The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements

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Overview

A generation before Walt Disney, Fred Thompson was the "boy wonder" of American popular amusements. At the turn of the 20th century, Thompson's entrepreneurial drive made him into an entertainment mogul who helped to define the popular culture of his day. In this lively biography, Woody Register tells Thompson's remarkable story and examines the transformation of commerce and entertainment as American society moved into an era of mass marketing and largescale corporate enterprise. Getting his start as a promoter of carnival shows at world's fairs, Thompson was one of the principal developers of Coney Island, where he created the majestic Luna Park. Register traces Thompson's career as he built the mammoth Hippodrome Theater in Manhattan, where he mounted many productions noted for their spectacular -- and spectacularly costly -- staging effects. Register shows how Thompson's fantasies appealed to the growing legions of Americans who found themselves in a world that seemed increasingly "businesslike" and profit-oriented. He illustrates how Thompson aggressively marketed to adult consumers a world of make-believe and childlike play, carefully crafting his own public image as "the boy who never grew up." Colorful, witty, and insightful, The Kid of Coney Island brings to life a kaleidoscopic era in New York history as well as one of its most striking characters.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the late 19th century, when men were supposed to be men at home, at work and in war, visionary entrepreneur Fred Thompson struck gold with the proposition, let 'em be kids. Amid shifting conceptions of gender, race, class and work, Thompson labeled a Peter Pan for his business efforts and his demeanor created elaborate playgrounds for adults, most spectacularly (and lucratively) Luna Park, an electrified extravaganza built in 1903 at Coney Island. This wonderfully written, entertaining and unusually perceptive look at a forefather of 20th-century American leisure culture makes delightful reading out of serious scholarship. Born into a middle-class family in Ohio in 1873, Thompson aspired to become an architect but soon, enticed by the possibilities of large-scale fairs and theatricals, became an "exposition fiend." He designed a striking "Moorish" building to highlight the achievements of African-Americans, a giant mechanical seesaw in answer to Mr. Ferris's wheel and a "trip to the moon" cyclorama for various turn-of-the-century expositions. From his famed Hippodrome Theater in Times Square, such extravagant productions as Brewster's Millions and Polly of the Circus went on the road. Register, professor of American studies at Sewanee, draws upon the groundbreaking pop culture studies of Kathy Peiss, William Leach and Jackson Lears as well as on his own research. Ranging from the theoretical (the construction of white masculinity in popular literature and entertainments) to wonderful specifics (e.g., the alleged threat of teddy bears "to all instincts of motherhood" in young girls), Register makes an important contribution to the literature of popular culture, consumerism and gender.(Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Register (American studies, Univ. of the South at Sewanee) creates a vivid and captivating biography of amusement tycoon Frederic Thompson, "the enterprising dreamer," thereby examining the charm and role of Peter Panism in attracting adults to make-believe toylands. Characterized as illusionary, innovative, restless, and impatient, Thompson is also portrayed as fixed on prospering from a life of play. Inspired by "A Trip to the Moon," his celebrated and profitable fantasy passage across time and space at the 1901 Pan American Exposition, Thompson followed his dream and invested heavily to create Coney Island's Luna Park and Dreamland, Manhattan's Hippodrome, and a succession of Broadway melodramas. Unfortunately, his vision of an amusement empire outlived his financial acumen, chiefly collecting dimes from middle-aged boy-men, and he watched helplessly, deluded by his boyishness, while his kingdom crumbled. Beautifully and artfully written, this book revives Thompson's extraordinary career "profiting from his audience's willingness to pay to be children," and presents a powerful discourse on the grown-up child and the commercial culture of Peter Pan. This rich account of vintage America is recommended for all libraries. John E. Hodgkins, Yarmouth, ME Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After Barnum and before Spielberg, there was Fred Thompson, the perfect prototype of a 20th-century showman. Now largely forgotten, Thompson (1873-1919) was not just an inventive entrepreneur of carefree amusement but no less than one of the makers of modern society, according to cultural historian Register (American Studies/Sewanee). The professor extracts much significance from the brief career of the promoter who devised extravagant Midway entertainments for expositions at the turn of the 20th century and developed the amusement park as we know it today. Thompson altered Coney Island much the way Disney changed 42nd Street when he built the fabled Luna Park in 1903, creating family entertainment where tawdry pleasures had ruled. He erected the gigantic Hippodrome in midtown Manhattan and filled it for a single giddy year (1905-06) with spectacle upon spectacle. A dedicated shop, the Industrial Light and Magic of its day, produced the Hippodrome's lavish effects. When it became necessary to recruit backers, Thompson called on money men like the celebrated "Bet-a-Million" Gates. But all the kitsch, bunkum, and ballyhoo couldn't support the constant need for cash, and eventually the music stopped. The Hippodrome, always losing money, finally succumbed under other management. Others took over Luna Park as well, though it survived in altered form until three fires killed it in the 1940s. But hardly more than a decade after Luna Park closed, Disneyland opened. Register spills much ink on sonorous pronouncements about the meaning of it all, citing, in particular, the impact of androgynous Peter Pan. There are many overdrawn digressions regarding architecture, toys, retailing, movies, spacetravel, sex, gender studies, and the zeitgeist in general. It's an aggressively educational text, loading large social implications about the evolution of the amusement industry onto the sketchy story of one its important practitioners. It's a backstage tour of the fair, but enter for the academic air. If it's simple carny fun you seek, look for the egress.
From the Publisher

"This wonderfully written, entertaining and unusually perceptive look at a forefather of 20th-century American leisure culture makes delightful reading out of serious scholarship.... Ranging from the theoretical (the construction of white masculinity in popular literature and entertainments) to wonderful specifics (e.g. the alleged threat of teddy bears 'to all instincts of motherhood' in young girls), Register makes an important contribution to the literature of popular culture, consumerism and gender."--Publishers Weekly

"Register creates a vivid and captivating biography of amusement tycoon Frederic Thompson. Beautifully and artfully written, this book revives Thompson's extraordinary career and presents a powerful discourse on the grown-up child and the commercial culture of Peter Pan." --Library Journal

"A thorough and well-illustrated biography of the man who created the most amusing amusements in America."--New York

"Delightful, informative, conceptually innovative, exquisitely written, and intellectually exciting. Register has done a masterful job, producing one of the best books on consumer culture in America."--David Nasaw, author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst and Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements

"Woody Register eloquently uses Fred Thompson's meteoric career to show how 'the commercial culture of Peter Pan' made play and pleasure legitimate elements of 20th century masculinity.... Fun was also a big business, and Register also explicates the careful planning, marketing strategy, and substantial capital investment in Thompson's enterprises that emerged from the same management methods and modern technology as America's industrial behemoths. Register's study is a fine contribution to the exciting new literature on business and culture, and should be read by students in American History, American studies, business history, and cultural studies."--Dr. Roger Horowitz, Associate Director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195167320
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 7/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 9.10 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Woody Register is Professor of American Studies at Sewanee, The University of the South. He lives in Sewanee, Tennessee.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
1 Uncle Sam's a Boy at Play 3
2 The Moon for a Plaything: Fred Thompson's Apprenticeship in Play, 1873-1901 23
3 Life Is Only a Merry-Go-Round: Luna Park, 1903-13 85
4 New York's Gigantic Toy: The Hippodrome, 1902-6 145
5 Millionaires and Monsters: Melodramas of Consumption, 1906-12 193
6 We're Playing Games: The Toylands of Peter Pan Culture, 1912-30 249
7 A Kindergarten Preacher in Toys 299
Notes 323
Index 389
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