Thursday, September 10, 2009

Coney Island: Pity the Pachyderms

At Coney Island today, I had occasion to contemplate elephants.

The season has abruptly ended, and I wanted to document the PETA billboard that’s been catching my eye all summer—the first one that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has been running its circus out by the beach. Note the tiny graphic of the elephant balancing on a ball.

The metal gates have rolled closed on many of the boardwalk’s food operations, including the Grill House complex—home to a friendly little taco stand I’d visited frequently in recent months. I found another elephant there.

I turned to a sign offering some highlights of Coney Island’s history, and there I discovered a photo of the Elephant Hotel, built in 1885. Apparently it was also a brothel. According to one Web source, “In the naughty nineties, 'Going to see the Elephant' became a Victorian euphemism for a bit of hanky-panky by the seaside!"

In 1896, according to an unofficial history of the FDNY, that elephant, seven stories high and built of yellow pine and tin, went up in flames. It took all of 30 minutes. The blaze was the first ever fought by Coney Island's new paid fire company, Engine 45.

The unexpected procession of pachyderms brought to mind the Lola Staar boutique, which, before the forces of development came into play, had been only a few steps away on the boardwalk. I remembered the day I’d debated buying one of her Topsy tees.

Lola’s Web site says: “Imagine a herd of elephants roaming free around Coney Island, and at the front of the line was the toughest of them all...TOPSY!”

True, Topsy did harm three of her handlers, but she paid the price. She was the elephant Thomas Edison electrocuted at Coney Island to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current. You can find an account, with the gruesome pictures, here.

In this summer’s Coney Island elephant scandal, the local firehouse (Engine 245, nee 45, of Elephant Hotel fame) was shut to the public for half an hour because its firefighters had been called out to hose down one of the circus elephants—Suzie—as a publicity stunt.

photo credit: AP via Uniformed Firefighters Assoc.

By now, of course, I felt compelled to ride the few blocks down to Ringling Brothers’ big striped tent, which workers were busy dismantling. There I found my last elephant, behind the chain-link fence.

1 comment:

Joan said...

speaking of following the signs!

this reminds me of the other elephant hotel that apparently used to stand in...Cape May, I think it was. Might still be there as a shell landmark but I've never visited it, to my regret.