NEW YORK – The heart-stopping whoosh of a roller coaster on its downward trajectory, the sugary smell of cotton candy and salt water taffy, the sideshow barker’s incessant chant to “step right up and see the strangest sights on earth.” All played their roles in creating indelible memories for the millions of people who visited Coney Island over the last century.
While the golden era of New York’s most beloved amusement park has come and gone, relics of Coney Island’s colorful history and photos of its amazing cast of performers move back into the spotlight in “Sideshow,” an exhibition and sale running May 2-25 at The Ross Art Group’s Manhattan gallery. Sideshow’s featured collection belongs to Dr. Robert M. Lerch, a New York City physician and longtime collector of the bizarre and unusual. The exhibition chronicles roughly the first 50 years of Coney Island – whose first enclosed amusement park area opened in 1895 – with additional pieces from other early 20th-century carnivals and circuses.
The “backbone” of the show, said Ross Art Group’s owner, Mickey Ross, is the collection of 28 original architectural drawings and blueprints that conceptualized Coney Island carnival rides and structures.
“The drawings were created by amusement park ride inventor and manufacturer William F. Mangels (German/American, 1867-1958) and depict such classic rides as the ‘Whip,’ Loop roller coaster, and carousel horses with a mechanical function,” Ross said. Like all other items in the exhibition, the architectural designs will be available for purchase.
One of the most remarkable inclusions in the collection is the assemblage of circus photos by itinerant photographer Edward J. Kelty (American, 1888–1967). The grouping includes a number of Kelty’s inimitable 11 by 20in panoramic shots of performers known collectively as “the Congress of Freaks.”
“Kelty had a fascination for human oddities and spent 20 years following and photographing circus troupes. Once a year, the entire Ringling Brothers ‘Freak Show’ cast would gather for a group shot. It was a big event,” said Ross. “The pictures include every imaginable type of performer – sword swallowers, snake charmers, bearded ladies, fire eaters, and ‘giants and midgets,’ plus aerialists and clowns.” Kelty’s Congress of Freaks photos, which originally were sold to the performers themselves as mementos, are highly sought after by today’s collectors.