Coney’s Shore Theater is a ‘disgrace’ of a landmark, say activists

Merchants say that the homeless are camping out under the scaffolding surrounding the Shore Theater.
Photo by Steve Solomonson

Coney Island’s faithful are lashing out against the owner of the historic Shore Theater, claiming he has turned a seashore gem into a urine-soaked home for rats and vagrants.

“It is a disgrace,” said Dick Zigun, founder of Coney Island USA who led the successful effort to landmark the 87-year-old theater, where Jerry Lewis once played. “The fact that [it] has homeless people living under it and urinating on it does not help the image of the new Coney Island at all.”

Zigun says that Shore Theater owner Horace Bullard refuses to fix up the building because he’s still angry at the city after the Giuliani administration nixed his plans to recreate Steeplechase Park on public land that’s now home to MCU Park, and ordered a pre-dawn demolition of his historic Thunderbolt roller coaster in 2000 — a move later declared illegal by a federal court.

“He feels he was mistreated, but it doesn’t justify what is happening with the Shore Theater,” said Zigun.

Bullard said he doesn’t have a problem with the Bloomberg administration, which is in the process of transforming Coney Island into a glitzy, year-round tourist destination.

Yet he claims he can’t stop derelicts from squatting under the scaffolding he installed around the Shore Theater to catch crumbling mortar.

“What can I do?” said the senior. “I can’t fight with bums, I have a medical condition.”

Bullard claimed he would have fixed up the building long ago, but says its landmarked status — which he opposed — has prevented him from doing any repairs.

“The city put a lot of restrictions on it, and anything you want to do with it, you have to go in front of them,” said Bullard, claiming that he hopes to rent or sell the building within the next six months.

The Landmarks Commission disputed Bullard’s excuse, claiming that work on the building could have been done either before or after it was declared a city treasure, according to an agency spokesman.

“There’s no reason why he wouldn’t have been able to work on the building,” said a spokesperson, who added that Bullard didn’t file a permit to fix up the building’s facade until last November — work the agency approved inside of a month.

Yet Landmarks can’t order Bullard to fix up his property. The agency could only force him to repair the building if it wasn’t watertight, said the spokesman, who claims that his agency hasn’t received any complaints about the building.

Merchants say that more than 10 homeless men have been camping under the scaffolding since the beginning of the summer. When they’re not sleeping under the scaffolding, they’re shaking down pedestrians for change and quarrelling with shopkeepers.

Nino Russo, co-owner of Gargiulo’s Restaurant on W. 15th Street, said he has tried to buy the Shore Theater — which is about a block away from his eatery — and doesn’t believe Bullard wants to sell.

“Every time you make an offer, he raises it by millions,” said Russo. “Maybe he just wants to sit on it.”

The theater was once named Loew’s Coney Island Theater, and ran movies and stage shows until the mid-1960s. It was taken over by the Brandt Theater group and renamed the Shore Theater, but its heyday was clearly over.

The theater began showing X-rated movies in 1972 after failing to lure audiences.

Advocates of the People’s Playground say they want the Shore Theater returned to its glory days, when world-class entertainers performed in front of crowds that swelled to nearly 3,000.

Charles Denson, founder of the Coney Island History Project, said the man Bullard hired to maintain the building was meticulous about maintaining its interior, which isn’t landmarked. The building’s caretaker did his best to keep the building’s original, nautical details intact, including the dome and various sea-inspired figures, until he died last year.

“Since he’s been gone things have deteriorated,” said Denson.

The Shore Theater’s future is vital to the area’s success, according to Zigun.

“It’s a major piece of the puzzle of rebuilding Coney Island,” he said.

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