Museum exhibit brings Coney Island to San Diego!

Grinning face of Tillie, symbol of Coney Island, on the back of a tour bus heading toward the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.
Grinning face of Tillie, symbol of Coney Island, on the back of a tour bus heading toward the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park.

An extraordinary exhibit recently opened at the San Diego Museum of Art. It’s called Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008. Last Saturday, I enjoyed a very special tour, courtesy of my docent friend Catherine!

The exhibit features a collection of more than a hundred objects that depict 150 years of Coney Island’s amusement parks, boardwalk, beach and people. It includes paintings, photographs, videos, carnival posters, sideshow banners, carved wooden carousel horses, and a wide range of colorful, unique artifacts.

From its early days as a peaceful beach getaway for wealthy New Yorkers, to the rise and fall of amusement parks, years of decay, political wrangling, then modern renewal, Coney Island has been interpreted by artists through the years in a variety of surprising ways. Some artists portray an innocent playland for common people. Others, something more complex, and less innocent.

Most of the exhibit’s artwork centers on Coney Island’s legendary amusement parks. Many images resemble exuberant scenes from a carnival or circus. They’re full of energy, laughter, humanity, wonder–but often base, superficial, disturbing, despairing. Many painting are dark, almost gaudy with a crowded press of people seeking pleasure. A symbol adopted by Coney Island–the unnatural, exaggerated grin of Tillie–seems to be a taunting reminder that the purchased thrills are artificial. The grin is strangely maniacal and mindless, one part Joker, one part Cheshire Cat.

Fantastic imagery abounds in the exhibit, which is sure to delight many kids. They’ll see huge cyclops heads, videos of romping midgets, a banner promising a sideshow freak with inhuman tentacles. The adults will see images of lust, insatiability, scattered litter, dripping blood.

I suppose we humans like to be both excited and terrified.

One Impressionist painting by the important American artist William Merritt Chase shows a landscape of sunlight and natural, unspoiled beauty; the egg tempera painted canvases of Reginald Marsh are dark, crammed with unabated appetite, bold kinetic energy and human expression; photographs by Arthur Fellig (Weegee) show people crowded onto the beach like fleshy, happy sardines.

Personally, as I took my amazing tour, I saw life’s wonderful jumble and a sample of our world’s endless variety. All the emotions, the complexity–but mostly I recognized the sunlit memories of ordinary good-natured neighbors heading to the beach and boardwalk, and some exciting, brief amusements, on a sunny weekend day.

This isn’t a typical art museum exhibit. It’s more like taking an instant journey to a place you already know. A Coney Island in your mind. And your vivid experiences in the San Diego Museum of Art will make the journey seem very real.

Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008, has come to San Diego from the Wadsworth Athenium Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut. This special exhibition continues through October 13, 2015.

Here are just a few things that you’ll see…

Reginald Marsh, Wooden Horses, 1936, Tempera on board. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Reginald Marsh, Wooden Horses, 1936, Tempera on board. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Pip and Flip, Twins from Yucatan with World Circus Side Show, Coney Island, 1929, Photographic reproduction. Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection.
Pip and Flip, Twins from Yucatan with World Circus Side Show, Coney Island, 1929, Photographic reproduction. Georgia Archives, Vanishing Georgia Collection.
Jeanie, Living Half Girl, 1940, Sideshow banner. Collection of Ken Harck.
Jeanie, Living Half Girl, 1940, Sideshow banner. Collection of Ken Harck.
Mort Künstler, Coney Island, 1953, Gouache on paper. Collection of the artist.
Mort Künstler, Coney Island, 1953, Gouache on paper. Collection of the artist.
Barnum & Bailey Circus Water Carnival poster, Coney Island.
Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, the Great Coney Island Water Carnival poster.  Thrilling and daring feats of every description!
Arnold Mesches, Anomie 1991: Winged Victory, 1991, Acrylic on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art.
Arnold Mesches, Anomie 1991: Winged Victory, 1991, Acrylic on canvas. San Diego Museum of Art.
Joseph Stella, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, 1913, Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.
Joseph Stella, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, 1913, Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery.

The San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park is simply jammed with fantastic, provocative Coney Island art. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  So go see it!

Coney Island, Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008, at the San Diego Museum of Art.
Coney Island, Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008, at the San Diego Museum of Art.

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Belmont Park’s fun Giant Dipper roller coaster!

Looking across Ventura Place at the Giant Dipper roller coaster.
Looking across Ventura Place at the Giant Dipper roller coaster.

Mission Beach is one of the most popular attractions in Southern California. One big reason: Belmont Park and the wonderful Giant Dipper roller coaster!

In my last blog post I walked south down the busy beach boardwalk to Hamel’s. Belmont Park stands just across the street. The historic amusement park was built in 1925 by wealthy sugar magnate John D. Spreckels, and was called the Mission Beach Amusement Center. The 2,600 foot Giant Dipper roller coaster, made entirely of wood, was built in less than two months. Over the ensuing years, the coaster fell into disrepair; it was then carefully restored in 1990 and became a huge success.

Entering Belmont Park beneath the wooden roller coaster.
Entering Belmont Park beneath the wooden roller coaster.
Looking up at tracks of the picturesque coaster.
Looking up at red tracks of the picturesque coaster.
Kid-friendly Belmont Park has thrilling rides and fun stuff.
Kid-friendly Belmont Park has thrilling rides and lots of fun stuff.
People wait to board the historic rollercoaster.
People wait to board the historic roller coaster.
The winding coaster tracks make for interesting photos.
The winding coaster tracks make for interesting photos.
Palm fronds, colorful track and clear blue sky.
Palm fronds, painted wood and clear blue sky.
A large indoor arcade features loads of classic games.
A large indoor arcade at Belmont Park features many classic games.
This small merry-go-round is a treat for kids of every age.
This small merry-go-round is a treat for kids of every age.
A carnival midway area has tests of skill and a food court.
A carnival midway area has tests of skill and a food court.
Riders whiz by as the cars rattle on wooden rails.
Riders whiz by as the cars rattle on wooden rails.
This yellow submarine requires no water!
This yellow submarine requires no water!
Wild and crazy Tilt-A-Whirl provides a big adrenaline rush.
Wild and crazy Tilt-A-Whirl provides a big adrenaline rush.
The Giant Dipper roller coaster swooshes by!
The Giant Dipper roller coaster swooshes by!
Peeking into the innards of a wooden roller coaster.
Peeking into the innards of a wooden roller coaster.

It’s interesting to walk around the perimeter of the Giant Dipper. You can peer beneath the rails and see the materials used to build and maintain the huge wooden construction.

The Plunge giant swimming pool is undergoing restoration.
The Plunge giant swimming pool is undergoing restoration.

Right next to Belmont Park’s amusement rides you’ll find The Plunge, originally called The Natatorium. The huge 12,000 square foot swimming pool originally contained salt water.  It was the largest such pool in the world with 400,000 gallons of water!

The Plunge has also become famous for its Orcas off Point Loma whaling wall, painted in 1989 by famous marine artist, Wyland.

Today the pool and surrounding structure are being repaired. It’s scheduled to reopen by the end of this summer.

I hoped to get pictures of Belmont Park’s relatively new FlowRider wave machine, which allows thrill-seekers continuous surfing without entering the ocean! Unfortunately, it was down for maintenance.

Photo mosaic on beach restroom shows bits of Belmont Park.
Photo mosaic on a nearby beach restroom shows bits of Belmont Park.
Playing football on the nearby sand at Mission Beach.
Playing football on the sand at Mission Beach.

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Seaport Village’s historic carousel horses.

seaport village carousel horses

One of the best things about Seaport Village is its historic carousel. I like to buy a hot dog or onion rings from the nearby food court, or an ice cream from Ben and Jerry’s, then sit down at a shady table and watch families and kids flock to the merry-go-round. It’s also pleasant to take in a bit of live music from local artists who perform near the carousel on weekends.

This fun Looff carousel was built in 1895 and features over fifty colorful animals including a dragon, a giraffe, a teddy bear, a lion, and two horse-drawn chariots. Master wood carver Charles Looff is famous for inventing the uniquely flamboyant Coney Island style of carousels. In his lifetime he produced many popular carousels, amusements parks, roller coasters and Ferris wheels. Very cool!

Horse decorates exterior of Seaport Village carousel.
Horse decorates exterior of Seaport Village carousel.
Signs details long history of this Looff carousel.
Signs details long history of this Looff carousel.
The fun merry-go-round is a big favorite of young and old alike.
The fun merry-go-round is a big favorite of young and old alike.
People enjoy a perfect day near the Seaport Village carousel.
People enjoy a perfect day near the Seaport Village carousel.

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