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Talking talkies: Local historian uncovers Coney Island’s rich movie history

Glory days: Loew’s theater at 1301 Surf Ave. between Stillwell and W. 15th St. opened in 1925 and closed as the Shore in 1973.
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Before Hollywood, there was Coney Island.

A new lecture will showcase the history of the People’s Playground as the center of American movie movie-making and movie-watching more than 100 years ago. The seaside amusement district was not only a popular backdrop for films, it was one of the first places in Brooklyn to show movies on a grand scale, said the historian behind “Coney Island Goes to the Movies,” at the Coney Island Museum on Aug. 25.

“Coney Island was a popular subject because it was a novelty unto itself, with its rides, its ornate architecture, and its amusements,” said Windsor Terrace artist and theater historian Cezar Del Valle.

Before Hollywood, the movie industry began in New York and New Jersey, and Coney Island’s appeal wasn’t lost on the pioneers of the moving image. From the very beginning, Coney Island broke ground in filmmaking technology, said Del Valle. For instance, in 1899, the heavyweight fight between James J. Jeffries and Tom Sharkey was the first film to be shot indoors at night.

The filming lasted almost two hours, at a time when most movies lasted only a minute. The filmmakers had to improvise with their rudimentary equipment in order to capture the pugilistic picture, according to Del Valle.

“They had 400 arc lamps to try to light up the arena and both fighters had their hair singed from the lights,” he said. “They had to go out to the local bars on Surf Avenue to find ice to cool down the equipment.”

The first movie theaters developed from vaudeville shows at the beginning of the 20th century, and the business quickly spread to all corners of the island.

“Just about every hotel and ballroom in Coney Island was showing movies,” Del Valle said. “In 1905, half the saloons in Coney Island were showing movies.”

By the middle of the 20th century, Coney Island had become less prominent in the movies, although Del Valle’s talk will cover some of its more notable appearances, including scenes from Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” in “The Wiz,” and from a notorious porn film with a scene shot aboard the Wonder Wheel.

Coney’s most prominent theaters have also disappeared over the years. Del Valle’s lecture coincides with the planned demolition of the interior of the landmarked Shore theater on Surf and Stillwell Avenues, which is slated to become a hotel. The theater could have been saved and restored to its former beauty, said Del Valle.

“The Shore could have been saved and it certainly should have been saved but it’s not going to be,” he said. “I don’t know what will be left of its interior, but it’s a real pity,” he said.

“Coney Island Goes to the Movies” at Coney Island Museum [1208 Surf Ave. at W. 12th Street in Coney Island, second floor, (718) 372–5159, www.coneyisland.com]. Aug. 25 at 5 pm. $5 ($3 seniors and kids).

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.
Updated 12:28 pm, August 20, 2018
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