Categories: Business and Industry, Emergence of Modern America, Hartford, Popular Culture
The Short Bright Life of Luna Park
Paradise and Back on a Yankee Dollar
The Short Bright Life of Luna Park
The Hartford History Center at Hartford Public Library, in collaboration with the
Connecticut Historical Society and the Noah Webster House and West Hartford
Historical Society, compiled images from their individual collections that would
best illuminate the story of Luna Park, Connecticut’s early 20th-century and
short-lived version of New York’s blockbuster park Coney Island. This virtual story
was created to celebrate and complement the spectacular new exhibition in the
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, “Coney Island: Visions of an American
Dreamland,1861-2008.” Together, the museum exhibition and our online story
showcase Americans at play and in search of entertainment.
Special thanks to Richard Malley, Mary Donohue and Sheila Daley for their help
in securing these images.
- Hartford History Center
In an advertisement published in The Hartford Courant in 1906, the year Luna Park opened, park owners advertised the sound economic sense of visiting the local park, situated on 12 acres of land in West Hartford, just over the line from Hartford, rather than journeying all the way to Brooklyn’s fabled amusement resort, Coney Island.
Scholar John F. Kasson called America’s growing fascination with amusement parks “the most striking expression of the changing character of American culture,” and both the new ease of mobility and the introduction of electricity were putting turn-of-the-century Americans within steps of a wholly new kind of entertainment.
Visitors to either Coney Island or Connecticut’s Luna Park could travel there by the electric trolley car for pennies, and by the first decade of the twentieth century, Connecticut was home to hundreds of miles of track lines and thousands of streetcars. At this time, admission to Coney Island’s attractions was also a dime, but you had to get there first.
Isn't She Grand
The beautifully lit entrance to Hartford’s Luna Park gave promise of the attractions and entertainments that visitors would find, and the park sought to replicate, on a smaller scale, the extraordinarily illuminated attractions found at Coney Island’s Luna Park, one of three major resorts built along two miles of beach on the southwestern end of Brooklyn. (The other two Coney Island playlands were called Steeplechase and Dreamland.)
Already in the public mind were images of the Brooklyn Luna Park filmed by Thomas Edison in 1905: “Luna was unlike any place Americans had ever seen: A cityscape of narrow avenues lined with brilliantly white palaces, playfully ornamented with spewing fountains, onion domes, glittering towers and minarets that served no purpose other than to humor anyone who paid ten cents to cross its threshold….”(from The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements)
Something for Everyone
In an attempt to mirror the many attractions of Coney Island, which contained in its three huge parks a dizzying array of rides, circus attractions, wild animals, sideshow freaks, musical bands, visual entertainments such as “A Trip to the Moon,” hootchie-kootchie girls dancing on the boardwalk and every kind of food, Hartford’s Luna Park offered spectacular visual displays of towers and turrets and mini-castles, as well as thrill rides, food concessions, a lively Midway, a hall for ballroom dancing, a mile-long scenic railway full of exciting dips and even a tunnel of love.
Luna Park was a place where not only families could visit, but one which the young, single workers of a newly urban and industrialized society could visit for recreation and to meet one another. In a 2013 article on Luna Park in Connecticut Explored, scholar Gene Leach quoted a 1906 article in The Hartford Courant saying Luna Park aspired “to outshine the Capitol dome.”
The development of American amusement parks like Hartford’s Luna and those on Coney Island coincided “with the lifting of various post office restrictions on the mailing of picture postcards,” writes scholar John F. Kasson.
These postcards of park attractions – which all the major parks issued in black and white and colored versions – served as a souvenir of the visit, missives to friends to show what a lively time was being had, and tokens of something new being experienced. It was hard for Luna to compete with Coney Island’s dozens of rides, but a scenic railway roller-coaster, the Ferris wheel, a carousel and a giant centrifuge ride known as a “circle swing” provided plenty of thrills.
The Ferris Wheel and
Introduction to Other
‘Round and 'Round We Go
A ride on the Luna Park carousel was only five cents, as this 1908 postcard shows, and like most of the nearly 6,000 carousels built in the United States between 1890 and 1930, the Luna carousel with its brightly painted horses is gone.
Hartford, however, still has a carousel, one that was a century old in 2014 and which is maintained by the Bushnell Park Carousel Museum. Created in Brooklyn, New York, and featured in a park in Albany until 1940, the carousel was moved to Meyers Lake Amusement Park in Canton, Ohio, before being brought to Hartford in 1974.
The historic carousel in Bushnell Park is one of only 200 left in the United States, and one of only three remaining that was hand-carved by Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein, two Russian immigrants who founded the Artistic Carousel Company in Brooklyn. A ride today on this carousel costs $1.
The Band Played On
One of the more sedate and family-friendly entertainments at Hartford’s Luna Park and at Coney Island were band performances. The band shown here was comprised of musicians who were also employees of the Colt Gun Manufacturing Company. A feature of Coney Island’s parks as well, bands were considered more culturally uplifting, and a step up from carnival displays of women who bared their bellies to dance.
The Ball Room
Fred Thompson, one of the principal developers and promoters of Coney Island, imbued the Brooklyn Luna Park with “the graceful, romantic curves of the Oriental.”
Although Hartford’s Luna Park Ball Room was one of the more genteel of the local park’s amusement offerings, it was also a place where people of all ages could meet, learn popular dances, and touch in an environment that was both a streetcar ride from home and yet deliciously foreign.
Nothing about the Ball Room’s pagoda-like turrets suggested Yankee Hartford, and that was acceptable, because as Thompson once suggested, “The trouble with the present age is too much work and too little play. We need to be educated up again to the child spirit.”
Come Hear Them Play
One entrepreneur of national amusement parks said the key ingredients for a park should be fantastic architecture, exotic attractions, swift and exhilarating rides, all designed to sweep people up into a festive mood and to manufacture the carnival spirit.
In this photograph from The Hartford Courant, taken in April 1906 before the park’s opening, the bandstand and a roller-coaster can be seen but the seeds of the park’s later problems also can be seen: For a place that was about to promise a huge array of attractions, the grounds look underbuilt.
Spirit of Adventure
Amusement parks nationwide at the turn of the century catered to Americans’ longing for and curiosity about exoticism. Ancient Egypt was clearly the theme of this Luna Park attraction with its painted temple columns and large seated camel.
Coney Island capitalized on that thirst for information about faraway lands – and in the most pleasing way – with its exhibition called The World Congress of Beauty, “40 Ladies from 40 Nations.” Scantily clad women including one named “Little Egypt” wore cultural costumes while dancing provocatively.
The not-so-subliminal message being conveyed at these parks was that you were not at home and indeed, that anything might be possible.
Struggle in Luna Park
Amusement-park moguls in New York, Hartford, Bridgeport and around the country understood that to keep people coming you had to keep offering them something new – and while New York’s Luna Park offered “A Trip to the Moon” complete with little moon men and samples of green cheese – Hartford recreated for its visitors the 1906 San Francisco earthquake with films of the disaster and a panorama.
In 1909, as scholar Gene Leach explained in Connecticut Explored, two Japanese entrepreneurs took over the park’s management and introduced more genteel entertainments such as the Japanese performers advertised at right. Barely one-twentieth Coney Island’s size, Hartford’s Luna Park was also lacking Coney’s permanent summer draw: big sandy beaches and cool ocean water.
The Scenic Railway
Luna Park’s “Scenic Railway” was a mile long with exciting plunges and was described as a “decided thriller” by The Hartford Courant. And as was so often with the features and attractions of amusement parks, the Railway was meant to suggest something larger than itself: A culture of people going places, who knew no bounds, and who were fully as modern as the new means of transportation – electric streetcars, bicycles and cars.
What would locomotive power mean to the public, and what would it mean to the individual? What might your horizons be if you could get anywhere you wanted to go?
And although it failed in just a few years, Hartford’s Luna Park had a profoundly successful public model that brought different classes together through leisure: Its decades-old system of city parks.
A Long Way Down
Hartford’s Luna Park was, like Coney Island’s parks, a place to take “the brakes off” as a New York schoolteacher remarked in explaining why she had walked into the sea fully dressed. But that very spirit of social freedom may also have been part of the problem for Hartford. Despite the huge and relatively lasting success of the Coney Island entertainment mega-plex, Luna Park always struggled, and Gene Leach posits that the allure of the risqué – which was fundamental to Coney Island – may ultimately have been a problem for Hartford, a city with deep identification - despite industrialization and a large immigrant population - to its colonial Yankee past. This view of the Scenic Railway was published in The Hartford Courant the day before the park opened.
Luna Park was directly adjacent to Charter Oak Park, which had been established as a harness-racing track in the 1870s and later became a racetrack for early automobiles.
Gene Leach suggested in the magazine Connecticut Explored that the proximity of the horse-racing arena and atmosphere of illegality may have further harmed Luna’s dwindling chances of success.
Opened in the summer of 1906, Luna Park closed in the mid-summer of 1910.
Despite its convenient location, a characteristic which the Coney Island parks shared, it most probably failed because, apart from the failure of the Hartford citizenry to embrace it, it didn’t have Coney’s miles of beach and access to swimming.
Since the 1870s, Coney Island had had an established seaside culture of vacationing and leisure. Luna never developed sufficient financial support and profits to plough back into the amusements, and its successive owners seem to have miscalculated the local temper.
Fred Thompson, creator of Coney Island’s vastly more successful Luna Park, with its opportunities for mixed-sex recreation and deliciously exotic entertainments, died in 1919, at age 46. His Luna Park lasted until the 1940s, when it was ravaged by a series of fires and not rebuilt.
Sources include: Hartford Public Library, Hartford History Center; Connecticut Historical Society, and the Noah Webster House and West Hartford Historical Society.
Selected bibliography: Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century by John F. Kasson (Hill & Wang, 1978); Post Roads and Iron Horses: Transportation in Connecticut from Colonial Times to the Age of Steam by Richard DeLuca (Wesleyan University Press, 2011); The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements by Woody Register (Oxford University Press, 2001); also, “The Bright Lights of Luna Park,” by Gene Leach, Connecticut Explored (Summer 2013).