Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Day at Ravenhall Baths – Coney Island, 1962

A postcard of Ravenhall Baths
The following post is by Tommy Coca, who was born and raised in Brooklyn. It is a recollection of the time he spent at Coney Island’s Ravenhall Baths. Located at W. 19th Street and the boardwalk, Ravenhall opened in the late 19th century and operated until it was destroyed by fire on April 28, 1963.

By Tommy Coca

The day starts as previous years’ summer days began. Two young boys climb the stairs to the ‘B’ train, also known as the West End Line. At this particular entrance there is no token clerk. The ten inches or so between the floor and the bottom of the fence is enough room for Tommy and Joseph to wiggle their skinny 10-year old frames underneath, saving them the cost of a token. This gives them 15 cents each to spend later in the day for candy or in the arcade.

This was a different time. August, 1962. On Halloween, children don’t need parental escorts to go trick-or-treating. Elderly passengers are instantly offered seats on a crowded subway car. And in Tommy and Joseph's neighborhood of Bensonhurst, fish trucks and pizzerias do a brisk business on Fridays. (This was before the Second Ecumenical Council and the Catholic Church still forbade the eating of meat on Fridays).

So yes, it was a different time, and parents didn’t harbor the fears they do today. It was not unheard of to allow 10-year old boys to ride the subway a few stops to Coney Island. After all, it was safer than cooling themselves under the fire hydrant, where they risked being hit by a car.

As the train trudges to the last stop, the doors open and the sounds and smells of Coney Island instantly take hold – the roar of the wooden roller coasters, the screams, the aromas of cotton candy and French fries. Down the ramp they go. Surrounding them are the carousel, Wonder Wheel, movie theaters and shooting galleries. Further ahead is Steeplechase Park and towering behind is the park’s centerpiece, the 262-foot tall Parachute Jump. On some days the boys succeed in sneaking into the park late in the day and searching for discarded punch cards, which will allow them access to rides.

The Parachute Jump, 1962. AP Photo

On the next block is Ravenhall Baths. They show their passes and enter. Up ahead they hear the rhythm of the punching bags as the old and young tough guys of Brooklyn hone their boxing skills in a shaded area. Further along are handball courts, sand boxes, lockers, and other features. Features that will remain ingrained in their memory decades later.

The boys have season lockers. Most people choose to use keyed locks as opposed to combination locks. The key is attached to a band that is worn on one’s ankle. The boys are always bothered by the sight of a man missing a leg who wears the band and key on his stump. In the unroofed locker area many older men sit on chairs either naked, or with towels draping themselves, and play pinochle as they get some sun.

The heights of the lockers are perhaps seven feet. On the other side of the wooden wall is the women’s section, and as such the older kids often climb to the top of the lockers to look over. A more common practice is to punch a small hole in the wooden fence and peek through. The boys head to the sand pile where the older guys chalk up their hands and exercise on the high bar. They watch a while and then walk to the snack stand.

“A pack of Parliaments for my mom please,” says Joseph.
“Where is your mother?” asks the man behind the counter.
“She’s in the pool,” he answers confidently.
“Here you go. Bring them right to her.”

The area by the snack stand is under a canopy where it seems the Yankee game is always on. This was a time when the preponderance of the games was played in the daytime. Once they’ve got the score, or see the Yankees take a turn at bat, the boys return to the locker area. There are several steam rooms and one has been out of order for as long as they can remember. This is where they smoke their cigarettes, absurdly reasoning that if anyone sees smoke they’ll assume it is steam. The boys aren’t yet ready for a swim. As a matter of fact they can’t swim and instead typically just cool off in the shallow end. Today, after their smoke, they wander around the facility.

Nearby is the kiddie pool, which is near the boardwalk and exit to the beach. The older kids are permitted to leave the facility and walk along the boardwalk or swim in the Atlantic. They are stamped on their shoulders with an invisible ink that shows under a purple ultraviolet light, which proves they are members when they return. Under the boardwalk wait their friends who do not have the money to enter. They position themselves back-to-back and rub the stamp onto their buddies’ shoulders so they are allowed in.

Now they are ready for the pool. There is plenty of activity by the diving boards, which are named after playing cards. The highest is the Ace, and as the height decreases the names get more diminutive: the King, Queen and Jack. Sal the lifeguard is off to the side. He is a somewhat old, short, gregarious and barrel-chested man in an orange bathing suit who offers to teach the youngsters how to swim. He accomplishes this by tossing them in the deep end. They either prove to be quick learners or Sal dives into the pool and rescues them.

The mats around the pool are scratchy and sting bare feet. Beach balls bounce, people listen to transistor radios, kids across the street shriek as they ride the Steeplechase roller coaster. Some of the older kids begin to tease Tommy. They taunt the skinny boy who can’t swim. “C’mon you baby, let’s see you jump off the diving board.”

The goading continues and to the amazement of all, Tommy accepts the challenge, runs onto the Jack, and jumps in. Sal the lifeguard’s services are put into action. Although he still can’t swim, Tommy has earned a degree of respect, and vows that before the summer ends, he will indeed swim, and even jump off the Ace. August turns to September. Labor Day weekend arrives and the season ends. Lockers are emptied. Tommy does not jump off the ace. Maybe next year!

But before the new season arrives, a fire destroys the baths. Ravenhall Baths is gone and transformed into a memory for generations of Brooklynites. In 1957 it was the Dodgers, and now in 1964, it is Ravenhall. Brooklyn is changing and Tommy and Joseph learn a lesson regarding the lack of permanence.

The following summer their families get lockers at Steeplechase. On the last weekend of the summer their parents treat them to a day on the rides at the Park. A day of fun and amusements before the school year begins. They enjoy the giant wooden slide, the Steeplechase horses, the Barrels of Fun, and all the other rides. No matter how brave they pretend to be, though, the Parachute Jump is just too tall, and the tremendous jolt they observe as it hits the top and plunges back down to earth terrifies them. Maybe next year they’ll have the guts. Maybe next year! But as they once more learn, sometimes you must seize the day. Next year will come but there may be changes.

The park, which had been in existence since 1898, fails to open for the 1965 season. Steeplechase Park fades to black and joins the Dodgers, Ebbets Field, the original Luna Park, and Ravenhall Baths, as one of the borough’s treasured memories.


Tony Carrino said...

Tom...what can I say ? I am overwhelmed !
Wowa, what a memory you have ......right down to the name of the diving boards and Sal the barrel chested lifeguard.
It really brought it all back together ( just like a great old movie), the bits and pieces of those very found memories of when life was simple and the summer seemed like a way of life.
I completely forgot about that spot on the West End where you could sneak in for free.
Bravo, great, great article....can't wait for the next one.....thank you so much for sharing, stay well.

Anonymous said...

According to the 'Joseph' in the article, it was 'Tommy' who bought the cigarettes...:)

Anonymous said...

Cuzzie, I do Remeber, you bought the smokes I was the one with the halo. Also Sal the lifeguard had a really dark tan with a chest full of white hair. How about the tough guys working out on the punching bags on the Surf Ave side, I can almost hear the rhythum of the bags,& the fat guy who played cards with with the pinky ring guys in the big locker section, he had a bellybutton the size of a Nathan's hot dog. And we all knew all the peep holes in the walls to look into the girl's lockers, Whoops my halo just fell off. Well thanks for the mammories.OOPS, I mean MEMORIES.

Joann Van Valkenburgh said...

This is a great article as it brings me back to a simpler time-a time when we never had to be concerned about safety. Kids could run about freely and enjoy the surroundings with no questions asked! Having a good time involved wandering off in an outdoor adventure, not typing into a computerized game indoors. Fond memories of the way I was brought up!

Sandi said...

Loved the article. You did not mention the Juke Box by the food stand. And do you remember when Cousin Brucie had a show there outside the sandwich stand, by the sand? Under the boardwalk was the bop house where we would gather and dance. I had a locker there from 1956 to the day it closed. Many good memories.

miceLLe said...

It is very funny to have the images recalled, the fat guy with the pinky ring playing cards and the names of the diving boards. I never knew the guys made holes in the walls when I was walking around looking at all the naked old ladies and the shapes the body morphs into in old age. Any ideal how big the pool was? When I talk about Ravenhall to my friends I can never give a measure. And did you not walk to Bay 6 for Mrs Sthals knishes, the best ever? And for walking on beach picking up bottles to trade in for pennies and nickles, 2 cents for the small coke bottles and a nickle for the larger. My sister met some guy who worked at the parachute so I got to ride for free and the boss loved my smile when we reached the bottom so he let me go up again, my grin was good for advertising. You missed seeing all the bays, and how all the people crowded into one bay and the others were empty. And then there is all the kids making out under the boardwalk. I am still remembering little things, thanks.

Linda Butti said...

that was great! I was a little girl and I vaguely remember the men boxing outdoors...what I really remember was being in the steam room with my mother...I had to be about 6 , and looking up and seeing all the big bellies on the women!!! I was about as tall as their thighs.... I also remember the outdoor court area with the sand boxes...I dont remember the pool though........thanks for the memories....

Mike Izzi said...

Tom.....I lived in Bensonhurst and remember all the details about Ravenhall as you do. I had a season locker from about 1950 to 1955. One other guy I remember being there every year in the high bar sandbox. His name was Jasper and was well developed from the waist up and skinny legs which never got a workout on the high bar.
I'm doing a video of those days, and have researched many photos of the area but inside photos of Ravenhall are not to be found. I found some aerial views and plot plans, and the post card shot you included in your article. Is there an outside chance you have any?
Great article.......Mike Izzi

Anonymous said...

Bob C remembers,

I discovered Ravenhall pool in 1960 and had a season pass in 1961-62. I was a young teenager at the time and rode ei ther the West End or Sea Beach N line from our home in Bay Ridge. The other commens are right on the mark, Sal the barrel- chested lifeguard, the "view" over the fence from the mens' locker roons, the steam room. Of course, by that time the whole place was in the "twilight" of its glory, compared to 30 years earlier when my Dad used to go and tole me that the entrance way had many flowers and bushes.
I necer felt any danger at that time (before all those housing projects went up).
It was one of the last of the large outdoor pools........ I loves all 3 diving boards.