I grew up in New York City in the ’50s and ’60s. Much has gone since that time, but my memories include hings I deeply miss about New York in my early days:
- The myriad small businesses instead of brass-and-glass
- Little Italy full of Italians, and the Feasts of San Antonio and San Gennaro
- Yellow Cabs with huge back seats and those little jumpseats (Yes, unsafe, but they were so fun)
- Air-conditioned movie theaters with giant screens and velvet curtains where you could stay all day for 50¢ and watch a cartoon, a short subject, a newsreel, and the main feature over and over again
- the 42nd Street Subway Stations with Red and Blue lights guiding you to your line of choice, IRT, BMT, or IND, or the Shuttle
- Underground OJ bars and other odd little shops in the subways such as Al Stevenson’s magic store (otherwise known as the Wizard’s Workshop)
- Hole-in-the-wall pizza joints where you could order pizza by the “Slice!” for 15¢.
- The Staten Island ferry for a nickel
- Christmas trees up and down Park Avenue, and the stars that would twinkle on the 666 building
- the Lord and Taylor Christmas windows
- And so many more…
But one of my most indelible memories is from Chinatown, where my mother would take me on occasion. There were myriad stores and restaurants selling the ubiquitous Chinese back-scratchers, finger traps, and wonderful puzzle boxes, some of which I wish I still had.
But the most wondrous thing to my young eyes was the Chinatown Fair.
Before it became an electronic game arcade, it featured dancing chickens, tic-tac-toe chickens (you can read about these at Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York), and the amazing animatronic dragon.
Sadly, no photos of the latter wonder appear to have been saved to the Internet as of this moment, but who knows? Perhaps someone will come across a picture in their old archives and post it in the future. If you happen to stumble across this blog post and have such a photo, please let me know; I would love to feature it here.
At any rate, you would walk up to this row of little windows, each with a coin slot for quarters; drop one in and your window would open, and below you was this most amazing animated dragon which would move and roar at you. Commenter “Donald” at the website Scouting New York had this to say, which syncs with my own memories perfectly:
Yes!! The dragon peep show…. why doesn’t anybody ever mention the dragon peep show? I thought that was the most bizarre “game” I ever saw… you’d drop a quarter in and a sliding plastic window would rise, exposing a glass window underneath (similar to a peep show booth) and literally laying on the basement floor – you’d see this huge animatronic dragon moving it’s head and tail – and from a speaker would blare the soundtrack from an old Godzilla movie… that familiar Godzilla roar. Now the dragon you were looking at and the Godzilla you were hearing of course had nothing to do with each other – but that just added to the cheezy entertainment value of the whole thing. I thought it was great… but nobody ever mentions it. I ALWAYS hear about the Tic Tac Toe Chicken… but never my old dragon friend.
The Fair later became a video arcade, but closed in 2011. Some other great memories are archived at Scouting New York, The Gothamist, Ganker, and Huffpost; apparently the arcade featured in a 2015 documentary called The Lost Arcade; in its later years it “the arcade became a shelter to a community as diverse as the city surrounding it and changed lives in doing so.” (IMDB)
According to The Verge, the arcade re-opened in 2012, but the reviews were mixed. Apparently it’s still there, but without that amazing dragon it will never be the same for me.
The Old Wolf has spoken.