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An Autobiography: Chapter 18, Coney Island

As a kid, when I visited Visalia, I spent most of my time at Aunt Lulu (my dad’s sister) and Uncle Frank’s. They had three daughters, and I was very close to them, particularly Gloria (or Jo as she was known), who was a year older than me. We used to take walks in the evening, holding hands. We talked about getting married, but Jo said that couldn’t be, we were cousins. I told her that President Roosevelt married his cousin; I didn’t say they were fifth cousins! I think I learned that from a movie newsreel.

Couple in Buggy 

Uncle Frank and Aunt Lulu at the Blue House. 

Aunt Lulu and the girls went to the Methodist Church, and one time a church group took a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo and invited me to go along. That was my first visit to a zoo, and I thought it was the grandest place I had ever seen. The highlight of that trip was seeing Susie, the most famous gorilla in the world.

Susie was captured when she was 6 months old off the west coast of South Africa and taken to the Riviera in France, until the famous Graf Zeppelin airship made its first trip to America, on which she was a passenger. Susie occupied Cabin One, landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, August 4, 1929. She became a huge drawing card for the Cincinnati Zoo. Several times a day, Susie, with her trainer, Bill Dressman, entertained the spectators. Mr. Dressman talked to her like she was a person, and until her death she was regarded as the world’s only trained gorilla.


Susie the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. 

Grandpa Marcus did odd jobs for many people in Visalia, and Uncle Frank gave him jobs, whether they were needed or not, to help with living expenses. I learned that Grandpa had developed a black tar roofing paint for metal roofs, barns, etc., and everyone swore that his paint was better than anything on the market. He ordered 50 gallon drums of oil, basis for the paint, and they came by rail to Visalia. The train would just drop off the barrel by the tracks, and there it stayed until Grandpa picked it up.

Well, years later, I got the idea that his paint should be produced by a corporation like Sears and Roebuck, and I talked to Grandpa about it. He didn’t quite understand what I was thinking, but he gave me his blessing to contact Sears and see if they would accept a sample for testing. I called it “Marcus Roof Paint,” made up a label and put it on a 5-gallon can. I contacted Sears in Chicago, and they sent back a letter, saying, “Send the paint and we will test it.”

Of course, this took a few months as they painted test panels that were exposed to the elements for a period of time. The final letter from Sears said, “Sorry, we don’t find your paint superior to our own brand.”

In the 1930s, the biggest event that the schoolchildren in northern Kentucky looked forward to each year was “School Day at Coney Island.” Coney Island was then one of the grandest amusement parks in America.

Island Queen Boat   

The roots of Coney Island date back to 1867 when James Parker, an apple farmer, purchased a 400-tree, 20-acre apple orchard on the shores of the Ohio River, about 10 miles east of downtown. Starting out as a picnic area, by 1887 it became a park and was called Coney Island.

In 1925, a grand new “Island Queen” replaced the beloved riverboat that had burnt three years earlier. The new steamer, also called “Island Queen,” was a masterpiece, measuring 300 feet long and 80 feet wide, and featuring five decks with a ballroom, a bar, a cafeteria, souvenir stands and refreshment counters. It could accommodate 4,000 passengers per trip. The boat quickly became the preferred method of traveling to Coney Island and was also the beloved trademark of the park, plying the Ohio River with its calliope music drifting over the waters and into the hills of Ohio and Kentucky.

Coney Island Park 

The Island Queen 

However, following the park's closing in 1947, the Island Queen made its way up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh for off-season maintenance. On September 9th, a welder's torch ignited an oil bunker, and the stately ship disappeared in a huge fireball, killing 19 people. Coney Island debated whether to rebuild the boat, but the $4 million cost, combined with the increasing popularity of the automobile, prompted the park to emphasize a bus program. Coney Island's steamship era and the park's most beloved symbol were gone forever. It is interesting that at one time, part of the owners, the Wachs family, were distantly related to Georgianna, whose maiden name was Wachs.

The “Northern Kentucky School Day” was the only time of year that the Island Queen docked on the Covington side. Strips of ride tickets were sold in the schools, and I believe a strip had 10 tickets and cost 85 cents.

That day was truly a magical trip to a world completely removed from the day-to-day activities of most of the children who anxiously awaited the boat, with its calliope playing, coming toward them from the Ohio side. What a thrill that was! The rides at Coney Island included the Shooting Star, Mirror Maze, Rocket Ships, Tumble Bug, Dodgem, Laff-in-the-Dark, Whip, Wildcat (with its 90-foot drop), Lost River, Flying Scooters, Ferris Wheel, Cuddle Up, Caterpillar, Boats and Canoes, and eight kiddie rides in the Land of Oz. The Laff-in-the-Dark was the favorite of the young couples because there was ample time to smooch as the boat slowly plied through the waters. You could hear the laughter, the chuckles, and the words, “stop that!” You can just imagine.

Much of the joy and fun, though, was actually outside the ride. There was always a crowd, particularly the boys, waiting for the Laff-in-the-Dark occupants to exit, in plain view of everyone, because they came out on a second-floor level where they had to walk over a hole in the floor that shot a strong gush of forced air up on the walkers. The man operating that air hose, hidden from view, watched for the girls with a full skirt!

Marilyn Monroe is known for the iconic image with her skirt blowing from the street in the film, The Seven Year Itch. But she didn’t have anything on Georgianna. In later years, when we went to Coney Island, often with Earl and Sue, Georgianna loved to pause for a moment over the air and give the boys a thrill. That’s my girl.

Marilyn Monroe 

Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven Year Itch.” 

 Don’t Miss Next Chapter: Edwin Byron, Artist