While greedy developers look to buy up Coney Island's amusement district, Billy, an old timer who's been running the B&B Carousell for over 30 summers, finds that there is an even greater danger out there.
"Sodom by the Sea" is the story of Billy Giuscardo, Coney Island, and a pair of dangerous sirens.
Billy, 63, has been riding the famous B&B Carousell (the very last of what was once 25 wooden carousels) since the 1950s, when the Dodgers where still in Brooklyn. He's owned it since the 1970s, when Coney Island was still home to three separate wooden roller coasters. He has stayed true to Coney long after most others abandoned it.
This summer, after all the many down years, Billy, now faces his biggest challenge of them all, sirens!
"63 years old, and still a sucker. " (Billy, to himself upon meeting the sirens.)
TRAILER: Edited by Daniel Turkewitz.
Set to "Coconut" by Cholo.
Director's Statement: "If Paris is France; Coney Island, between June and September, is the world." George C. Tilyou (1867-1913)
"It is blatant. It is cheap. It is the hypiosis of the ridiculous. But it is more. It is like Niagara Falls, or the Grand Canyon, or Yellow Stone Park. It is a national playground and not to have seen it is not to have seen your own country." George A. Plimpton (1927-2003)
"Sodom by the Sea" is how the New York Times described Coney Island in 1893. Years before that, the Times dubbed it as a home to pickpockets, prostitutes and swindlers. But it was also home to the world's first roller coaster, the world's largest Ferris Wheel, the world's first hot dog, the world's largest collection of trained elephants, the world's most crowded beach and America's tallest sky-scrappers. At night, over a million lights transformed the amusement empire into an electric Eden. This while most of the world was still being lit by candles.
Coney Island truly represented the good, the bad, the ugly and with any array of burlesque shows, the sexy too.
German pediatrician, Martin A. Couney, brought his mocked invention to Coney in 1904. That summer, right next door to the death defying rides, war reenactments, carney freaks, juggling midgets, indigenous pavilions and adult theaters, Coney became home to the world's first infant incubators. From 1904 until the 1950s, 8,000 premature babies came to Coney Island and inside their incubators, were put on exhibit for the paying public. Over 7,000 survived.
A year before this new baby saving machine arrived to Coney's shores however, Coney became the site of a public electrocution. That of, Topsy the Elephant. Thomas Edison himself, filmed the grisly event. Today this savage execution can be seen in Ric Burns'incredibly moving 1991 documentary, "Coney Island" aired originally on PBS, as part of their "American Experience" series.
Much has happened to Coney Island since Ric Burns' beautiful ode to America's first playground. The doom and gloom of the early 1990s has given way to a rebirth. Once a pathetically depressing, empty shell of its former self, today Coney (through refurbished infrastructure, beach, and boardwalk; a new minor league baseball park; a few new rides as well) now sees over 10 million visitors a year. Perhaps the single greatest revival of Coney can be seen at the annual Mermaid Day Parade. The parade's roots go back to 1903, the heart of Coney's Golden Years and lasted until 1954. when it was lost to disinterest.
In 1983, Dick Zigun, founder of "Coney Island USA" started a second run of parades. While these went mostly unnoticed well into the 1990s, this Mardi Gras by the Sea, has since grown to be one of the largest and certainly most festive parades in New York.
Unfortunately, as new forms of amusement, bigger and safer, (Griswold) family oriented theme parks, spikes in violent crime, white flight into the suburbs, television, general apathy, and widespread neglect from city government put an end to Coney's glory years, success has threatened to halt its brief renaissance. New visitors and the spending dollars they've recently brought to an area surrounded by public housing and blighted since the 1950s, has opened the eyes of developers. Beginning in 2005, developers, lead by Joe Sitt of Thor Equities, have bought up most of the amusement area.
Promising to bring back world class rides to Coney Island, Sitt easily gained support from city officials. Instead, Sitt used this support in an attempt to change zoning laws. Rezoning needed, not to create a new world class amusement area, but instead, needed to create an exclusive colony of luxury, high rise, oceanfront condos. So far the city, desperate for extra tax dollars in a cash strapped economy, has been quick to capitulate. Public hearings are already underway to go through with Sitt's plans. Plans which would preserve only 9 acres (out of a possible 61) for amusements while also bringing over 20 high rise condos to Coney's crowded shores.
"Sodom by the Sea" is a short which captures Coney Island as it is today. Still good. Still bad. Still ugly. Still sexy, too. But also, at a crossroads. At a time when its 140 years of amusement history is being threatened. Ironically, threatened by the same type of bait and switch tricksters, who in the name of a fast buck, helped create it to begin with.
The story is based on best selling author Neal Pollack's "Scavenger Hunt" which was published as part of the "Brooklyn Noir" collection of short stories (2004, Akashic Books).*