Shrieking thrill seekers surrendered themselves to the agony and the ecstasy like rag dolls on a bucking bronco, as Sodom-by-the-Sea’s new Thunderbolt rumbled into town as the first roller coaster to open in Coney Island since the Cyclone in 1927.
The steel serpent is a snarl of killer drops and twists, accelerating as fast as a cheetah to speeds of 65 miles per hour for two heart-pounding minutes, and the first bone rattler to flip riders upside down since Loop-the-Loop more than a century ago. Its arrival is a thumbs up for the People’s Playground, claims an enthusiast who rode the original Thunderbolt almost daily as a boy growing up in Bensonhurst during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“We used to swim at Washington Baths, and then get our hands stamped and cross over Surf Avenue to ride the Bolt and the Bobsled as a warm up to the big one — the Cyclone!” recalls 58-year-old Gerard Caione.
The new-and-improved Thunderbolt is the latest in a series of crowd-wowing improvements that include a pair of amusement parks — Luna Park and Scream Zone — and 25 thrilling rides in a bid to return the People’s Playground to its glory days of the 1890s and early 1900s when the old Luna Park, Dreamland, and Steeplechase Park offered locals who couldn’t afford a trip to the Catskill Mountains an alternative outdoor playpen.
Ride manufacturer Zamperla is expanding Coney’s long-standing tradition as an amusements’ laboratory, following in the footsteps of William Mangels, Marcus Illions, the Pinto Brothers, L.A. Thompson, and other foundries, blacksmiths, electricians, and machinists who opened their recreation factories and workshops in the neighborhood.
Coney Island continues its helluva ride: the Great Depression reduced its world-class playground into a nickel empire of cheap-thrill, five-cent attractions, and nickel hot dogs, but it reinvented itself as a space-age theme park in the early 1960s before new high-rise city housing ushered in decades of blight and crime.
Late Brooklyn Graphic columnist and haberdasher Lou Powsner — an area merchant and activist — was held up eight times, witnessed two of his retail colleagues killed in brazen hold-ups, and helped cops nab 79 perpetrators in the 44 years he ran a clothing store on Mermaid Avenue, one block north of Steeplechase Park.
He once recalled a suspect’s mother, whom he had helped to obtain city housing, approach him at a court hearing and say: “I don’t know how to apologize to you after what you did for us.”
Powsner responded, “I should be the one apologizing to you because I helped bring you into what turned out to be a penitentiary for the poor.”
Today’s Sodom-by-the-Sea’s has a brighter forecast. Add an all-wood Boardwalk and a couple of big swimming pools to the new improvements and — fuggedaboutit — Coney Island is no longer destined to be a crummy fish out of water.