When Larry Millard showed up in Coney Island in 1957, he was looking for work as a sign painter. His work was so impressive he was hired to do murals across the amusement area, particularly in the recently demolished Playland Arcade. Yet just as suddenly as he appeared, he vanished in 1960 and was never heard from again. What was left as a memory was his art, but the effort to preserve it has been complicated by vandalism, death, natural disasters, and the altering landscape of Coney Island. Now an exhibition focused on his work at the Coney Island History Project is aimed at remembering this mysterious artist and exploring the darkly playful work he left behind.
The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard includes photographs of his Playland murals, as well as actual chunks of the art that were rescued from Playland. “It has this cartoony style, but with a beautiful serious side,” said Charles Denson, director and founder of the Coney Island History Project. “There’s something deeper there that’s representing his life.”
The murals show long-legged ladies and a hapless man who tries to love them, as well as scenes of gaming and gambling. Denson described Millard as “a tortured soul” who showed up to work early each morning, unshaven and unable to start painting until he’d had a few drinks. No one knew where he lived, although it was assumed somewhere in the area, and sometimes he arrived with a girlfriend named Eunice. The 45-year-old, fedora-wearing man with a mustache and dark hair said he was once a cartoonist at the New York Daily News, but Denson said they’d never been able to track down his previous work.
Each inch of the Playland Arcade on Surf Avenue was covered with his pun-filled colorful murals, and he also did work at Stauch’s and B&B Carousell. Yet despite finding an audience in the amusement area for his Al Capp-like art with its unlucky in love humor, when he disappeared in 1960 no one really had a clue who Millard was.
Denson said that while “everything you have now [in Coney Island] has a corporate style and everything’s manufactured,” it was once an active place for original art for each individual ride. “It’s kind of a miracle that his art actually survived as well as it did,” he said, which is an incredible understatement.
The Playland Arcade itself closed in 1981, and although it was planned to be demolished it was instead sealed up. Its longtime attentive caretaker was Andy Badalamenti, who lived in a house beneath the Thunderbolt roller coaster. The hope was that the arcade would one day be reopened and restored, although there was always an agreement that before its destruction the murals would be saved. Unfortunately, Badalamenti was stricken with cancer, and another blow, according to Denson, came with a photographer who entered the building and published photographs in the New York Times. Denson stated that the images drew other trespassers and the resulting vandalism and theft damaged many of the murals. Then the front gates blew in during a storm, and even with the roof collapsing and the place blocked off, there was even more trespassing. Badalamenti would pass away in 2011, and eventually the decision finally came to demolish it. Before doing so, the asbestos had to be removed, so the whole roof was stripped off. Just days later, Hurricane Sandy hit and totally flooded the place. Some of the murals had already been relocated to the Coney Island History Project, but this too was flooded.
“Everytime we thought we had it saved, something came up,” Denson said. “It was almost like it was following his life story with all these pitfalls waiting.”
After the waters receded, what was left was incredibly fragile and could just crumble to the touch. Yet some of the murals were carefully extracted. One final, large mural could only be safely accessed once part of the building was down, but the process ended up causing the whole front of the building to collapse, taking the mural with it. The whole building was ultimately destroyed this February.
Despite all this, some pieces of the murals were saved and are being restored, and each and every Playland mural was photographed. “His artwork illustrates somebody’s perception of Coney Island, it’s not just for Coney Island,” Denson said, and the hope is that The Curious Playland Arcade Art exhibition will preserve not just his art, but his story as well, and perhaps even unravel some of the mystery around this artist. “We hope that somebody who knows him will come forth and tell us what happened to him,” Denson said.
The Curious Playland Arcade Art of Larry Millard is at the Coney Island History Project (3059 West 12th Street, Coney Island) from May 25 through July 7.