“The Curious Playland
Arcade Art of Larry Millard” will be on view at the Coney Island
History Project from May 25 through July 7, Saturdays, Sundays and
holidays, from 12 noon-6pm. The exhibit of photo documentation and
several examples of original artwork being restored is open to the
public free of charge. The History Project’s exhibition center is
located under Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park’s iconic entrance sign at
3059 West 12th Street, just a few steps off the Boardwalk.
interior of the Playland Arcade on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue
delighted patrons for many decades yet few knew the story behind
the colorful artwork that covered every inch of the establishment.
Playland closed in 1981 and the building stood empty until it was
demolished in 2013. The Coney Island History Project’s multi-year
mission to save and document the unusual murals inside the
Playland Building ended successfully on February 14 with the
removal of several of Larry Millard’s iconic artworks and the
remaining letters from the Bowery entrance’s neon sign hours
murals were displayed at the Coney Island History Project’s
exhibit center last year. We worked with Gateway Demolition to
remove several of the murals just before demolition. Our previous
efforts at preservation were hampered by trespassers, vandals,
black mold, the untimely death of Playland’s caretaker, Andy
Badalamenti, as well as Superstorm Sandy, but finally the story of
the artist who created them can be told.
In the winter of 1957
a mysterious unemployed artist named Larry Millard showed up at
the Playland Arcade on Surf Avenue looking for work.
Forty-five-year-old Millard claimed to have been a cartoonist for
the New York Daily News and offered his services as a sign
painter. Playland owner Alex Elowitz hired him to paint some small
lettered Skeeball signs. His lettering was perfect and he
continued working at the arcade through the summer of 1958
painting large and colorful and murals on every inch of wall
Millard followed a
daily routine, arriving early in the morning unshaven and smelling
of alcohol, suffering from the shakes. He was given a couple of
bucks for a bottle of Thunderbird wine that he bought at the
liquor store across the street next to Mama Kirsh’s restaurant.
The drink steadied his hand, enabling him to paint.
Stanley Fox, who
worked at the arcade owned by his brother, described Millard as
“artsy-looking,” with dark hair and a mustache, always wearing a
Fedora and usually accompanied by his girlfriend, an
African-American woman named Eunice. Millard would arrive daily
with sketches to be approved by Elowitz. “My brother paid him by
the day, maybe $25. Larry lived somewhere in Coney Island,
although no one was sure where.”
signs led to the complex cartoons he illustrated with puns and
jokes: busty, leggy women with hapless boyfriends. Many of his
murals were in the cartoon style of Lil’ Abner creator Al Capp.
The public loved his work and he continued painting Playland until
every wall was filled. When Millard finished his murals at the
Playland building he began painting outdoor signs around Coney
Island, and murals at Stauch’s and at the B&B Carousell.
from Coney Island around 1960 and was never seen again. He left a
mark much like native petroglyphs: deceivingly simple yet
undecipherable and opaque. His work is mysterious and edgy, erotic
and “cartoony.” When you look past the inherent humor in his
pieces it’s possible that most of his sketches were sad
self-portraits telling his life story: the portrait of a tortured
soul who had bad luck with women. — Charles Denson
Charles Denson -
Coney Island History Project
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