Officials Announce Significant Improvements to “America’s Playground”
By Andy Katz
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Gorgeous spring weather served as the backdrop for Luna Park’s official grand opening on April 9. By the time FDNY Lt. Bob Poncel was ready to lead the department’s honor guard in presenting the colors before a small podium set by the entrance to Luna Park and Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park, the Coney Island boardwalk was already filled with beachgoers; blankets and towels dotted the beach and a few intrepid swimmers made their way past the low-breaking waves.
After Firefighter Regina Wilson sang the “Star Spangled Banner,” Assistant Pastor Mary of the Salt & Sea Mission performed the traditional opening-day Blessing of the Rides.
“This tradition started 32 years ago between Pastor Debbie Santiago and my father in order to get kids to go to church on Sunday,” Dennis Vourderis, co-owner of Deno’s Wonder Wheel, explained. “We would reward them with free rides if they went to church.”
With help from NYC Councilmember Mark Treyger, NYC Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver wielded oversized scissors to cut the ribbon in front of Luna Park. Crowds surged into the narrow walkways between the rides, some of which hadn’t yet opened. A long line had already gathered before the entry gate to Deno’s Wonder Wheel, the first 100 of whom would ride for free. Some, like the Sherman family of Coney Island, had already been waiting several hours for the inaugural ride.
“We were just passing by,” mother Paulette Sherman explained. “When we saw it was opening day, we decided to join in.”
Although it was left to the general public to fill Deno’s Wonder Wheel for the first time in ’17, the Cyclone’s first ride was reserved for public officials. Luna Park owner Alberto Zamperla joined Community Board 13 District Manager Eddie Mark in the lead car before Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams pulled the lever, sending them along the 90-year-old track.
“Coney Island is America’s playground,” Zamperla told onlookers before taking that first ride.
“When you come here,” Silver added, “you can feel like a kid again.”
Silver went on to announce Monday night “Flics on the Beach,” karaoke talent shows, Friday fireworks and barrel painting contests to come this season.
“[Coney Island] is also an economic powerhouse,” said Economic Development Corp. President James Patchett. “Right now, Coney Island is the biggest it’s been since the 1960s … That’s why we’re investing $100 million to fix up the streets, repair the sewers and make the roads better.”
“Some people need a groundhog to tell when spring arrives,” Treyger said. “But here in Southern Brooklyn, when you hear the roar of the Cyclone, spring has arrived!”
With the Cyclone properly christened for 2017, it was time to follow Major League Eating founder and Nathan’s Famous front man George Shea back to the corner of Stillwell and Surf for the official first hotdog of the 2017 season.
But not before a man wielding a big round tray of hot dogs in buns covered with gossamer threads of American cheese intervened.
“Nathan Handwerker stole the secret hot dog recipe from Charles Feltman, including the secret spice blend,” Michael Quinn, Feltman’s owner, claimed while offering samples from his platter. Often credited with inventing the hotdog in Coney Island a few years after the Civil War, Feltman’s of Coney Island continued to exist as a premium hot dog brand even after Nathan’s Famous took over the street-level trade and became synonymous with Coney Island.
After successfully selling Feltman’s hot dogs in Manhattan, Quinn now plans to open a Feltman’s of Coney Island on 10th Street and Surf Avenue, just two blocks away from Nathan’s Famous. Opening day is Memorial Day 2017.
If the return of the hot dog’s inventor to what is essentially wiener ground zero troubled George Shea, he didn’t show it. He quickly recruited 7-year-old Coney Island twins Arva and Arvan White to take on the season’s first Nathan’s Famous. Buoyed by Shea’s trademark joie d’vivre, the twins made short work of their hot dogs.
And another season of surf, sand, happy screams, greasy food and hustling carnies was underway.