George C. Tilyou
George C. Tilyou

The founder of Steeplechase Park, George C. Tilyou, was one of the millions who thronged the Chicago Midway in he summer of I893. At the time, Tilyou's parents ran a small hotel at Coney Island, and he and his father managed a vaudeville theater. Even though the younger Tilyou was in Chicago on his honeymoon, he viewed the spectacle with more than romantic eyes-he studied it with the shrewd discernment of an impresario. The great Ferris Wheel particularly attracted him and he tried to buy it. When he learned that it had already been sold, he responded like a true showman. He ordered another wheel, half the size, hurried back to Coney, rented a plot of land, and put up a sign boldly announcing,

"On This Site Will Be Erected the World's Largest Ferris Wheel." Soon he installed a wheel and grouped various other amusements around it.

When Paul Boyton opened the first enclosed amusement park, Sea Lion Park, in I895, Tilyou saw another innovation to emulate. A modest venture by later standards, Boyton's park had a pronounced aquatic theme with forty trained sea lions, water races, an old-mill water ride, and the popular water slide in flat-bottomed boats, Shoot the-Chutes, emptying into a lagoon. Tilyou countered by unveiling Steeplechase Park in I897, an elaborate collection of attractions in a fifteen-acre enclosure, ringed by the gravity-powered steeplechase race that gave the park its name. By enclosing the park from the rest of Coney Island, Tilyou both excluded unsavory elements who might deter his customers and monopolized patrons' business himself.

One does not expect showmen to divulge their formulas for success-or even necessarily to be fully conscious of them. So it is not surprising that George Tilyou maintained that "any success in the amusement business is unaccountable." But when pressed by a journalist, he cogently described the appeal he sought to satisfy: "what attracts the crowd is the wearied mind's demand for relief in unconsidered muscular action." "We Americans," Tilyou con tinued, "want either to be thrilled or amused, and we are ready to pay well for either sensation."

Steeplechase was thus designed to provide a series of active, intense amusements that would totally involve its patrons and sweep them away from everyday concerns and restraints. As George Tilyou's son Edward remarked a few years later, amusement parks provided "a gigantic laboratory of human nature" in which people "cut loose from repressions and restrictions, and act pretty much as they feel like acting-since everyone else is doing the same thing." In Coney's permissive environment customers felt a giddy sense of irrespon sibility.

Among the most popular attractions, according to the younger Tilyou, were booths with imitation china dishes, objects to throw at them, and a sign: "If you can't break up your own home, break up ours!" Thus encouraged, Coney Island visitors exuberantly shed the roles of the larger world.

Factory "girls," Edward Tilyou noted, pretended they occupied loftier positions and played the parts of stenographers and private secretaries for a day; and a Brooklyn shop keeper would don her best clothes and act the part of a grande dame. More dramatically, a prim-looking "schoolma'am," accustomed to curbing the childish excesses of others, surrendered to her own at Coney Island and walked fully dressed into the sea. "It has been a hard year at school," she afterward explained, "and when I saw the big crowd here, everyone with the brakes off, the spirit of the place got the better of me." In her impulse toward childish release, she was not alone.

"Most people," Edward Tilyou shrewdly observed, "look back on childhood as the happiest period of their lives. They may be mistaken, but this is the mental attitude they like to adopt."

Steeplechase Park's various attractions catered to such desires. Instead of games of competitive skill, which demanded self-control, Steeplechase emphasized games of theatricality and of vertigo, which encouraged participants to shed self-consciousness and surrender to a spirit of reckless, exuberant play.

The popular Steeplechase race, for example, was essentially a hobbyhorse for adults, which provided a simple but giddy sense of transport as the mechanical steeds galloped along their inclined tracks. The "Wed ding Ring," a great wooden circle suspended from a center pole, applied the principle of a playground swing to a ride that accommodated up to seventy customers at once. Similarly, the human "roulette wheel," which like a gigantic toy delighted both riders and spectators, set passengers whirling and sprawling out from its center by centrifugal force.

Steeplechase encouraged visitors to see themselves as participants in a human comedy. George Tilyou proudly proclaimed his park as "Steeplechasc- the Funny Place" and adopted as its emblem the huge grinning "Funny Face." A grotesque, vaguely diabolical jester, it served as a fitting image for Steeplechase: a promise of the irrespon sible hilarity visitors hoped to experience within. Steeplechase in stalled a number of devices designed to give patrons the opportunity to play the fool. In addition to its various rides, Steeplechase provided "stunts" designed to catch people off guard. Visitors entering the park from the ocean side had to pass through the "Barrel of Fun," a huge, slowly revolving cylinder which frequently rolled patrons off their feet and brought strangers into sudden, intimate contact.

Similarly, the main lobby of Steeplechase led customers inescapably to t he "Blowhole Theater," where concealed compressed-air jets sent hats flying and skirts shooting upward. Equally important, Steeple chase attempted to satisfy the pleasure people derived from seeing others made foolish. Erstwhile victims were encouraged to sit in the "Laughing Gallery" and act as spectators for those who followed. In this way, a major attraction of Steeplechase was simply the sanctioned opportunity to witness the wholesale violation of dominant social proprieties. Momentary disorientation, intimate exposure, physical contact with strangers, pratfalls, public humiliation-conditions that in other circumstances might have been excruciating-became richly entertaining. The laughter of participants and spectators testified to their sense of release.

Just as Tilyou borrowed from the Chicago Midway with his Ferris Wheel, so he continued to draw upon other fairs for new attractions. In I90I he visited the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and was captivated by the dramatic cyclorama, "A Trip to the Moon." Here visitors entered a spaceship in the middle of a large building for an imaginary ride to the moon. Peering out of portholes, they beheld a series of shifting images that gave the illusion of a flight into space, a sense reinforced by the rocking of the ship itself. After supposedly landing on the moon, passengers left the spaceship to explore its caverns and grottoes, where they met giants and midgets in moon-men costumes, the Man in the Moon upon his throne, and dancing moon maidens, who pressed bits of green cheese upon them as souvenirs of the lunar voyage. The "Trip to the Moon" was thus an especially elaborate ride promoting a sense of fantasy and escape. Tilyou brought both the cyclorama and its creators, Frederic Thompson and Skip Dundy, back to Steeplechase, where their amusements continued to astound the crowds.