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Bright Lights and Boardwalk Amusements

The Atlantic City boardwalk was one of the first casualties of Sandy. Even before the hurricane made landfall in the US, images of the storied walkway splintered and broken and floating through the streets were cropping up online.

Other points along the Jersey Shore and the southern coast of Long Island also got smacked by the powerful winds and advancing storm surge. Seaside Heights. Asbury Park. Coney Island. Huge swaths of these old resorts were battered by Sandy and sometimes simply washed away.

The most devastating outcomes of the storm were of course the loss of life and the hurricane-related human dramas that are still unfolding today. But as an unreconstructed Jersey boy I was deeply affected by those images of the boardwalk, and by later accounts of the damage along the shore as well as in New York. It was almost as if a whole way of life had been swept out to sea.


The Luna Park amusement park opened at Coney Island on May 16, 1903. The park featured 250,000 electric lights — a tremendous display, especially at the time. In a history of the park published online, Jeffrey Stanton wrote of that first evening: “The dazzled public, contemplating what Luna stood for, assumed it was for light.”

The Atlantic City boardwalk dates back to 1870; it was originally intended to help keep sand out of the hotels in the burgeoning resort town. At first no commerce was allowed within 30 feet of the promenade, providing visitors with a sense of tranquility as they walked along the beach. This changed, though, in 1883, when a longer, wider boardwalk was built and the original ordinance was tossed out. Nearly 100 stores, stands and stalls opened and Atlantic City never looked back.

Since then, through good times and bad in the city, the boardwalk has been a source of varying diversions. Among the earliest of these, appearing in the mid-1890s: A host of Victorian-era optics-based amusements.

Initially these amusements took the form of coin-operated “peephole” devices like Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope and the hand-cranked Mutoscope. Unveiled in 1894, the Kinetoscope introduced the basic concepts that underlie the modern-day movie projector: a strip of film with perforated images rolled over a light source with a high-speed shutter, producing the moving picture effect. Here, though, individual viewers would watch the films through a peephole viewer on the top of the device.


Kinetoscope parlors became very popular in the mid-1890s. Shown here is a parlor in San Francisco, circa 1895-1896.

Even as boardwalk visitors and others around the country were enjoying peephole devices, technological advances were setting the stage for a collective viewing experience more like the movie theaters of today.

In 1896 C. Francis Jenkins’ Phantoscope was installed in an entertainment parlor — the Columbia Phonograph Parlor — on the Atlantic City boardwalk (the venue also included automated phonographs and Kinetoscopes). The Phantoscope consisted of a large cabinet some 18 feet wide and 12 feet deep with 12 peep-sights along the front wall. On the other side, the cabinet was divided into three sections, each with a 6x8-ft. projection screen.

Also, unlike the Kinetoscope, which ran film through the camera shutter without stopping, producing a blurred effect, the Phantoscope used an intermittent motion mechanism that allowed the brain to register each individual image. This yielded a smooth moving image much like the motion pictures of today.


After a falling out with C. Francis Jenkins in late 1895, business partner Thomas Arnat tweaked the design of the Phantoscope and took it to Raff & Gammon, operators of Kinetoscope parlors and exhibition venues across the US. The latter rebranded it “Edison’s Vitascope” and introduced it — to great acclaim — on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City.

Interest in moving picture exhibitions exploded in 1896, particularly after a demonstration of Edison’s Vitascope in April in New York City. A Vitascope was installed in a theater at Bergen Beach in South Brooklyn. A projector called an Eidoloscope was set up in a tent at Coney island.

In late June, a Vidiscope — probably a renamed Phantoscope, said Charles Musser in his book The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, Volume 1 — also appeared at Coney Island. Musser cites an article in the Brooklyn Eagle, according to which a barker stood outside the entrance inveigling the crowd to see “the genuine and only Vidiscope, the renowned and successful invention that has captured New York City and attracts more attention than the gold and silver question in politics.”



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