Considering that every morning I turn my bed into a salt-water marsh, summer if officially here. We Andersons don’t do great in the heat — when I told my brother how hot New York can get, he told me there would be a murder-suicide if he lived here. I’m not quite at that point yet, but I will be uncomfortable until October. Our cats have stopped fighting so much, mostly because they are turning into kitty soup on the carpet. The sidewalks are baking in the sun, which means all the pee they absorbed over the winter is now boiling up to the surface.
But, there is one part of the summer that I am excited about, and that is Coney Island. Coney does have a bad reputation, mostly because for four decades New York City forgot about it, but things have really turned around. The beach is clean now — last time I was there I walked around without my shoes on. That used to be a solid way to catch a little hepatitis, but not anymore! All the bars on the boardwalk are in full swing, and you can watch the weirdoes with snakes harass tourists, or some guy walking a parrot on a leash (true story). There are some truly terrifying new rides where I am sure people have, in classic Coney Island fashion, peed in their pants. So, with this post, we would like to officially announce our Coney Island Walking Tour!
Like our other tours, the more I learn about the subject, the more obsessed I become. Coney Island is no exception. The craziest stuff happened down there, and has led me to fall in love with all of it. The following is just a little teaser of what our tour is going to look like.
Nathan’s Famous has been serving hotdogs since 1916. Nathan Handwerker, a Polish immigrant, may not have invented the hotdog, but he was a crafty businessman. When he opened his stand on Surf Avenue, all the other guys were selling hotdogs for $.10, but Nathan sold a hotdog and a beer for $.05, totally undercutting the competition. During the depression, Nathan’s was one of the only places where families could go and actually afford to buy from him. His philosophy was selling quality meat at a fair price.
After Nathan retired, his son, Murray, took over the business. More Americanized than his father, Murray looked to create spectacles and hoopla in order to increase his business. Mostly, they were a huge success. He sponsored shows at Ebbets Field with the Dodgers called “Coney Island Night” where clowns and acrobats would put on a show in between games. The show brought a lot of attention to Nathan’s, and it wasn’t uncommon for the Dodgers themselves to join in with the clowns.
But not all of his ideas panned out as he hoped they would. One day in 1954, a finback whale washed up on the beach. The thing was 75 feet long, super dead, and no one had any idea what to do with it. Now this part is a bit apocryphal, but it seams that some guy talked Murray into creating a new exhibition next to Nathan’s with the whale. The idea was to put the whale on display, charge $.50 a view, and all the people gawking at the big dead animal would then go buy a hotdog and a soda. Murray agreed, and the thing was hauled off to an alley behind Nathan’s. They pumped the carcass full of chemicals to stop it from decaying, and opened the new sideshow.
For about two days, it worked out great. People were really excited to see the whale, and because it was August in New York, people were in need of refreshments after. But then the unthinkable happened — because it was August in New York, the whale started to rot in the hot summer sun. Who could have seen that coming? Apparently the chemicals they used to preserve the whale didn’t work, and it made the smell even worse. Soon all of Coney Island smelled like a giant, rotting corpse covered in formaldehyde. Weirdly enough, people started to lose their appetite and stopped going to Nathan’s.
It wasn’t long before the entire Amusement Zone made a formal complaint. Murray received a court order, telling him he had to get rid of the whale. Before he was able to hire someone to cut the whale up and dump it in the ocean, the exhibit itself caught on fire. Now, all of Coney Island smelt like a big burning dead animal in the middle of a paper mill. When the fire went out, the remaining parts of the whale where hauled off to the sea and dumped, but the smell had been chemically fused into the ground. For months, the smell of the whale lingered, ruining the rest of the season for Nathan’s. No one was really interested in eating, and the community was furious at Murray.
During all of these shenanigans, Nathan, Murray’s dad, was vacationing in Miami when he heard what his son had done. He came home during at the height of the stench and the anger from the community and reamed Murray out. During an interview with Murray, he said, “Pop let me know what he thought about this cockamamie promotion. And he was apoplectic when he found out how much it cost me to hire a man to cut up the whale and tow it out to sea. The business didn’t recover for weeks.”
Awesome! I’ve been laughing about this for days. Coney Island is full of stories like these, and the more I read them, the more I love it. I can’t wait to officially start our Coney Island tours; they’re going to be great! We hope to see you on one soon. Stay cool everyone and have a great summer!