“Coney Island, where a fella can have the time of his life,” exclaims the announcer in the short documentary Shorty at Coney Island. “Especially if he’s a baby chimpanzee.”
Released in 1936, Shorty at Coney Island is a lighthearted newsreel, which likely played at movie theaters before the feature presentation. Accompanied by cheesy America’s Funniest Home Videos-style narration, the film follows Shorty the Chimpanzee as he explores Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park in 1936. Shorty rides the merry-go-round, attempts to pour himself a glass of soda, steals a woman’s glasses at the beach, and even climbs the Ferris wheel like a tiny King Kong.
By 1936, visitors to Coney Island were used to seeing strange sights on the boardwalk and in the amusement park. In 1903, premature babies in incubators were put on public display as part of a questionable sideshow. Other attractions from the area’s early history include an elephant-shaped hotel, a deadly Teddy Roosevelt-inspired roller coaster, and a ride that sent passengers to hell. Shorty the chimp would have fit right into the bizarre scenery.
The goofy little film is a fun way to explore historic Coney Island and see some of the classic rides that would come to define the modern amusement park. (The park's first ride—The Switchback Railway—is believed to have been the first roller coaster to operate in the United States.) And, with its 1930s slang and outdated humor, the film is certainly a time capsule in more ways than one. Check it out above.
Shorty appears to have had a much better time at Coney Island compared to other animals that called the tourist destination home. When Luna Park’s unofficial mascot Topsy the elephant killed a man who had burned her trunk with a cigar, the owners of the park executed her in front of a live audience. You can read more ways amusement parks of the past weren’t so amusing here.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.