Remembering Coney Island and how it used to be, author and Brooklyn theater historian Cezar Del Valle led off Coney Island Museum’s ‘Ask the Expert Series’ on Saturday, January 12, discussing and reading from his latest book, The Brooklyn Theater Index Volume III.
While the first two volumes of Del Valle’s work focused on areas such as Adams Street and Manhattan Avenue, his latest work is strictly about the rise, fall and resurgence of the historic Coney Island.
Founder of Coney Island USA Dick Zigun was excited about the event. “This is the first winter (in the building) with heat. We’re trying programming and I’m overwhelmed with the turnout,” he said. “For lectures here in the museum, we often don’t get this turnout in the summer.”
Del Valle spend the 40-minute set showing slides of historic Coney Island theaters from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s and telling stories of each one and its eventual fate. He discussed famous vaudeville acts as well as the fires that destroyed historic theaters. “The 1903 fires are important for several reasons,” stressed Del Valle. “They wiped out most of Coney Island.”
He also showed photos of a young Buster Keaton when he performed at the historic Brooklyn seaside resort, along with telling stories of Harpo Marx’s first performance, which took place at Coney. “It wasn’t just about rides at Coney Island,” Del Valle said.
“Being here means to be part of history,” said Del Valle regarding debuting his work at Coney. “A book about Coney Island should have its book launch here. It’s the ideal place and in a building like this that is so rich in history.”
Del Valle admits that his latest book, which was released this past September, has received more fanfare than his previous works, likely due to the popularity of the topic.
“Coney island struck a chord with readers that the first two didn’t,” he said. “It was once a major part of American cultural history. So much took place here, even up until recently. I’ve done tours for people overseas and the thing they want to see is Coney Island. It has a legendary recognition.”
He also discussed the differences between writing about Coney theaters as opposed to other historic Brooklyn ones. “This book was easier than the first two because more material was online,” he said. “With the first two, research was a lot more difficult. With this one, all you have to do is put in an address or name of a building and chances are it turns up online.”