her at the front desk when I added mine—request for interview with High Times mag at her convenience on Sunday. I hit the blackjack tables till 4 a.m., checking the front desk every half-hour, but Miss Tennessee hadn’t answered her red message light. There was no answer each time the desk clerk phoned.

At 4 a.m. I discovered that every hotel on the boardwalk was booked solid. But I hadn’t counted on the flophouses being sold out, which they were during Miss America week. The next chapter of my Miss America nightmare unfolded with an endless series of NO VACANCY signs all the way to the back streets of the Monopoly board. Fleabag motel clerks found it laughable when I asked if they knew of any vacancies. I took to the streets, a loser at the casinos.

At 8 a.m., Room 217 at the Bull Shippers Plaza Motor Inn on Pennsylvania Avenue became available. I grabbed it. There was even a telephone, on which to make frantic backup calls for other contestant interviews. A Black hooker tried to bust into my room, but no dice, honey, I was here for the First Runner-Up. A dozen calls later, I broke through the incredible protective layers of hostesses and hometown security nets that surrounded Miss Tennessee. These girls were harder to reach than Bo Derek. Everything had to be cleared through some men in Room 4425 at Caesar’s—her “state traveling companions.” A fifteen-minute interlude could be arranged if I showed up at Caesar’s front desk by 11 a.m. Lying on a firm mattress at the Bull Shippers Inn, I nauseously refined my twenty Runner-Up questions.

Needless to say, some good old boys from Tennessee—tough-looking ones in their forties—showed up by noon. They explained something about “gals and schedules”; the women were still packing at the Tropicana, they apologized, and they’d have to catch a plane, so no interviews. I made a few more calls to sponsors of other contestants, but couldn’t even pin down Miss Alaska. The prettiest contestant of them all, Miss Georgia, was reportedly packing her last bags right there at Caesar’s, but her people also gave me the runaround. (Was it High Times? Should I have whipped out the Screw press pass?) Out in the streets, Miss America contestants and their entourages were leaving in unstoppable droves. But I had been a bad little reporter who came unconnected, and couldn’t even land whoever came in fiftieth. By this time, I would have even made a mad dash for Wink fuckin’ Martindale. But even he had skipped town.

© 1983, 2010, Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cracker Nights: Josh Alan plays and reads LIVE in Los Angeles July 7 - 11


Mark your calendars! New Texture Nights kick off in Los Angeles this July, with live readings and performances by Josh Alan Friedman (Black Cracker) and Black Cracker Online moderator Wyatt Doyle (Stop Requested). At most venues, Josh Alan - Czar of Atomic Acoustic Guitar - will play as well. (Listen to Josh Alan's music here.)

Here's the current calendar, but there are more events to come - check for an updated schedule!

Wednesday July 7, 2010

7 pm
Book Soup
8818 West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles 90069-2125
Josh Alan Friedman and Wyatt Doyle reading


Thursday July 8, 2010

6 pm
La Luz de Jesus Gallery / Wacko
4633 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles 90027-5413
Josh Alan Friedman and Wyatt Doyle reading


Friday July 9, 2010
7 pm
Alias Books (West)
1650 Sawtelle Boulevard, Los Angeles 90025
Josh Alan Friedman and Wyatt Doyle reading


Saturday, July 10

2 pm
Mystery & Imagination / Bookfellows
238 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale 91203
George Clayton Johnson Birthday Celebration
George Clayton Johnson, Josh Alan Friedman, and Wyatt Doyle reading

6 pm - 9 pm
New Texture: Words & Music
@ The Echo
1822 West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles 90026-3227
Josh Alan Friedman, Wyatt Doyle and Georgina Spelvin reading
Musical performances by Reverend Raymond Branch and Josh Alan
Special guests Sandee Curry, Paul Silva and Matt Kennedy


Sunday, July 11

7 pm
Beyond Baroque
681 Venice Blvd., Venice 90291
Josh Alan Friedman and Wyatt Doyle reading

Monday, June 14, 2010

Coney Island (Part VI): Horace Bullard: You Can’t Dream Too Much

So ends my series on poor old Coney Island, with the second part of an unpublished 1987
Village Voice assignment on would-be savior, Horace Bullard. Mr. Bullard’s noble 20-year odyssey was slowly battered apart by a Brooklyn political machine resembling the Tower of Babel. Bullard’s Coney Island properties, understandably, ended up in serious tax arrears. After Mayor Giuliani took office in 1994, he apparently killed Bullard’s plans in favor of constructing the (minor league Mets-affiliate) Brooklyn Cyclones’ KeySpan Park. It’s suspected Giuliani ordered an early morning demolition on the crumbling Thunderbolt roller coaster, which Bullard wanted to restore. Half-Black, half-Puerto Rican, the Kansas Fried Chicken founder Bullard charged in court that Giuliani’s actions were motivated by racial bias.

The International Theme Park Service told Bullard he’d need a larger amusement area to make the whole thing profitable, to handle the projected crowds. And so, he’s currently looking at Drierofferman Park—150 unused Brooklyn acres a mile away for parking, an area conservationists don’t want used.

“By taking the parking a mile away, you won’t have cars all over the street. We’ll shuttle people. Parades can run down Surf Avenue. I also wanna get a Coney Island express train from Times Square.”

The most colorful chart on Mr. Bullard’s coffee table shows his current plans. They contain several unique attractions, recreating a few of Coney’s legendary rides. The parachute drop will be rebuilt. The Steeplechase wooden mechanical horse race ride, which once circled the Pavilion of Fun in a “steeple chase” (thus the name), is being recreated. Bullard hopes to revamp the old Thunderbolt, now rotting in its lot. He’ll build a mountain on Surf Avenue with waterfalls, a rapids and a runaway train. A castle at the top will contain a museum for Dodgers and Coney Island memorabilia.

Bullard also wants a Walk of Fame, setting plaques for Brooklyn’s famous sons and daughters who are willing to return for a dedication. “We were gonna include a memorial to George C. Tilyou (Steeplechase’s 19th century creator).” Unfortunately, the Tilyou estate is fighting to prevent usage of the demonic cartoon face that was Steeplechase’s trademark symbol. “After that much opposition, we figured not to bother with a memorial. Because Tilyou was a genius doesn’t mean his descendants are.”

Coney Island business and government figures express both strong support and lingering doubts. Sam Horowitz, the area’s councilman for 16 years, envisions Coney as having “great bookends.” The Aquarium, Cyclone and Astroland on one side, a giant new Steeplechase on the other. “If Bullard isn’t able to deliver,” says Horowitz, “that will be the last shot for Steeplechase returning. It all sounds terrific, but I’m disappointed with the delays. I’d hate to see Steeplechase just lay there with a few park benches. This is one of New York’s most valued properties, it’s the Brooklyn Riviera on the Atlantic Ocean.”

The Atlantic is a third bookend. When Fred Trump purchased Steeplechase after it closed in the ’60s, he wanted to erect deluxe housing. Councilman Horowitz owned the Tilyou Movie Theatre in 1965, across from Steeplechase. His neighborhood defeated Trump’s plans, and the city bought back the hallowed ground.

“Drierofferman Park,” worries Horowitz, “where Bullard wants parking, sits near a high-rise area. They might get up in arms about having thousands of cars come through their neighborhood. I’m in favor of filling in the Coney Island Creek for parking. It’s just polluted water, a one-time waterway for boats, goes right up to the Brooklyn Union Gas sight. This creek has no value whatsoever, and could fulfill the parking without infringing on residents.”

Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Julius Spiegel says an urban renewal is in store for Coney, regardless of whether a new amusement park emerges. “He’s got all the permits and licenses he needs from us. We’re very excited by his plans. All our eggs are in Bullard’s basket.”

Under the Boardwalk (photo: Nathan Kensinger)

Under current plans, the eroded beach, where mass bathing was invented in America, will be enlarged, marinas and promenades added. The boardwalk will likely be sealed up underneath. Despite its song-worthy appeal, Under the Boardwalk (Coney is where the song took place) is an underworld for citizens to defecate, sleep and escape with wallets after muggings.

Dennis Paperman, President of the Brighton Beach Board of Trade (Coney’s sister neighborhood), says, “The revitalization of Coney Island has been dumped on for the past 20 years. Things must be done now. Bullard’s intentions are honorable, but I was told he’ll need $162-million. To my understanding that kind of backing has not been given. We don’t want more speculation here. The project, to me, remains a dream.”

The New York City Public Development Corporation, however, says it read two “letters of interest” demonstrating Bullard had over a hundred-million cash behind him. “The project then reached a new plateau,” says Frank Marino. “Horace also had spent $6 million from his own pocket so far, which impressed us.” Marino says the project still must pass through ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), a standard red-tape process. The parking is also an unresolved issue with Public Development. “We think this project, however, could start a Coney Island renaissance. The next six months will be critical to it happening or not.”

Max Rosey, who can recite the entire evolution of the hot dog, is public relations director for Nathan’s: “Bullard’s respected in the community and we wish him well. His plans are for the good of the people, and Nathan’s would love a major new amusement park here.”

Only slumlord landowner Hy Singer—Bullard’s “ca-ca” nemesis—refuses to comment on the whole affair. He is in litigation, does not want to be “tried by the press.” (He furthermore became overly suspicious as to whether this reporter was not some rival’s shill, and cancelled a meeting at Nathan’s—“You should be grateful I’m calling,” said Singer, “and not just standing you up.”)

Ca-Ca Man: Slumlord Hy Singer (left), now Chairman of the Kings County Republican Committee

Bullard recently toured Canada, Germany, the Great Adventures and Disneylands (“Boring.” He was only impressed by Epcot Center). Many of his rides will have to be European imports, except for the Coney Island recreations. And an eagle ride Bullard designed: “They make a looping platform called the Flying Carpet. I got hold of the manufacturer and said I want the same contraption built into an eagle. I want the head to turn in the direction he’s flying. When you’re walking on the midway, this eagle is swooping at ya.”

In the old days, operators used to say if riders knew how safe the rides were, they wouldn’t scream. “Today, you’re restricted with rides because of insurance,” explains Bullard. “You couldn’t have a ride like the Big Slide today, where people hung by ropes and slid down into sand. Somebody’d say they twisted their neck. You didn’t have the craze for lawsuits then. Today you’ve got to make every ride 100% safe, yet try and make it feel almost safe. When I go to these manufacturers, I tell them my rides have to be suicide-proof.”

Bullard gets misty-eyed, the park comes alive: “My ticket takers are gonna wear the RKO usher-type uniforms and bark, ‘Have your tickets ready!’ Everyone in this park is gonna be an actor. The guy sweeping is gonna be an actor. The workers are gonna have fun. The benches will look like animals. I have three sets of architects so far, and I don’t wanna get stuck with one guy’s placid Midwestern look. I gotta make sure the architects don’t lose that feeling. A smart operator goes around the world looking for strange things to bring into their park.”

He feels freak shows are passé, won’t put deformed folks on display, which the Coney Island of yore did. Snake charmers, sword swallowers or the Fattest Man in the World would be okay. “We’d use him to say this is why you shouldn’t overeat.” (Bradshaw’s Circus of World Curiosities is an old-timey sideshow currently working the Coney seashore.)

How about all those mom-and-pop spookhouses and sleazy little attractions that used to spice up the side streets?

“You’re gonna get all that back, between 15th Street and Astroland. We want that, to rent out stores as cheap as possible and create more carnival novelties. We want barkers all over, a requirement for each store, carny folks, off-Broadway actors.”

Will he reopen the theater in the Shore building for vaudeville?

“That will stay office space. There has to be a balance here between fantasy and business. You can’t dream too much. I mean, I’m doing enough dreaming.”

For further dreaming:

© 1987, 2010, Josh Alan Friedman

Monday, June 7, 2010

Coney Island (Part V): Horace Bullard’s Impossible Dream

I was assigned the following piece in 1987. Then-Village Voice editor Martin Gottlieb, a former and future Times man, displayed an impenetrable air of self-importance. Whenever I was at the Voice office, Gottlieb only emerged from his lair surrounded by a tight coterie of sycophants, making the rounds like some comical taskforce. Intimidation was key, at least the way I experienced it. But at that time, the Voice still had some clout. It was feasible that my Horace Bullard story might have tipped the scales more in favor of getting the ball rolling for Coney Island. A political endorsement, you might say. I was tortured with aimless rewrites for months. Then the Voice killed it without explanation at the 11th hour. Gottlieb preferred to see Coney Island remain a wasteland, and Horace Bullard’s long moment came and went. From Mayor Giuliani on down, it seemed the whole world shit on Bullard’s impossible dream.

To this day, the stifling local politics of rebuilding Coney Island is so convoluted and poisoned with opprobrium, it’s like trying to broker a peace deal in the Mid-East.

Restoring Coney Island’s heyday would be like restoring the aristocratic era of 42nd Street—it would take a time machine. But Horace Bullard, owner of the Kansas Fried Chicken empire, has been working toward this seemingly unattainable mission for a decade. The job has its headaches.

In his Riverdale penthouse, overlooking the Hudson, the 48-year-old Mr. Bullard appears more like a newly retired athlete in robes than a P.T. Barnum. A great church organ sits in his living room; items of Coney Island lore are arranged across the coffee table. He has an archival sense of Coney’s history:

“We’re not building an amusement park just to incorporate rides. The rides are only $40-million; the park will cost $150-million. When I went to Great Adventure, I told the architect, ‘This is an example of what I do not want.’ We’re trying to bring back this Coney Island feeling,” he says, holding aloft copies of Sodom by the Sea and Good Old Coney Island, two long out-of-print books.

The soulless Great Adventure/Six Flags chain is a homogenous, corporate type of amusement park. There is nothing regional or unique about them. They’re landfilled with European rides which offer quick, visceral jolts. They lack imagination, carny atmosphere and gourmet junk food—even the smell of cotton candy is eliminated by enclosed food stands.

But the Coney Island ghetto sits on hallowed ground. The remains are like a Mediterranean archeological site. An end-of-the line subway still spells out Sodom by the Sea. The scent of giant lollipops and steamed corn is infused in the tile walls. Philip’s Saltwater Taffee is manufactured right in a 60-year-old subway store, across from Nathan’s, where hot dogs were first popularized, and perhaps never surpassed. A 19th century pissoir still runs in the public men’s room.

Bullard was raised in East Harlem, and never visited Coney Island until 1965: “I was too poor to even take a subway there. I was in my 20’s the first time I went. Never saw so many people in my life. I was an oil burner repairman then and never dreamt what I’d be doing now.”

Bullard didn’t make it to any amusement parks or stadiums as a kid. But he never forgot that first taste of Nathan’s in 1965. Four years later he returned to Coney Island when a slumlord named Hy Singer locked up the equipment and tripled the rent of a Kentucky Fried Chicken by the Boardwalk. Bullard brought in an operator to run a Kansas Fried Chicken on the location, one of his earliest franchises (he now owns 22).

Bullard’s third visit to Coney was in 1978, when his saga began: “I bought the Shore Theatre building, which was abandoned and boarded up. I built a Kansas Fried on the corner. But when summer came, I saw there were no people. I remembered this area was loaded with people when I visited in the ’60s. I asked Astroland, ‘What the hell happened?’ They said, ‘The landowners here don’t work together, they brought in the Blacks, they destroyed the area.’ The Astroland rides did good business because they maintained their park. But the 35 other landowners did not work together. No promotion, no air shows—nothing but fighting. I said, ‘Let’s get them all together.’”

The carnival rubble Bullard witnessed was the same then as now [in 1987]. Abandoned seaside attractions line the village streets. Crumbling, sea-beaten pavilions, according to their burned-out, neon fossil facades, once offered “Entertainment” and “Dancing.” Vaudeville shows, like the Tahiti Dancing Girls, were “hotter ’n horseradish.” The World of Wax is deserted. Junkyard dogs yap from fenced-in lots, the rides they protect reduced to rubble. A chocolate factory, in a pigeon-infested stucco building, still operates by the Riegelmann Boardwalk at 22nd Street.

The most imposing ghost is the parachute drop, rusting in its beachfront lot since Steeplechase closed in 1964. Built in 1939, the parachute drop was repainted every three years to ward off the effects of salt air upon its metal. It now hasn’t been painted since 1964. Engineers, who observe it standing through storms, say it is still sturdy.

Completely vanished is the huge Steeplechase Pavilion of Fun, where the “Insanitarium” contained swaying barrels, winking cartoon demons, dancing card decks and a midget blowing air blasts up ladies’ skirts. Wooden horses, six wide, raced over a 3,100-foot course, where paid screamers acted as shills. In 1910, you got 25 rides for 25 cents; a few decades later, it became known as a “Nickel Empire.”

Project housing went up around Luna Park and Dreamland, two of the great amusement parks of turn-of-the-century Coney Island. But Steeplechase, the third park, has been kept free from development for two decades, since closing. This was a stroke of far-sighted wisdom. Steeplechase is prodigal land, awaiting a savior’s wand.

“So, in 1978,” continues Horace Bullard, “we called a Chamber of Commerce meeting. I brought down an architect. I said, gentlemen, there’s talk of gambling for Coney Island. What we should do is redesign this C-7 zone—the entire amusement area. If gambling is to be voted in, we’ll put up one hotel. We’ll only allow this single hotel, which will sponsor a whole new amusement park. It can bring us back Coney Island.

“Then all these people started arguing. ‘Who are you, where’d you come from, you’re an outsider, a stranger, how did you get that building on the corner, we were trying to buy it.’ So I formed a local development corporation, with a board of directors. I tried to get the Aquarium, Nathan’s, Astella Development Corporation, Father Gillespie, everyone in the community to attend. On the table I put the entire map of Coney Island. I asked all of them to go to work on this map and redesign Coney Island to what we all think it should be. Then let’s go and fight for it, make it happen—rather than each one try and do our little thing, let us collectively go to Albany and say, ‘Gambling is being considered, fine, we’ll take one casino—Hyatt, Hilton, whoever, then we’ll redevelop the rest our way.”

The once great seaside resort of Coney has only one visible hotel today—the Surf Hotel. The desk madam is hesitant to provide a stranger with a $30 room. It’s a welfare operation. “Mae West used to live here,” she says, in broken English. “But there’s nothing to tell about now. You don’t want to know. Go to the library.”

“The guy who owns the Surf, Hy Singer, is responsible for part of Coney Island’s destruction,” says Bullard. “He wanted to make the Stauch’s Baths site a welfare hotel. Anything he’s ever touched,” Bullard says with regret, “has gone down the drain.” He points to the map. “There was a roller coaster here, a bobsled there, go-carts.”

Slumlord Hy Singer inherited property in the garment district, then came to Coney in the 1960s after Steeplechase closed, to buy land. Bullard is in litigation, trying to acquire some of it. “Singer’s driven by money, but doesn’t know how to make a deal. He entered into a contract to sell this plot for $950,000. When our project was announced, he reneged. ‘I sold it too cheap, I was fooled, I was conned,’ cried Singer.”

Stauch’s Baths, another unintentional haunted house by the sea, contains art nouveau stone carvings. Bullard feels the sight is essential when Coney returns, and must not be turned into welfare space. He may even salvage the stone carvings for future construction, to be modeled somewhat on the cardboard Venice look of the original Dreamland.

Bullard feels his 1978 proposal to the Chamber of Commerce was a great plan: “The casino would pay for the privilege of being exclusive. That money would have been used to transform the entire C-7 zone for an amusement park, then give the community $15 million a year, annually, to do whatever they wanted for improvements—trees, extra security, facades, shopping. We’d form an umbrella corporation—whatever square footage you own, you’d own shares proportionately. Hy Singer gets up—‘Why should we give the community $15 million dollars? I ca ca on the community! I’m a businessman.’ That’s what he said. They started calling me a communist, you’re talking about socialism, you’re gonna give our profits to the community. I was shocked.”

The local Tenants Association would not even show at Bullard’s meetings. “I said, what have you got to lose? If you’re against gambling, sit at the table and fight it. Anything you don’t like, vote it down.”

Finally, Bullard persuaded a group of tenants to visit his architect’s office in Manhattan. He showed them the plans: “Tell us where this is no good, where it doesn’t help or hurts you,” he asked. Tenants were afraid property values would rise, rents would increase, and they’d be pushed out. Since the Urban Development Corporation owned their buildings, Bullard had a rep from the UDC present.

It turned out their mortgages were all in default. I said great. When we put this package together, we’ll buy out the mortgages. We’ll pump a few million into their buildings for electrical repair, then we would sell the apartments to the tenants for a dollar each. So now, if there’s any increase in value, they’ll own it. Instantly, if gambling had come to Coney Island, these project housing tenants would have become middle-class people. They would have had $50,000 apartments for a dollar. Then they could stay, or sell. But they couldn’t handle that whole idea. Again, I was shocked.”

Bullard went to the tenants’ public meetings. He heard them call his plan “pie in the sky.” It sounded too good, they worried, what’s the catch, what was in it for the developer? He merely told them he’d make a lot of money by owning 15% of the amusement area, plus the honor of having brought back Coney Island. Even Father Gillespie, asked not to judge the morality of gambling since the church had bingo, looked over Bullard’s plans, then looked to the ceiling.

“I’m about to endorse gambling,” the clergyman said, in approval. “God help me.” But he never showed at the next meeting.

Many of the chief Coney Island landowners refused to sit on any corporation board of Bullard’s, and they bickered between themselves over whose land was worth more. Hy “ca-ca” Singer and Nathan’s wanted to be paid just to join the corporation, without giving anything. So Bullard walked away from his Plan A in 1981, upset to this day that Coney Island spurned “a once-in-a-lieftime opportunity.” He would have taken the group to Albany to lobby, sign petitions, go on TV.

The local businessmen figured they were going to get gambling anyway, even without Horace Bullard. Bullard received a call three months later from the same folks who wouldn’t join his plan. They needed him. A Black caucus was lobbying against gambling. “I had told them to go up with a plan where everyone benefits. Why should poor citizens vote for gambling—just so those landowners could get rich selling their property?” The gambling motion was tabled.

Bullard, at this point, figured to hell with the community, he’d do it all himself. When they saw how real his dream was, they’d come in. His Plan B involved building a carnival with two floating hotels on the old Steeplechase pier. He’d lobby the state for a five-year gambling test, for two competing hotels. If it was decided afterward that gambling was a detriment, he’d “cut the ropes to the hotels,” and float them off. In the meanwhile, however, they would have sponsored rebuilding Coney Island to the tune of “a couple of hundred-million dollars.”

But then some European investors approached, told him to forget about gambling, and offered to sponsor the amusement park. The city gave him the go ahead. Bullard acquired more property, designed a 17-and-1/2-acre park, abandoned the idea of a public corporation, or lobbying for gambling hotels. He pulled out the plans which he next showed the city:

“The city said, ‘Forget it, we made a bad deal, we never thought you were gonna build something this serious.’ I had the investors, everything ready to go.”

Another 18 months of lease re-negotiations with New York ensued. “It took me a long time to get the city into this nostalgic Coney Island feeling. Right now [in 1987], I think they’re on board. We’ve finished negotiations. I gave them back land I paid a million for, I gave them more money, I was forced to agree with everything. Then I bought $2 million more land for parking. But the dilemma now is whether we wanna build a 17-and-1/2-acre park, or go to 30 acres. If we go larger, we’ll be taking up space previously allocated for parking. Then we’d have to secure remote parking.”

Continued next week...

© 1987, 2010, Josh Alan Friedman