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By MARGARET NERY



Published: Sun, September 2, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By MARGARET NERY

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

The cover of the hefty volume was interesting and somehow reminded me of the now-defunct but fondly remembered Youngstown treasure, Idora Park.

But after I opened the book, the tiny type used to print "The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements" made me wonder if I could ever wade through the multitude of words that were jammed onto the 321 pages of book.

And then I began reading -- and was hooked.

Woody Register, a cultural historian, admits it took a long time for him to write the book, and it took a long time to read it -- but it was time well spent.

Although the painstakingly researched story of the rise and fall of one man's toyland empire was indeed fascinating, the author's detailed descriptions and repetitive style proved to be a wordy challenge.

Lots of facts: Register was obviously keenly interested in every aspect of the life and times of Fred Thompson. And he attempted to incorporate each accumulated fact into his book that became a perspective historical chronology that covered the growth of amusement parks, the biography of the "boy wonder" who became an entertainment mogul, and spun off into a series of events and personalities that could have been the basis of individual stories.

The author writes that Thompson was born in Ironstone, Ohio, on Halloween in 1873 at the beginning of a nationwide industrial depression.

His family moved constantly while trying to improve their lot in life, and Thompson came to regard his itinerant childhood as an advantage rather than a liability. It gave spark to his personality and zest for life as he set about manufacturing pleasure.

Spurred on by his belief that the trouble with people was they had "too much work and too little play," Thompson became a "showman with a mission."

Register traces his progress as he became a promoter of carnival shows and world's fairs and gained mechanical skills from a variety of blue-collar jobs, ultimately garnering recognition as a Broadway producer and stage director. His early theatrical fame came from staging such productions as the highly acclaimed "Peter Pan."

Thompson found his niche in life when, at age 28, he became one of the principal developers of Coney Island, where he built the innovative Luna Park, a commercial amusement that became a reflection of historical changes.

It was a first: As the first "theme" park, Luna Park served as the prototype for many of today's major "playgrounds." It was regarded as a fantasy world when it opened May 16, 1903, as a place for "middle class entertainment for middle class adults."

To Thompson, who, like Peter Pan, never grew up, his work was play, and he aggressively marketed a world of make-believe to adult consumers.

He was a brilliant entrepreneur who manufactured amusements, illusions and publicity -- "the boy wonder of Broadway, the toymaker of New York and the kid of Coney Island."

Instead of writing an intimate biography, Register focuses on Thompson's major ventures, from the world's fair projects that held his interest through 1901, the debut of Luna Park in 1903, the opening of the gargantuan Hippodrome in Manhattan in1905, the Broadway years from 1905 to 1912, and the showman's concluding ambition: the failed Toyland Grown Up at the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair.

Register notes that Thompson never worried about tomorrow and everyday responsibilities. He wanted thrills, adventure, crowds, applause, noise, laughter and luxury. He was a man who dreamed dreams with no limits.

And his fantasies were often highly expensive stagings that exploited the appeal of childhood, the power of wishes and the delight of material splendor. His offerings attracted legions of men and women despite the fact that everything he conceived was profit-oriented and regimented.

In his personal observations, Register notes Thompson was obsessed with his desire to have a chain of amusement parks across the country, a dream that never came to fruition.

Personality flaws: Married briefly and divorced, Thompson went on alcoholic binges, smoked cigars constantly and compulsively carried large amounts of money. When his health and fortunes failed in 1910, it was obvious he was in control of neither his enterprises nor himself.

A disastrous fire caused him to lose ownership of his beloved Luna Park and a stroke marked the first of a series of mental and physical collapses that would plague him during the last eight years of his life. He was only 45 when he died June 6, 1919.

The book contains a detailed list of credits in which the author attributes many of the quotations and information to those from whom he gleaned the historical facts relating to the beginning of amusement parks and the man who refused to grow up.

Although Register's book is fascinating, it contains an overwhelming wealth of information -- far too much for one book.

However, readers with the time and patience to devote to "The Kid of Coney Island" will be not only be awed by the rhetoric but intrigued by each chapter that, as the author intended, is an essay in cultural history.

X"The Kid of Coney Island: Fred Thompson and the Rise of American Amusements" by Woody Register (Oxford University Press, $30).




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