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Horace Bullard Wanted to rebuild Steeplechase Park and bring casino gambling to Coney Island

Horace Bullard, Coney Island’s would-be savior, dead at 75

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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 wbredderman@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4507. Follow him at twitter.com/WillBredderman.
Updated 7:47 am, April 24, 2013
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Reasonable discourse

Under the Boardwalk from Down by the Sea says:
What irony. He had a dream, but let Coney's SHORE Theatre and other properties go to seed for over 35 years and now has nothing to show for it except a deep-six space in The Bronx.

Should be an inspiration to all of us, to move forward with our lives and GET OUR PROJECTS DONE!

Perhaps now Coney will get the boost it needs, restore the Shore and integrate it into the new grand scheme.

I totally applaud Marty Markowitz for coming to his senses and trying to put the fabulous terracotta specimen Childs Cafeteria back on the map as a restaurant, with adjoining amphitheatre. That's smart.
April 23, 2013, 11:33 am
BB from Brooklyn Heights says:
Sure, he could have moved on — and simply have torn down the Shore Theatre when the city repeatedly stymied his development.

Just as at Atlantic Yards, Coney Island would have "come back" sooner if the city didn't stymie private enterprise until the city's chosen savior was ready to act.
April 23, 2013, 5:37 pm
ITA BULLARD from NEW YORK says:
I.am Horace 's widow.
I hope our daughter Jasmine Bullard can bring back the Coney Island Horace was dreaming of..
I am writing a book to share my life story and 35 years of it with Horace..iI am a holocaust survivor an artist painter sculptor...
He meant so much to me...
So much to so many...
It must be revealed not forgaten...
Happy Holidays
ITA BULARD
Dec. 25, 2013, 6:25 pm
Chris Calderone from Hamptons says:
Horace was my friend RIP
March 9, 2016, 12:58 pm

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