Coney Island’s ‘Astroland’ co-founder Jerome Albert dies at 74
Jerome Albert, who with his father, Dewey, created and operated Astroland, the space age-themed amusement park that breathed new life into the Coney Island Boardwalk in the 1960s, a time when it was losing its lure, died on Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 74.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Carol, said.
Astroland — with its looping rockets, moon-flight simulations, rider-drenching water coaster and 272-foot observation tower — was opened by the Alberts in 1962 on a 3.1-acre site at West 10th Street and Surf Avenue. Over the next 46 years, Astroland sponsored air shows, precision parachute-team jumps, rock concerts, film festivals and fireworks displays.
In 1975, Mr. Albert and his father took over operation of the nearby Cyclone roller coaster, then one of the most terrifying rides along the Boardwalk, if not in the world. Its cars reached a speed of 60 miles per hour and plunged 85 feet in the first drop.
Built in 1927, the Cyclone had been bought by New York City in 1971. After leasing the ride, the Alberts restored its rickety wood-and-steel frame and reopened it to the public. The Cyclone was designated a city landmark in 1988.
Astroland, which had no entrance fee, charged as little as 50 cents a ride when it opened and never more than about $5 over its four decades, giving it competitive strength against other amusement parks at a difficult time for Coney Island. Several hundred thousand visitors came to the park each year, according to Charles Denson, the director of the Coney Island History Project.
“The Alberts’ investment turned out to be the salvation of Coney Island,” Mr. Denson wrote in his 2011 book, “Coney Island and Astroland.”
“The next decade,” the book continues, “brought the demolition of Steeplechase, a rising crime rate, urban renewal, beach pollution, fires, competition from suburban amusement parks and a civic neglect that led to a deteriorating infrastructure. Astroland became the anchor for Coney Island, the glue that held it together while many business gave up.”
But as Jerome Albert’s health deteriorated (his father died in 1992), he turned over management of the park to his wife. In 2006, Ms. Albert reluctantly agreed to sell the property to the developer Joe Sitt of Thor Equities for $30 million. At the time, Mr. Sitt had plans to redevelop the entire amusement district, and Ms. Albert hoped to reopen Astroland’s 35 rides at a nearby location. But by 2009, Mr. Sitt’s plans had faltered and Astroland was closed.
While Jerome Albert’s vision was to create what he called “A Journey Into the 21st Century,” the property where Astroland rose was steeped in Coney Island history. It was on that site that the restaurant owner Charles Feltman — at least according to Boardwalk lore — invented the hot dog in the 1870s by wrapping sausages in slices of bread.
In 1916, a former bread slicer at Feltman’s Restaurant, Nathan Handwerker, opened what became Nathan’s Famous hot dog emporium, two blocks west. When Mr. Handwerker wanted to relocate in 1954, he asked his friend Dewey Albert, a residential real estate developer, to be his partner in buying the Feltman property. Six years later, after deciding not to move, Mr. Handwerker sold his share to Mr. Albert.
The elder Mr. Albert brought his son, who had just graduated from New York University, into the business. It was Jerome’s idea to tap into the growing fascination with space travel. He went to amusement parks in Europe and conferred with ride manufacturers.
By 1964, construction of most of the rides at Astroland was complete. There was the John Glenn Sky Ride, whose blue space capsules circled overhead, swooping between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk. Another ride, Astroland Rocket, simulated a trip to the moon, using film images of space flight. The Deep Sea Diving Bells were submerged in a water tank among swirling dolphins. In the Water Flume, riders were drenched while strapped into imitation logs that sped through a trough.
And there was the Astrotower, with its two-story circular observation car. The New York World Telegram & Sun dubbed it “The big bagel in the sky.” Except for the Cyclone, which is now operated by another company under a contract with the city, only the Astrotower still stands.
Jerome Lewis Albert was born in Brooklyn on May 18, 1937, one of two children of Dewey and Adeline Weissfeld Albert. Besides his wife, the former Carol Hill, he is survived by a son, Bradley, and a grandson.
Jerome grew up in Sea Gate, on the west end of Coney Island.
“He wanted to resuscitate Coney Island,” Mr. Denson said. “The saying is he had sand in his shoes, and once you get sand in your shoes, you can never get it out.”