About 100 years old and 65 inches in diameter, this colorful gambling wheel with dragons for spokes provides a peek into how Americans used to have fun. It once lit up when spun, and whichever red or black number it landed on would bring cheers or scowls from spectators—depending on where they put their money.
The wheel was used at Coney Island, the famed amusement park on the sandy southern shores of Brooklyn, and is now on display as part of the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibit Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861–2008. The show spotlights the unusual place Coney Island holds in our collective imagination by examining art and artifacts both made there and inspired by the park, including this gambling wheel.
“It ties to Coney Island as a place of opportunity,” says Robin Jaffee Frank, Ph.D., Chief Curator and Krieble Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, who curated this show. “It’s a place where you could come and gamble and win money and prizes or a chance encounter between strangers might be the key to your future happiness. All these films and stories that we encounter are about chance encounters at Coney Island.”
Image credit: Brooklyn Museum
The artifact is also a reminder that gambling—among other transgressions—was once one of the biggest draws of the park. In its earliest days, Coney Island was known as “Sodom by the Sea,” thanks to its proliferation of gambling games as well as available prostitutes, alcohol, and more.
“There was a constant attempt to clean it up, like Times Square, and it was never really successful,” says Frank.
This crossing of lines extended to class and race, with people from distinct backgrounds who might not be expected—or allowed—to run into one another in daily life cramming together on a ride or watching the gambling wheel spin.
Embedded bulbs would light up as the wheel turned, creating a sparkle in the dragons’ glass eyes and the jewels that dotted each one’s throat. It’s just one creative way that the promoters and managers of Coney Island’s theme parks—Luna Park, Steeplechase, and Dreamland—used electricity, from the hulking mechanical rides to zappers that clowns used to (lightly) shock visitors.
Dragons (and exotic animals more generally) were common figures throughout the parks, and the show includes a photo by Walker Evans of dragons guarding the majestic Dragon’s Gorge indoor rollercoaster, which took people through sharp turns on their way to “Hades.” In a spooky coincidence, the Dragon’s Gorge caught fire in 1944, destroying half of Luna Park.
Of course, dragons are not all about menace. They also reflect excitement and wonder—dragons were associated with prosperity and good luck in Chinatown and elsewhere.
These dual themes of threat and delight weave throughout much of the new exhibit. Frank began to conceive of the show when working as curator of the Yale University Art Gallery, when she found herself drawn to Joseph Stella’s monumental 1913–1914 painting Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras, which features abstractions of the Ferris wheel, Loop the Loop, and illuminated floats that create a “whirling vortex that you feel like you’re being pulled into along with all these abstracted masses of people.”
Joseph's Stella's Battle of Lights, Coney Island, via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Spending five years putting the show together, Frank found that over a period of 150 years (from the Civil War to the 2008 closing of the Astroland amusement park), artists working in virtually every medium—painting, photography, film, sculpture—had taken Coney Island as their subject. A number of actual artifacts from the park—carousel animals, signs, and the gambling wheel—also help provide a historic context for the show. All told, the exhibit features some 140 objects from artists, including Diane Arbus, Weegee, William Merritt Chase, and the unknown creator of the gambling wheel.
In fact, much about the wheel remains mysterious: which park it was used in, for example, or how often it paid out to gamblers. The New-York Historical Society acquired it in the mid-1990s from the Smith Collection of Penny Arcade Machines and Related Memorabilia and it sat in storage until Frank requested it for this show. The name of the person or manufacturer who created it remains unknown.
“I hope that visitors to the Brooklyn Museum will recognize it as an astounding work of art,” says Frank. "'Anonymous' is the name of many a great craftsperson."