"It wasn't as bad as the movie makes it seem"
April 17, 2009 8:48 AM   Subscribe

"We used to find teeth in the yard. We used to find wigs, glasses, guns. Everything we found in the yard…nobody came back for them, though." May Timpano describes her life in the house under the rollercoaster where she and her boyfriend, rollercoaster operator Fred Moran, lived for 36 years in the former Kensington Hotel which had the Thunderbolt rollercoaster built around it in 1925. The house -- the model for Alvy Singer's childhood home in Annie Hall -- burned in 1991 and the roller coaster was razed in 2000.
posted by jessamyn (15 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if they have my glasses.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:01 AM on April 17, 2009 [3 favorites]

A sporadic raining of little kid puke could sure ruin a backyard bbq.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:10 AM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

wow. awesome post.
posted by fuzzypantalones at 9:14 AM on April 17, 2009

Fucking Giuliani.

Actually, I don't remember the exact details, other than a general sort of "Giuliani doesn't like it, so it's gone, regardless of what is right, what is fair, and what is good for the city" that was all too common then, but I remember saying that when they tore the Thunderbolt down.

Are we far enough from his one good day that we can say it again? Fucking Giuliani.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:26 AM on April 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Are we far enough from his one good day that we can say it again? Fucking Giuliani

He only had his one good day because fascists and autocrats thrive in times of crisis, so, yes.
posted by dersins at 9:29 AM on April 17, 2009

I heard that Giuliani lost his teeth on the Thunderbolt and always held a grudge.
posted by orme at 9:36 AM on April 17, 2009

Oh God, when I first started reading this, I thought they were describing a serial killer's back yard. Better now.
posted by maudlin at 9:37 AM on April 17, 2009 [5 favorites]

Alvy's house is real? OMG.
posted by caddis at 10:10 AM on April 17, 2009

The Thunderbolt was destroyed simply because Giuliani wanted his ballpark nearby. Not on the land, mind you, but nearby. The Thunderbolt was on privately-owned land and Keyspan Park (now home to the Brooklyn Cyclones minor-league baseball team) was constructed on another plot, but the charred corpse of the Thunderbolt would've been in plain view over left-center field. Obviously this would not do. Rudy wanted his pet project, his legacy, to be perfect.

So one nice November day, even as plans were afoot to grant the structure landmark status, Rudy simply sent in the bulldozers. To demolish a privately-owned structure on privately-owned land. (Fuckin' Giuliani.)

The ballpark didn't turn out so bad, however. I rather like the Brooklyn Cyclones, and the Friday night fireworks tradition looks absolutely beautiful when viewed from the park (they schedule Friday home games around the fireworks, even.) There's even a little stylized roller coaster atop the scoreboard. But it would've been nicer with a real, working roller coaster right behind.

The sad thing was that the Thunderbolt's owner, Horace Bullard, had been approached many times over the years with offers to restore the coaster or move it or rebuild it. But Bullard held firmly onto that land and refused to negotiate. If pressed for a selling price, he'd throw out a preposterous quote to discourage the curious.

From what I've been told, Bullard refused to sell not because he was against renovation or a new park. He just wanted to do it himself. Steeplechase Park, one of the three big amusement parks in Coney Island history, was located along that stretch where Keyspan Park stands today. Now I'm not quite sure how far along Bullard really was with his plans, but I'm willing to bet that it was a "Someday I'll be able to do this" kind of plan. One that's rooted mostly in imagination without much practical application behind it "yet." One you'll work on when you get around to it. Unfortunately Bullard's stubborn policy on standing firm cost him his land and his coaster in the end. (Sticking to your dream can be admirable, but sometimes you have to let people help, y'know?)

As far as the coaster itself went, it was designed by John A. Miller, the granddaddy of roller coaster designers. Miller invented many of the features such as upstop wheels (train wheels underneath the track to prevent the cars from flying off) and chain dogs (the ratchety-sounding device on the lift hill that prevents the train from rolling back down) that helped the roller coaster evolve into a faster, wilder ride.

The Thunderbolt's design was notable for a "double-up" hill that went up, levelled off instead of going back down, and then went up a second time. Not quite a camelback up-down-up-down series of hills, see. Usually this kind of element is travelled in the other direction: a "double-down" hill goes down, levels off, and plunges down again. The result you get (and what you want!) is big pop of negative Gs on that second drop. You can still ride two of John A. Miller's designs at Kennywood in Pittsburgh and the double down on his Jack Rabbit coaster is intense if you ride in the back seat. It's not known as an "ejector seat" ride for nothing.

Older coaster enthusiasts who remember the Thunderbolt have told me that the double-up hill really wasn't all that thrilling. It didn't generate the negative Gs that the mirror image does, but it was unusual and gave the ride character. Overall, the opinion I've gotten was the Thunderbolt ran incredibly rough as it got older. Coney Island legend even has it that back seat riders actually sat on a bale of hay during its last few years. The fact that the old guard considered the Cyclone (a rough-and-tumble ride in its own right) to be a milder ride than the Thunderbolt speaks a lot about its design. The structure was sound and I bet the ride could've been restored even after the 1991 fire.

I took pictures of the Thunderbolt in April 2000. In December, a friend in Brooklyn gave me a bolt he had recovered from the wreckage. A Thunderbolt bolt. I still have it on a shelf somewhere. When I returned in 2001 to see the ruins, there was still part of a train onsite. Now it's just a parking lot.

Coney Island has seen a lot of upheaval in its history. Every generation has a developer come round who thinks they can destroy the tacky and gaudy (yet charming and compelling) area in order to bring in their own vision of what that waterfront property should hold. Robert Moses put a housing project on top of Luna Park. Fred Trump tried to demolish the Parachute Jump tower for condos. Rudy Giuliani tore down a coaster and put up a ballpark. And now Thor Equities has purchased a lot of vacant land, closed the venerable Astroland and has found itself in a battle with the city over amusement zoning and "entertainment retail" (that's big box stores with an IMAX theater inside... or a Chuck E Cheese... or something.)

Coney's been threatened and re-threatened and hit a lot. It loses something with every hit. But somehow it's managed to keep hold of its spirit, thanks in no small part to locals and the business owners who don't want to see their way of life turned into another Disneyfied Times Square deal. I still have hope.
posted by Spatch at 10:50 AM on April 17, 2009 [36 favorites]

You can go with the crazy people in the crooked house
You can fly away on the rocket or spin in the mouse
The tunnel of love might amuse you
And Noah's Ark might confuse you but
Let me take my chances on the Wall of Death

However since a snorkeling incident many years ago the spinning rides get me nauseous. I prefer roller coasters.
posted by Gungho at 10:51 AM on April 17, 2009

Somewhere, Neil Gaiman is kicking himself for failing to hear of this and include it in American Gods.
posted by mannequito at 3:47 PM on April 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Spatch, I've lived in Queens and Brooklyn my entire life -- grew up in Coney Island! -- and never knew. Thank you for posting that explanation and photos. I always wondered what had happened to the Thunderbolt.
posted by zarq at 4:11 PM on April 17, 2009

My favorite kind of story - I can hear her talking 'though I refuse to install Real Audio.
Too bad about the tear down -- but that makes it all the more real. (I guess I'd be a little more emotional if they had torn down The ThunderBolt at Kennywood). Thanks!
posted by nnk at 6:45 PM on April 17, 2009

Spatch! I had no idea the guy who designed the Thunderbolt designed the Kennywood Jack Rabbit!

As a 6th grader, I decided that my last ride of the day with my friend from school would be on the Jack Rabbit at our annual middle school outing. (This would have been '78.) It was already dark with all of those old school tiny lights outlining all of the rides in the park. Giggling, we piled into one of the last cars on the coaster and snapped the hook on the thin leather strap that was designed to run across the tops of your thighs. We were tall and lanky girls. Toothpicks with cut-off jean shorts and Farrah Fawcett haircuts. You could have fit five more girls like us into that roller coaster car, there was so much room between the safety strap and our laps.

The Jack Rabbit rattled out and I remember the world-dropping-out-from-under-me thrill of starting off on that coaster in the dark. We were all screaming from the excitement, I threw my hands up at the top of the crest, and then we took that first drop. I can remember flying up, sliding up from under that leather strap, being airborne and thinking, "Wait, this isn't what is supposed to be happening." My girlfriend grabbed a fistful of the back of my shirt and my hair as she clung to...something. I have no idea what she was hanging on to or how she managed to hold on to me. I instinctively threw my feet out to either side, trying to brace myself in by pushing my legs against either side of the car and clawing around for something to latch onto in the dark. The next few minutes of the ride, I was trying to hard just to stay in the damn car to enjoy any of it. It was petrifying. I survived. It was wonderful.
posted by jeanmari at 7:12 PM on April 17, 2009 [5 favorites]

Ah, yes. Here she is...the Jack Rabbit. I remember a leather strap, not a lap bar. But no matter. That roller coaster is a HELL of a ride.
posted by jeanmari at 7:16 PM on April 17, 2009

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