By Raanan Geberer
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Brooklyn Daily Eagle real estate editor Lore Croghan’s recent article about the long-vacant Shore Theater in Coney Island and its uncertain future put the spotlight on its late owner – Horace Bullard, a tragic, controversial figure who was one of the first to re-envision Coney’s renaissance in the 1970s and ‘80s.
As Croghan pointed out, before Bullard died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2013, he kept trying to market the landmarked former theater. He may have been close to a deal at one point, but after his death, his daughter, Jasmine Bullard, pulled it off the market – despite the pleas of brokers who, as one of them told the Eagle, “have clients who are ready, willing and able to write a check for the Shore today.”
Bullard, originally from Harlem, made his money when he established his Kansas Fried Chicken chain in the late 1960s. A largely intact, although closed, Kansas Fried Chicken outlet still exists on the ground floor of the Shore.
During the late ‘70s and ‘80s, he started buying up property in then-depressed Coney Island, including the Shore, the old Playland Arcade and his most famous property, the original Thunderbolt roller-coaster, which was featured in Woody Allen’s 1977 movie “Annie Hall.” (Yes, someone really did live in the wooden house under the coaster—a caretaker).
After obtaining financing, Bullard secured a lease from the city for the former Steeplechase Amusement Park site. As a 1989 Los Angeles Times article pointed out, he hired a management consultant, Management Resources, and a California-based designer, Battaglia Associates, then designed a grand plan for a new amusement park. There were some who urged him to start small – for example, to put the Thunderbolt back into operation – but he insisted on his vision. At the time, he had the support of the Koch administration and much of the public.
Costs kept escalating, and Bullard had run-ins with some local politicians over his plan to take over the city-owned Dreier-Offerman Park (now Calvert Vaux Park) for parking. But what did him in was the recession of the early 1990s. In 1991, according to Charles Denson’s “Coney Island Lost and Found,” his financer, Security Pacific Bank, closed its amusement-park division and pulled its financing from the plan.
In 1994, Mayor Rudy Giuliani canceled the city’s approval for the project. In 2000 came the ultimate insult – the Giuliani administration, in a move later declared illegal by a federal court, issued an emergency declaration to demolish the rusting Thunderbolt, then tore it down without warning.
Bullard, in an interview with this writer shortly afterward, insisted that the Thunderbolt was still structurally sound. He said that the fact that the city had to call in ironworkers, not a regular demolition crew, to tear it down proved this. At the time, the Brooklyn Cyclones’ KeySpan Park (now MCU Park), was being constructed and, according to the New York Times, Jeff Wilpon, the Cyclones’ executive vice president, had mentioned to Mayor Giuliani that the Thunderbolt “was an eyesore that looked dangerous.”
During Bullard’s last few years, some former supporters, not knowing of his illness, became critical of him, saying he hadn’t done enough to maintain his remaining properties. In my opinion, he could at least have maintained the Kansas Fried Chicken within the Shore Theater as an active restaurant – it would have made the streetscape less desolate.
Still, Bullard dared to dream big dreams about Coney Island during an era when the amusement mecca was often dismissed as a rundown area full of drugs and crime (see the 1979 movie “Boardwalk”). In the end, Zamperla and Central Amusement International, operators of the new Luna Park and the Scream Zone, succeeded where Bullard didn’t because they were more experienced, better connected and better financed. Bullard’s contributions in focusing positive attention on the amusement area must be recognized, however.
Today, next to the site of the original Thunderbolt, is an ultra-modern new coaster that is also called the Thunderbolt, built by Zamperla at a cost of $10 million. It is the best tribute to the legacy of Horace Bullard.