Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Coney Island's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The very first attraction ostensibly based on Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was not found in the quarters of Walt Disney's theme park, but in the hallowed streets of Coney Island. One of the 1903 headline rides for Luna Park was this unique and astonishingly extensive cyclorama submarine voyage to the North Pole.

Walking down the main thoroughfare, revellers were herded into 20,000 Leagues by a barker clad in Eskimo furs. Like later attractions, visitors descended into the bowels of the submersible craft where, outside the portholes, a bizarrely familiar array of wonders revealled themselves. Amongst the scenes cycling by in this trip from the Indian to the Arctic Ocean were fish, coral reefs, sunken ships, whisps of seaweed, tentacled octopi, and even a mermaid.

How was this possible? A cyclorama, or panorama, was a popular merging of public entertainment and the arts in the late 19th century. These were cylindrical paintings that were meant to imitate a full panoramic field of vision. Sometimes, in order to heighten the effect, foreground items were added that turned the cyclorama into a full diorama in the round. BibliOdyssey has examples of the handbills that went along with these precurssors to the movies. The exact manner in which this was translated into 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a mystery, because it wasn't a matter of simply entering a submarine-shaped cyclorama.

After this panorama of ocean life, the submarine surfaced in the frigid wastes of the Arctic... This is, into a refrigerated warehouse where real icebergs floated about the expansive pool, providing rest of a menagerie of living polar bears and seals. It was also home to a tribe of Inuit, complete with igloos and dogsleds. An Aurora Borealis effect was projected on the sky-like ceiling.

The cost this magnificent attraction in 1903 was $180,000 (or about $4.1 million in today's dollar). Rides were 25 cents apiece. Unfortunately, it was replaced a mere two years later by the Dragon's Gorge. Even if it had remained, it would likely have been destroyed by the 1944 fire that consumed the Dragon's Gorge and shuttered Luna Park forever.

1 comment:

Paula said...

Some how I wanted to contact you, but there is no way I can email you on your blog, so I wanted to let yourself and your readers check out 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne) toy theatre that I had specially made for myself. It is going to become an altered art piece, but this is what it currently looks like. Thought you may find it a treat for yourself.