Carneys, Cons, and Gangsters: Coney Island 1970-1971, by Marty Bernstein

27 Oct



Marty Bernstein worked in the New York state court system as a civil servant. He was like a round peg in a square hole—a left-wing court officer and clerk. Two years after retiring in 2007, he worked part time at a non-profit for the developmentally disabled. In 2013 he completely retired and now spends vacations in a cooperative community in upstate New York called Spring Glen Meadows, the home of burned-out sixties radicals. He has two adult children and has been married to the same woman for 38 wonderful years. Her name is Patricia Ruggiero Bernstein. He says it has been a great Jewish-Italian combination.


I worked at Coney Coney Island.Dragons CaveIsland for two years. It was a seedy place at that time. There were seasonal workers…..I think the Mob was heavily involved. The first year, 1970, I helped runConey Island.Blacula two amusement rides. I would take fares and push buttons to get the ride started. Dragon’s Cave was mainly run by “Sporty.” He was a cheap guy. He would change the outside display but keep the inside ride exactly the same. For example, he had a mannequin of Blacula and would call people to the ride, under the pretext that Blacula was inside. The ride consisted of some cheesy monsters, some of them sinister-looking clowns, who would jump out at you. It wasn’t up to code; there were exposed wires running across the ceiling.

Magic Carpet Coney Island


The Magic Carpet was the second ride. It consisted of little cars that ran on tracks past fun mirrors and ended with the car breaking down and the participants shooting down a slide. In front of the ride was a fat female mannequin, who laughed hysterically to draw people in.


The second year, in the summer of 1971, two friends and I started our own business there. It was a refreshment stand; we called it the “watermelon stand.” We paid for private sanitation for our stand. We would supply the stand from vendors, many of Coney Island.Watermelon-popsicleswhom were reputed to be part of the Mob. We’d buy watermelon from one company. The ice guy would bring cut pieces of ice with tongs. We got our candy apples from a man who had a store under the boardwalk that was described as a “little rat hole.” One day my mom was visiting our stand when the candy-apple man came by to sell me some apples. I had decided not to buy from him anymore because he was price-gouging us. When I told him this, he yelled, “If you don’t buy my fucking candy apples, I will burn down your stand!” It scared me so I kept on buying from him.

There were many other concession stands. Our stand didn’t make much money during the week, but we looked forward to weekends and especially holiday weekends, when masses of people would descend on the park. We would buy an entire watermelon for$1.50 . It would then be cut into about 20 semi-circle slices that would sell for30 cents each. Cotton candy cost us ½ cent to make but it cost the buyer $1.00; this was our biggest profit-maker. Popcorn was also profitable.

Once I had to go to the bathroom so I asked someone to take over the stand for me. When I returned I saw him giving someone the incorrect chanConey Island.wonderwheel-spookaramage. It turns out he had consistently been doing this. I gave him hell. Another time a health inspector came by and cited me for uncleanliness. I got a ticket for $35. I had heard that these inspectors accepted bribes so I held out some money. He waved it away. “You’re a nice Jewish boy,” he said. “Put your money away.”

We were excited when buses brought people in because it meant a lot of extra money. But the buses brought in mainly African-Americans, who spent tons of money on rides and games. They slept overnight on the buses, which was sad since there were beach resorts along the Eastern Seaboard that would cost them as much as they were spending at the concessions. (Coney Island, by the 1960’s no longer had overnight accommodations.)

The carneys coaxed people to come in and win a prize. They were often offensive to the unaware public. They would bark, “Imby, come on over here.” (“Imby” stood for imbecile.) The games mainly cheated the people who were playing. For example, one game
involved throwing a basketbalConey Island.Shooting galleryl into a hoop for a prize. The hoop was very small and the backboard tilted towards the crowd. The only way to get the ball into the basket was to throw a net shot. All this for a stuffed animal that probably cost 25 cents.

Another game involved throwing a ball at an Inuit doll wearing a parka made out of animal hair and a hood surrounded by hair. It looked easy but what people didn’t realize was that the dolls were surrounded mainly by air behind their puffed-out hair so it was very hard to knock them over. It took a direct hit. Still another game required throwing a dime onto a “Lucky Strike” square, but what the players didn’t know was that the surface was slippery.

The Balloon Water Race Game provided little gorillas with balloons attached to holes in them. You had to pop the balloon with a squirt gun. The vendor was able to choose who would win by attaching a thinner balloon that would pop first.

In one game the carney had to guess the age or weight of the participant. If he guessed wrong, the player would receive a prize. However, it cost $1 to play and the prize was only a ten-cent plaster statue. In effect, the carney was selling a ten-cent prize for a dollar.

We were paid mainly in singles—about $5 an hour. I’d go home and count the singles, and then we’d divide the “profit” up. I’d be so tired after standing all day that I’d fall asleep in the middle of counting. The next morning I’d wake up and my bed would be covered with singles. One day one of my two partners accused me of hiding money in my underwear. When I went home that day I found singles behind my bed.

One holiday weekend a group of kids sneaked in the back, grabbed a watermelon, and ran away with it. I couldn’t go after them because I was alone in the stand. But I wanted to scare them so I grabbed the long knife that I used to slice the watermelon and waved it in the air.

Coney Island.fortune teller
Next to the refreshment stand was a shack with a tarot card reader who would tell your fortune. (It was illegal to use the words “fortune-teller.”) She was a Roma, called a gypsy at that time. I liked her, but I found out that her method of making money was by seating her patrons on a slanted couch. If she was lucky, a man’s wallet would fall out of his back pocket and she would keep it.

I kept in touch with one of my partners. This summer his son married Maura Roosevelt, the great granddaughter of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. Pat and I attended their wedding in New Hampshire.

I’ll always remember this summer job. Despite the craziness, I loved the atmosphere and the carney subculture.


2 Responses to “Carneys, Cons, and Gangsters: Coney Island 1970-1971, by Marty Bernstein”

  1. Marty Bernstein October 28, 2014 at 7:26 am #

    Thanks for posting this. You chose great photos. I’ve already sent it to my relatives-Marty B.

  2. Jon October 28, 2014 at 7:58 am #

    Love it! Thanks, Marty! Jon

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