Horace Bullard, the Harlem-born millionaire who bought land on Coney Island as if it were a Monopoly board with the dream of returning the People’s Playground to the glory days of his youth, but ended up sitting on the properties for more than three decades as they, too, fell into decay, died earlier this month of Lou Gehrig’s Disease at the age of 75.
The would-be savior of Coney, who made his fortune with Kansas Fried Chicken fast food franchise with locations on Surf Avenue and on the Boardwalk, bought the iconic Shore Theater on Surf and Stillwell avenues in the late 1970s, which, by that time, had fallen from a Broadway-style venue for world-class entertainers to a seedy triple-x movie den, and proposed converting the structure into an Atlantic City-style hotel and casino to revive the area. That dream fell through when the city refused to allow gambling in the area.
But Bullard’s grandest vision — and greatest disappointment — was his 1985 plan to recreate the legendary Steeplechase Park as a $55 million, 17-acre, 75 ride wonderland. Bullard had already acquired much of the property he would need, including the famed Thunderbolt roller coaster and the Playland Arcade, but the biggest parcel belonged to the Parks Department and would require city permission to build.
Then-Mayor Ed Koch granted the permits, but Bullard’s financiers pulled out in the midst of the late-’80s economic crisis. Bullard struggled to secure new backers, and claimed that he had succeeded, but by that time Mayor Rudy Giuliani was set on bring minor league baseball to the plot at W. 16th Street and Surf Avenue, and Bullard’s dream died for good.
To add insult to injury, Giuliani ordered the pre-dawn demolition of the Thunderbolt, a move a federal court later declared illegal. A heartbroken Bullard received just $1 in damages.
“Horace Bullard gambled with everything he had on bringing Coney Island back, but he kept running into roadblocks, and we just didn’t have enough force to overcome the opposition,” remembered Ralph Perfetto, a Coney Island native, Democratic district leader, and ally to Bullard. “It was very sad.”
Bullard fell into depression when it became clear that his grand plans would not be realized, according to his ex-wife, Ita. He became reclusive, his 34-year-long marriage ended, his buildings crumbled. In 2010, he was diagnosed with the neurological disease that killed him, though he kept his condition private.
During Hurricane Sandy last year, high winds blew the Shore Thater’s iconic sign loose, and it was removed.
Recently, former supporters including Sideshows by the Seashore head freak Dick Zigun began attacking him for letting his properties sit idly as Coney Island’s renaissance began in the 2000s, and accused him of trying to destroy the city’s dreams for Coney Island as revenge for it destroying his.
But Bullard denied being bitter about what had happened, arguing that it wasn’t his loss.
“I’m not angry. The only thing I lost was the glory of having built it and the joy of bringing this great jewel to Coney Island. The city missed out,” Bullard told us last year.
Bullard’s infatuation with the People’s Playground started early in life. He would often sneak away from his Harlem home and trek across the city to the then-thriving amusement district, his surviving sister Nellie recalled.
“He got a lot of talking-tos for going to Coney Island by himself,” Nellie Bullard said.
Bullard was interred next to his parents in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx on April 12.Reach reporter Will Bredderman at wbredderma