After Barnum and before Spielberg, there was Fred Thompson, the perfect prototype of a 20th-century showman.
Now largely forgotten, Thompson (1873–1919) was not just an inventive entrepreneur of carefree amusement but no less than one of the makers of modern society, according to cultural historian Register (American Studies/Sewanee). The professor extracts much significance from the brief career of the promoter who devised extravagant Midway entertainments for expositions at the turn of the 20th century and developed the amusement park as we know it today. Thompson altered Coney Island much the way Disney changed 42nd Street when he built the fabled Luna Park in 1903, creating family entertainment where tawdry pleasures had ruled. He erected the gigantic Hippodrome in midtown Manhattan and filled it for a single giddy year (1905–06) with spectacle upon spectacle. A dedicated shop, the Industrial Light and Magic of its day, produced the Hippodrome’s lavish effects. When it became necessary to recruit backers, Thompson called on money men like the celebrated “Bet-a-Million” Gates. But all the kitsch, bunkum, and ballyhoo couldn’t support the constant need for cash, and eventually the music stopped. The Hippodrome, always losing money, finally succumbed under other management. Others took over Luna Park as well, though it survived in altered form until three fires killed it in the 1940s. But hardly more than a decade after Luna Park closed, Disneyland opened. Register spills much ink on sonorous pronouncements about the meaning of it all, citing, in particular, the impact of androgynous Peter Pan. There are many overdrawn digressions regarding architecture, toys, retailing, movies, space travel, sex, gender studies, and the zeitgeist in general. It’s an aggressively educational text, loading large social implications about the evolution of the amusement industry onto the sketchy story of one its important practitioners.
It’s a backstage tour of the fair, but enter for the academic air. If it’s simple carny fun you seek, look for the egress.