Astroland founder Jerry Albert dies at 74

Astroland founder Jerry Albert dies at 74
Photo courtesy of the Coney Island History Project

Astroland co-founder Jerry Albert, whose cutting edge visions revived Coney Island with 50-cent rides simulating trips to the moon and thrilling U.S. Army aerial shows, died on March 15 from complications related to Parkinson’s disease. He was 74.

Albert, who grew up in Sea Gate, opened the futuristically-inspired amusement park in 1962 with his father Dewey Albert, and celebrated the milestone by serving bagels and lox at W. 10th Street and Surf Avenue where, according to local legend, restaurant owner Charles Feltman invented the hot dog.

Astroland’s theme, “Journey to the 21st Century,” skyrocketed Coney into an exciting new era inspired by astronaut John Glenn’s historic trek as the first American in orbit.

The dynamic Alberts commissioned and built rides to fit the bill, including the Cape Canaveral Satellite Jet, which replicated a lift-off, the Mercury Capsule Skyride; a monorail ride that zoomed 80 feet above the Boardwalk; and The Astroland Rocket, which is slated to be included in the Coney Island redevelopment plan.

After Steeplechase Park closed in 1964, Astroland transformed Coney from a Depression-era nickel-and-dime resort town with incubated preemie babies as Boardwalk attractions, into a world-class amusement Mecca, said Lou Powsner, the former president of the Coney Island Board of Trade.

“It gave a necessary injection into the dormant era of amusements,” he said.

The Alberts also rushed to Coney’s rescue in the mid-1970s, when the city decided to demolish the world-famous Cyclone Roller Coaster. The family secured the operating rights to the wood and steel behemoth, and restored the ride to its former glory.

Astroland, which finally closed in Sept. 2008, resuscitated Coney when it needed it most, according to Charles Denson, author of three books on the area, and director of the Coney Island History Project, which Jerry Albert and his wife Carol founded in 2004 to honor Dewey Albert, who died in 1992.

“It kept Coney Island alive because it showed that people were still willing to make a major investment,” Denson said.

Albert, say friends and associates, was a Coney kid at heart who collected antique cars, including a 1960 vintage Cadillac that he drove in the annual Mermaid Parade. He also designed boats, including a classic wooden yacht named Pardon Me II which he kept docked in Gravesend Bay.

His sense of devotion, plus his humor and heart, were of oceanic-proportions, said Dick Zigun, the unofficial “Mayor of Coney Island,” who ran public relations for Astroland from 1997 to 2000.

“Jerry used to brag that Astroland was the place where there wasn’t a bit of graffiti, not one light bulb burned out, and not one crack in the sidewalks,” he shared.

Zigun recalled how Albert would foot the bill for his entire staff to attend annual industry conventions around the country, and egg on the showman’s outrageous publicity stunts. When Zigun wanted to dig up a time capsule planted at the foot of the Astro Tower in the mid-1960s — but couldn’t locate it — Albert authorized him to recreate one in secret, complete with authentic artifacts bought on eBay.

“There were plenty of winks and giggles on that day!” said Zigun when the new capsule was ceremoniously dug up.

Albert’s commitment to Coney Island continued into the 2000s, when he teamed up with Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park’s co-owner Dennis Vourderis to return fireworks to the beach — but not before every “i” had been dotted and every “t” crossed.

“Jerry liked contracts,” said Vourderis. “He wouldn’t enter into one unless there were guarantees that he would come out in a win-win situation.”

Albert is survived by his wife, Carol Hill Albert, a son, Bradley, and a grandson. He is interred at Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Glendale, Queens.

Reach reporter Shavana Abruzzo at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2529.