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Archive for the tag 'history'

RKO Tilyou Theatre exterior

The RKO Tilyou Theater. Built in the 1920s and now destroyed. It represents the rise of Coney Island as an amusement destination. (Source: Cinema Treasures)

The RKO Tilyou is one of those landmarks of Southern Brooklyn that have long been demolished but still live on through pictures and legacy. Originally built in 1926 on Surf Avenue, the theater belonged to a Coney Island family that helped define the waterfront neighborhood as an amusement destination.

The theater’s peculiar name comes from the family, the Tilyous, that opened the cinema. And the story of the theater is intertwined with the Tilyou family, a long line of people that the Brooklyn Museum describe as being “intimately connected with Coney Island as providers of entertainment.”

On the opening night of March 18, 1926, the theater featured vaudeville and the film Three Faces East, according to Cezar Del Valle. He has published two volumes on old theaters in Brooklyn called The Brooklyn Theater Index. There is soon to be a third volume that will feature the Tilyou theater along with many other oldies in Southern Brooklyn.

Cinema Treasures, another site for old theaters, writes this about the Tilyou theater:

This grand old theatre had its heyday in the golden era of Coney Island. It stood one block away from the Shore Theatre and Steeplechase Park, all on Surf Avenue. The Tilyou Theatre was opened by B.S. Moss on March 18, 1926.

The Shore Theater that is referred to above is last remaining theaters of the era still standing in Coney Island.

The Tilyous also enjoyed fame and glory during that time. Their legacy stretches back into the mid-19th century when Peter Tilyou opened a  Surf House in 1865 before Coney Island’s “golden era.” The neighborhood was beginning to transform into a world of amusement. The tavern quickly became a popular waterhole close to the terminus of the first rail line, according to the Brooklyn Museum. Peter’s son, George, went on to open Steeplechase Park in 1897 and the family eventually went on to open the RKO theater along with a Ferris Wheel “and other rides scattered along the beach,” according to Coney Island History.

The account continues:

[George] Tilyou became Coney’s biggest booster and a philanthropist who supported local orphanages, the Catholic church, children’s hospitals, and other charities.

In 1897, George moved his mechanical horse-racing-themed rides into an enclosed park at West 16th Street and Surf Avenue.

George died in 1914 and his children continued to run the park and the various other sources of amusement the family owned. Then in 1964, they sold the Steeplechase Park to a developer who demolished it. Not long after that, in 1973, the RKO Theater was also demolished.

In its twilight, it was running action double features at bargain prices.


Prosecutors have tossed their case against reputed Gambino crime-family associate Daniel Fama, who they believe served as the getaway man for two wiseguys who shot a man to death in front on his Bensonhurst home in 1990.

The New York Post reports:

The feds dropped their witness-tampering case against ex-con Daniel Fama, 49, telling a Manhattan federal judge they didn’t have enough evidence that Fama was part of the plot to silence demolition contractor Edward Garofalo in August 1990 by gunning him down outside his home in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.

Garofalo, known as “Eddie the Chink,” was killed to keep him from cooperating with authorities and Fama drove hit men Frank “Frankie Fapp” Fappiano and Joseph “Little Joey” D’Angelo to and from the crime scene, the feds had claimed.

“There was not enough to show that Mr. Fama” tried to “obstruct a grand jury investigation,” federal prosecutor Jason Masimore told Judge John Keenan.

Authorities charged Fama with witness-tampering in order to get around federal statute of limitations restrictions, which prevented them from hitting him with a conventional murder charge.

But the more specific charge of killing an informant to obstruct justice required evidence that Fama knew the purpose of the hit job.

The case was ultimately undone by the government’s own witness. Gambino family associate, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, who became a government witness and fingered the three men in the car who had a role in the murder, provided testimony that said none of the men knew why they were ordered to kill Garofalo. Gravano’s testimony indicates he assembled the team and gave the instructions himself, on John Gotti’s orders.

Fama was arrested and charged in April 2013, 23 years after the murder. He had been released from prison in 2009, after serving 17 years for racketeering charges.

The internet is abuzz this morning after the big-budget debut of the reenvisioned Cosmos series last night, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The original series aired in 1980 and was accompanies by a book of the same name. It’s perhaps the most lasting work by cosmologist Carl Sagan, oft-hailed as the best communicator of scientific concepts in the 20th Century.

Sagan was born in 1934 and lived with his family in Bensonhurst. Around the time of the airing of the original series, he returned to the neighborhood for a video segment in which he reflected on his first childhood thoughts about the stars and the broader universe.

“I knew my immediate neighborhood intimately; every candy store, front stoop, backyard and wall for playing Chinese handball,” he said in the video. “It was my whole world.”

The video has some fantastic shots of 86th Street and the elevated subway in the 1980s. Sagan himself lived on Bay 37th Street, and, later, Bay Parkway. The family took frequent outings to Coney Island and “old photos show Carl lolling on the beach,” notes a biography of the famed astronomer.

The video above tells an abbreviated account of what happened next – the occasion that sparked his life long search of the cosmos. But he previously shared a more detailed account:

[The stars] seemed to me different. They just weren’t like everything else.

And so I asked other kids what they were…. They said things like “they’re lights in the sky, kid.”

I could tell they were lights in the sky, but what were they—little electric bulbs on long black wires? … I asked my parents, they didn’t know. I asked friends of my parents, they didn’t know.

[His mother suggested:] “I’ve just gotten you your first library card. Take the streetcar to the New Utrecht branch of the New York Public Library and find a book…. [The answer] has to be in a book.”

I went to the library. I asked the librarian for a book on the stars. She came back and gave me a book. I opened it. It was filled with pictures of people like Jean Harlow and Clark Gable.

I was humiliated. I gave it back to her and said, “This wasn’t the kind of stars I had in mind.” She thought this was hilarious, which humiliated me further. She then went and got the right kind of book. I took it—a simple kid’s book. I sat down on a little chair—a pint-sized chair—and turned the pages until I came to the answer.

And the answer was stunning. It was that the Sun was a star but really close. The stars were suns, but so far away they were just little points of light…. And while I didn’t know the [inverse] square law of light propagation or anything like that, still, it was clear to me that you would have to move that Sun enormously far away, further away than Brooklyn [for the stars to appears as dots of light]….

The scale of the universe suddenly opened up to me. [It was] kind of a religious experience. [There] was a magnificence to it, a grandeur, a scale which has never left me. Never ever left me.

You can read more about Sagan’s childhood in this excerpt by Sagan biographer Keay Davidson.

The Great Fredini (Photo Via

The Great Fredini (Photo Via

Fred Kahl is known in Coney Island as The Great Fredini with his Scan-A-Rama, where he scans and creates prints of people as souvenirs. Now, he has also embarked on a project to create a 3D printout of Coney Island’s destroyed Luna Park, according to the Atlantic.

The Atlantic describes the process:

First he has to make sure the five 3D printers working out of his home studio are churning out the goods. “At any given time I have at least three machines printing,” he says. “I try to start prints every morning and every evening. It’s still a lot of work maintaining them, though; bearings need replacing, boards fry, extruders clog. I can’t even tell you how many hours I’ve put into this. It’s totally obsessive.”

Kahl makes models based on reference from a collection of historic Luna Park imagery that he has gathered. “In the old days I would find postcards at flea markets,” he says. “The advent of Ebay made collecting postcards easier. I have hundreds of cards and photos now, as well as images I’ve scrounged online from the Library of Congress, Pinterest, blogs, you name it.”

… “I basically build the park’s structures in software using photo references, and place a 3D scan of a human in the model for scale to get the proportions right,” he says. “When I’m done, I export parts, scale them and cut them into printable sized chunks that will later be glued and assembled. Its hard to reconstruct because the park changed every season, so I’m just shooting for an amalgam of what it was at its peak around 1914.”

The artist will be basing most of his prints on old postcards and depictions of the the park. He’s collected them on his Flickr. He’s also working miniatures of his Kickstarter donors into the panorama, and a portion of it will be on display at the Coney Island museum beginning in May.

Click to view enlarged image

Courtesy of the United States Coast Guard

Late in the 19th century, Congress approved the construction of a lighthouse on the western end of Coney Island. The now-defunct 124-year-old beacon has become the subject of a mini-documentary that aired last week on MetroFocus.

The documentary focuses on Frank Schubert, the last Coney Island lighthouse keeper- as well as the last civilian in the country to hold that job. In the article that accompanies the four-minute documentary,  creators Max Kutner and Johannes Musial write:

After serving with the Army in World War II, Schubert found work as a lighthouse keeper. In 1960 he moved with his wife and three children to the Coney Island Lighthouse. For three generations of Schuberts, the lighthouse became the family’s home. “My parents got married at the Coney Island Lighthouse, and then I was born the next year and they basically raised us there,” said Scott Schubert. “As a kid it was great. We’d be climbing on the lighthouse. It was like our jungle gym. You don’t even realize that it’s really different than any other house. It’s just sort of grandpa’s house.”

The use of GPS on boats has made lighthouses less necessary, but at one time such beacons helped prevent boats from crashing against rocky coastlines. The original Coney Island beacon was lit by Keeper Thomas Higgenbotham on August 1, 1890, according to United States Coast Guard. The lens used was powered by Kerosene and it was visible for more than fourteen miles.

Here’s the Metrofocus documentary:


The Coney Island History Project and Urban Neighborhood Services are hosting a slideshow presentation by Charles Denson titled “The History of Coney Island’s West End and the Presence and Contributions of African Americans in Coney Island from the 1600s to the Present.”The slideshow will feature never-before-seen images from Charles Denson’s archive and photos that he took in the 1970s.

U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, Coney Island’s first African American Congressman, will be a special guest.

“The West End of Coney Island is a vibrant and resilient community that’s survived many challenges over the last few decades,” said Coney Island History Project director Charles Denson. “I grew up there and documented the wave of urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s that transformed our community and changed the lives of its residents. This slide show will tell the story of the area going back to 1600s.”

I, for one, have always been kind of curious about the West End, which sticks out from the rest of Southern Brooklyn both figuratively and in terms of demographics and culture. It’ll be interesting to check this out.

Here’s one of Denson’s great photos from that era:


Muscle man, Coney Island, 1950

Muscle man, Coney Island, 1950 (Source:

Acclaimed photographer and Coney Island native Harvey Feinstein, who says he “dropped from my mother’s womb straight into the front car of the Cyclone roller coaster,” has put together a fantastic set of photos from the 1940s to the 1970s of Coney Island sportsmen in honor of the upcoming Olympics.

Feinstein writes:

At Coney Island, watching was always the sport for me, which worked out really nicely since the place is and always was, teeming with show-offs and good natured competitors. A large crowd and lots of applause was the equivalent to a medal, and pretty much anybody could capture one. As a spectator, admission was free and you could count on a repeat performance next week-end — or a completely new and different one.

Coney Island is an event — a kind of Olympics of humanity. You can stand in one place and see it all, and you might be both audience and actor without even knowing it.

Beach boxers,  Coney Island, 1969

Beach boxers, Coney Island, 1969 (Source:

The photos span the years from 1949 to 1977 (with one sneaking in from 1997), showing regular men who took to the beach to flex their muscles, participate  in a sandy boxing match. or horse around with pals.

Feinstein is one of the New York School photograhers who rose to prominence between the 1930s and 1960s, capturing street life scenes that shared the flavor and fight of New York City through drastic changes. His works hang permanently in the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Jewish Museum. His body lives in Massachusetts. His heart beats in Coney Island.

Check out the full photo set.

Five man pile-up, Coney Island, 1949

Five man pile-up, Coney Island, 1949 (Source:

Michael Grillo (center) as President George Washington, escorted by two Revolutionary War re-enactors at the New Utrecht Parish House. Courtesy of Friends of Historic New Utrecht

Michael Grillo (center) as President George Washington, escorted by two Revolutionary War re-enactors at the New Utrecht Parish House. Courtesy of Friends of Historic New Utrecht

Our nation’s first Commander-In-Chief will be making a return appearance at the New Utrecht Reformed Church Parish House, Tuesday, February 11 at 7:30 p.m., and the good news is, there won’t be any presidential-related gridlock.

The public is invited to hear President George Washington, portrayed by Michael Grillo, discuss his key role in many of our nation’s pivotal early moments, including the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776, his victorious return to New York in November 1783, his inauguration in 1789, as well as his visit to New Utrecht in April 1790, whereupon he lunched at Barre’s tavern on 84th Street and 16th Avenue, and greeted students from the village school nearby.

The father of our country will be accompanied by two Revolutionary War re-enactors, donning the traditional garb of a New York State militia unit, one of whom will deliver a talk on the life and equipment of a Revolutionary War soldier.

There will be a question and answer session with the audience as well as a reception with light refreshments to follow. Parking is available in the church lot.

Earlier in the day, Grillo — the education director at the Van Cortlandt House Museum in the Bronx, who has been appearing as Washington at various historic sites and events for more than 14 years — will portray the former General of the Armies before an audience of more than 700 students in an appearance also sponsored by the Friends of Historic New Utrecht.

The New Utrecht Reformed Church Parish House is located at 18th Avenue and 84th Street. Admission is free.

For more information about the free Washington program, contact the Friends of Historic New Utrecht at (718) 256-7173 or email

Credit: Sarro Collection

Credit: Sarro Collection

The Friends of Historic New Utrecht presents an illustrated talk by Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger, who will examine Historic Flatbush, its landmarks and Victorian homes, November 19 at 7:30 p.m. inside the Parish House of the New Utrecht Reformed Church, 18th Avenue and 84th Street. Admission is free.

Schweiger, a retired school teacher who was appointed Borough Historian in 2002 by Borough President Marty Markowitz, will be drawing on his vast collection of more than 3,000 images of old Brooklyn scenes and more than 30 years’ experience in making presentations about aspects of Brooklyn history.

Currently the president of the Society of Old Brooklynites, Schweiger also conducts walking tours and delivers lectures on Brooklyn history.

This program is one of a series of free concerts, lectures and other historic, educational events offered each year to the public by the Friends organization. The 1892 Parish House where Schweiger will be speaking is, itself, an historically significant landmark building as is the church sanctuary next door, built in 1828 and currently undergoing repair and restoration.

The New Utrecht Reformed Church, now a member of the Reformed Church in America (RCA), was founded in the Town of New Utrecht in 1677.

To learn more, contact Friends of Historic New Utrecht at (718) 256-7173, email, follow the Friends of Historic New Utrecht on the web at or on Facebook.


The turret-equipped home at 2064 West 6th Street has hit the market with a slightly above market-value price tag of $1.2 million.

It’s a stucco-covered affair, with three bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms, being sold as a “one of a kind property.”

Here’s how it’s described in the listing:

Upon entering you will find exquisite imported Italian marble & granite floors spreading across the living room and formal dining area. If you enjoy cooking, then you will love the chef’s kitchen. It offers an open and airy layout with plenty of cabinets and counter space.

According to the listing info, it was built in 1925.

Absent from the description, though, is that it was actually moved prior to 1925, a not so uncommon practice back then that has skewed Department of Buildings records ever since. This particular home dates back to approximately the 1880s, and was moved about 1914.

Not only was it moved, but when it sat in its original location on the east side of Van Sicklen Street, north of Gravesend Neck Road, it was the home of Anthony Waring, a judge in the village of Gravesend before incorporation with Brooklyn, who was a close lieutenant to the village’s own Tweed-like political boss, John McKane.

Keep reading, and view photos of this property’s notable past.

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