Required Reading (Will be discussed on Thursday 3/9/2017)
- Susan A. Glenn, Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).
- John Kasson, Amusing the Millions: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978).
Multimedia About Ghost Dance & Wounded Knee Massacre From Last Class
Coney Island Multimedia to accompany Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century
I recommend this documentary for a great overview of Coney Island history (complete with creepy carnival music throughout).
“Meet me in St. Louis, Louis Meet me at the fair Don’t tell me the lights are shining any place but there We will dance the Hoochie Coochie I will be your tootsie wootsie If you will meet in St. Louis, Louis Meet me at the fair.”
–-Judy Garland, Meet Me in St. Louis
Multimedia Related to World’s Fair History
The 1944 Judy Garland film Meet Me In St. Louis which debuted the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” chronicles a family as they anticipate the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair in New York (1964)
Weekly Assignment and Guided Reading Questions for Thursday
Select one of our guided reading questions (below) and provide your answer using evidence from either Amusing the Million or Female Spectacle.
- How do the “female spectacles” that Glenn describes compare with the performance of masculinity in Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show? In what ways did these women and Cody both perform gender, or use performance to shape popular ideas about specific aspects of American society?
- What is the key determinant of female performers’ independence and freedom in popular culture? Which new institutional practices within the theater made it possible for women to break new ground?
- Do you buy the subtitle (and the author’s argument)? Can we find the roots of modern feminism in the theater? Why or why not?
- What role does audience participation play in Vaudeville? At the World’s Fair? At Coney Island?
- How is the human body being used in popular culture in new ways at Coney Island? What revolutionary change took place?
- What inspired George C. Tilyou and what major innovation did he make to American popular culture and entertainment?
15 responses to “History 380: Week 9: Vaudeville, Amusement Parks, & the World’s Fair”
I enjoyed this short (19 second) clip of the “Human Roulette” ride at Coney Island, hopefully you will too!
These are great!
George C. Tilyou was one of a few entrepreneurs who “sought to redeem Coney Island’s corrupt image” in the late 1800s (p. 34). His family was in the entertainment business, so it was perhaps no surprise that the man had the desire to spark a new form of entertainment during the turn of the century. Tilyou contributed to the “re-birth” of Coney Island. He, along with fellow entrepreneurs, realized that visitors wanted to be able to experience different “themes” all within the bounds of Coney Island. His specific contribution was Steeplechase Park, which was named after one of the main racetrack attractions. Tilyou was inspired by Paul Boyton’s enclosed amusement park and used this inspiration to create a park that was enclosed and separated from the rest of Coney Island. This gave him the opportunity to “monopolize patrons’ business” (p. 58).
Steeplechase Park was particularly innovative because it provided an outlet for visitors to become physically engaged in entertainment. Tilyou believed that this “muscular action” brought forth an additional way for people to let loose and enjoy themselves. Perhaps the most defining feature of Steeplechase Park was how it emphasized “games of theatricality and vertigo” rather than competitive skill. This allowed park attendees to be playful and tap into their childish tendencies. Visitors also typically encountered different kinds of “stunts” that would throw them off guard. These attractions highlighted the park’s themes of irresponsibility and foolishness. All of these factors contributed to the park’s ability to creatively draw people in to a joyful environment, where they could be free from the stresses of typical everyday life.
The emphasis on carnival, amusement, and pleasure at Coney Island ushered in a reconfiguration of the body in popular culture. Previously passive recipients of music, theater, and other early forms of entertainment, spectators were now active participants in their own amusement in a transformation that transformed how popular culture was experienced and the reasons it was consumed. With technological innovations that lowered prices of transportation and entertainment, as well as and increased leisure time, Coney Island became a democratic venture with a chance at affordable amusement, vacation, and escape for the masses.
Coney Island presented a refreshing alternative to the rigidity of genteel culture and the strict moral codes of the late 1900s (44). In this more permissible environment visitors began to understand their bodies in public spaces in entirely new ways. Even outside the designated parks spectatorship and people watching became part of the fun, especially with the donning of more liberating and revealing summer clothes and the titillating bathing suit (47). However, with the added feature of amusement park activities and rides, the emphasis on spectator ship and the body became even more apparent. George Tilyou understood the changing desires of entertainment seekers when he created Steeplechase park which was “designed to provide a series of active…amusements that would totally involve its patrons” (59). With attractions that ranged from flinging participants to and for, blowing up skirts, breaking objects, soaking riders, and thrusting participants into accidental contact the rides at Coney Island focused on playful human contact in a new, liberating way (59-60). By involving participants in such a physical manner, as well as completely departing from expected social codes of conduct, Coney parks allowed viewers to participate much more bodily in their own entertainment, and gave them budding sexual agency over types of heterosexual and unsupervised actions in which to engage. Coney Island thus marks a starting point of a mass culture that is becoming increasingly involved in its own entertainment, and deriving escapist and social pleasure from leisurely activities. Furthermore, Coney Island transformed the desires and motivations of pleasure seekers from the values of genteel respectability to uninhibited fun and senseless enjoyment.
At Coney Island, visitors became a part of what they were purchasing. Interactive experiences stood at the forefront of amusements, made possible by new technology such as the ferris wheel and care rides. Beyond witnessing amusements, “Customers participated intimately in the spectacle about them. The relationship between entertainment and the cultural needs of the audience was far more striking than in spectator past times” (8). Visitors became spectacles themselves, as rides tousled outfits and made skirts fly up. Some “Various amusements contrived to lift women’s skirts and reveal their legs and underclothing, while numerous others provided opportunities for intimate physical contact” (42). Indeed, physical contact was made excusable through such rides, and challenged the rigid expectations of social etiquette. An excuse to break gentile norms, “Coney offered a relatively ‘loose,’ unregulated social situation which contrasted markedly with the high degree of social attentiveness and decorum demanded in most other public activities” (41). Physical contact, particularly between the two sexes, played on the previously shunned thrill of the human body at a destination of mixed-sex leisure. One could find risque Midway entertainment, while Coney Island beach allowed for more scantily-clad dress. Through providing a space to defy the norms of physical appearance and contact, visitors experienced a thrill beyond everyday life and enjoyed expressivity beyond what may be considered socially acceptable.
Stemming back to George Tilyou’s fascination with the ferris wheel, he stated, “We Americans want either to be thrilled or amused, and we are ready to pay well for either sensation.” Being a business man and amusement park pioneer, George realized consumers were interested in rides and attractions that manipulated their bodies. The human body was used as popular culture in Coney Island, specifically in Steeplechase Park. George Tilyou included attractions like the Human Roulette Wheel (spun around until customers were flung from it), the Human Pool Table (series of spinning discs that deterred the customers from crossing from one side to the other), the Whichway, and the Barrel of Love (a tunnel that turned beneath them). It was an experience because you would go from attaraction to attraction, trying to get through every single one of them. These spun humans around in all directions and was unlike anything the majority of the normal populace had experienced.
Human bodies were again made into spectacle in the Human Zoo, where customers were led dow a staircase into a cage. Here they were feed and talked too like animals. There was also an attraction called the Blowhole Theatre, in which customers were forced to become actors. Air was blown up women’s skirts and if there was any protest from the gentleman that accompanied her then he would be mildly shock. This was all for the pleasure of those that endured this before them. That’s what made it a revolutionary change, humans were enjoying human manipulation and wishing upon others for entertainment. George Tilyou also dictated that, “What attracts the crowd is the wearied mind’s demand for relief in unconsidered muscular action.” And this phenomenon can easily be seen woven through his attractions and sense of entertainment. He fostered rides that embarrassed and delighted his guests, pulling on that part of the human psyche that thrives on ego. His used basic machines to bring the most macho man, threw people against each other literally, and forced them into situations they had never experienced before, all in the sake of fun. This business model shows how Tilyou used the human body as popular culture.
George Tilyou wanted to revitalize Coney Island and reimagine the park so as to distance it from the image of corrupt politicians, sleazy hotels, and con men. He, alongside other entrepreneurs, funded new attractions and sectioned them off into separate parks. He can be credited with running Steeplechase Park, which employed the types of attractions that thrust people into one another and allowed for strangers to experience their own body and he bodies of others in a new, thrilling way. The rides and excitement of the experience soon made steeplechase the most profitable park, and led amusement parks across the country to adopt many of the same types of rides and setups that tilyou employed.
The human body was used in a number of new ways at Coney Island. To begin, Coney Island was a place with little restrictions where men and women were allowed to act more free and open with one another. In the “outside world” it was uncommon or looked down upon for men to approach women they did not know but in Coney Island men tipped their hats to unknown women, lifted their skirts, and spooned with them on rides. Women and men were also able to express their love in public without any judgement some couples even got “married on the spot” (42). Another way the human body was used in Coney Island was through the use of modern clothing. Women wore “looser” clothing like revealing bathing suits or raised the hems of their dresses at the beach. The men showed off their arms and legs by wearing tank tops and shorts. Lastly, human bodies were used as a form of entertainment at Coney Island. Hundreds of tourists were attracted to sideshows and exhibits of “freaks” such as “midgets, giants, fat ladies, and ape-men” (50). Women dressed up in flashy costumes and performed as dancers on the boardwalk as men huddled around to watch them. Based off the reading, Coney Island was a getaway for the public where men and women were free to act vulgar and wild one another, it was a place where they went to let loose and have fun without all the formal restrictions they had to deal with back at home.
Because of the mix of genders at Coney Island, women’s bodies were of much amusement to men. Many rides on Coney Island were more about the spectacle and not about the actual ride itself. For instance, women wearing skirts were at the risk of blowing up, flashing everyone who was watching. Women wearing skirts was also a revolutionary change in terms of women’s fashion and their free expression. This was a nod to the beginning of the autonomy of their bodies, which had not been seen before much other than the women who performed in circuses.
It was common for people to stand and watch rides as they took place, because there was equal fun in watching what would possibly happen to the people on the actual ride. This ties into the lack of safety regulations on rides, which also made a spectacle out of the rides. For example, the human roulette wheel’s entire purpose was to use human bodies as the main part of the ride and see who would fly off. This involved the human body in ways that had never been seen before as well.
George C. Tilyou’s knack for theatrics and entertainment were already evident in his duties managing a small vaudeville theater with his father at Coney Island; what truly inspired Tilyou to create what would become a foundation of the new American mass popular culture was his experience at the Midway at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. At Chicago’s Midway, Tilyou saw first-hand the effects unconventional and innovative sources of entertainment had upon spectators, including new attractions such as the Ferris Wheel, and immediately made plans to assemble his own back at Coney Island. Tilyou combined his Chicago Midway experiences with Paul Boyton’s interpretation of an enclosed amusement park to create Steeplechase Park, a revolution of its own.
Tilyou’s Steeplechase Park helped spur a movement of mass culture that reflected a direct inversion of the prevailing Victorian, genteel culture of the time. Steeplechase Park, along with the whole of Coney Island, redefined leisure through encouraging its customers to actively engage in attractions that “shed self-consciousness and [surrendered] to a spirit of reckless, exuberant play”(59). Steeplechase Park’s attractions made patrons both performers and spectators through rides such as the human “roulette wheel,” where participants and observers shared delight in the new ways the human body was used as a form of both expression and entertainment. Tilyou created a living, breathing stage for which people of any and all socioeconomic classes had the ability to write the script for themselves and their peers.
Female Spectacle shows how theater was a powerful way for women to show their cultural authority thus making themselves more visible to the public eye. Susan Glenn’s book makes a good argument of the ways in which modern feminism relates to women in theater. Women were expressing themselves in theater in any way they wanted. It allowed them to show themselves as bizarre, comedic, beautiful, and sexual. Women were using their physical bodies in ways to express themselves which they really weren’t allowed to do during that era. For example, women began wearing skirts and bathing suits. Clothing expression is an example in which women could make a choice; men weren’t telling them how to dress or behave. Clothing gave them an identity of their own. Sarah Benhardt, one of the figures described in the book, never loses herself or her newly established identity in her performance. The exoticism of character Salome was another example of a woman embracing her female attributes. In addition, free expression in Coney Island was one of the pivotal places for the roots of feminism. Although women were sexualized at times, they gained the ability to publicly show their emotions for their significant other without being condemned. For most of history, women were to maintain their modesty and live privately. In terms of sexualization, men would attempt to lift up the skirts of women. However, this further instilled unity amongst women for their rights and well-being.
The Chicago’s Midway Ferris Wheel inspired George C. Tilyou to buy one of his own, along with a plot of land on Coney Island, in order to create Steeplechase park. Tilyou was inspired by human interactivity and using his audiences as part of the spectacle. In Amusing the Millions, Tilyou explains, “We Americans, want to be thrilled or amused, and we are ready to pay well for either sensation.” (58) At Steeplechase Park, Tilyou influenced the amusement park industry by enclosing his park to have control over the park’s environment and entrance fees. In addition, he notoriously added stunts (modern day rides) to allow his visitors to partake in an interactive experience of racing, watching, and fun. The Steeplechase ride involved guests riding on the back of machine horses. This was revolutionary at the time because audiences were no longer JUST spectators, they were participating in the action. Tilyou’s rides helped influence Luna park which would also notoriously be known for its stunts and rides. “Steeplechase attempted to satisfy the pleasure derived from seeing others made foolish.” (60)
Tilyou was inspired by both the new Ferris Wheel from Chicago World’s Fair, as well as the nearby Sea Lion Park. The Ferris Wheel did an exceptional job of challenging the Eiffel Tower as architect’s greatest functional feat. Tilyou wanted to buy the wheel and bring it to his Steeplechase Park, but it was already in the pipeline to be at the St. Louis Fair. Instead, Tilyou makes the first Ferris Wheel at Coney Island to replicate it. In addition, he learned ideas about amusement park logistics and show from the original amusement park in Coney Island, the Sea Lion Park. Built by Boyton, he pioneered the idea to charge a one-price entry for the park (like Disneyland is now), which he got from the price structure of circuses. This ends up being a more profitable structure versus the previous model of pay-per-ride. Tilyou was famous for having his park focus on silly, slapstick like fun that was not necessarily iconic or flashy, but moreso pleasurable and emphasizing the social aspect. Therefore, even though Luna Park for example seemed more majestic, it didn’t beat the lighthearted all ages fun from the sillier rides at Steeplechase.
George C. Tilyou was inspired when he attended the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Expedition and witnessed the massive metal structure that was the Ferris wheel. He attempted to purchase it, but failed and so had his own smaller version made. He knew that people wanted to be a part of the shows they were spending so much money to attend, so his innovation to American culture and entertainment was to structure many of the rides in his collection in a way that allowed the audience to participate. The ferris wheel, human roullete wheel, steeplechase, and wind tunnels are all examples of these new attractions he created that maximized audience participation. Perhaps the reason he succeeded so well was that his rides created many chances for complete strangers to come into physical contact while they were thrown around and even created a viewing spectacle for the gentlemen viewing the rides. His efforts to create a massive amusement park that housed all his rides helped to give the people a way to have fun and connect with each other in ways unheard of to this point.
How was the human body used in new ways at Coney Island?
Using the human body for entertainment was not a new idea by the late 1800s when Coney Island took off. After all, PT Barnum had been taking “freak shows” around the country since before the civil war. The major innovation at Coney Island was not therefore, putting bodies on display (though freak shows were also common at Coney Island). The change was that at Coney Island, spectators bodies were put on display for other customers, making guests active participants in body entertainment. For example, at the end of the steeplechase ride, guests would walk over an area that would push gusts of air upwards, tossing off men’s hats and causing women’s skirts to fly up. A nearby viewing area allowed other guests to watch these hilarious occurrences, which pushed at cultural mores of the time. Most of the “performers” (those exiting the steeplechase ride) would then go into the viewing area to become spectators and watch as other guests befell the same fate. Having guests actively participate in body entertainment pushed at social standards in a way that freak shows didn’t. In freak shows, circuses and minstrel shows, there was a clear division between performers and the audience, allowing spectators to enjoy body entertainment from a psychological distance. As a result, spectators’ beliefs about socially appropriate behavior were not challenged because they were not the ones acting “inappropriately”. At Coney Island, however, in order to enjoy body entertainment, most spectators also had to participate and put their own bodies on display too. The psychological barrier between innapropriate, albeit entertaining, performers and their relatively more dignified spectators was shattered, creating more of an impetus for change.