A Star Is Reborn: Smithsonian Gets Piece of Astroland History

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 5, 2009

Yesterday the newest addition to the Smithsonian collection arrived: an eight-foot star from Astroland, Coney Island's space-age theme park.

The Astroland star will be kept in storage for two years and then displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia when Phase 2 of that museum is completed in 2011.

Margaret A. Weitekamp, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, wasn't among the millions of youngsters who would press their noses against the subway window when the huge stars signaling that they were almost at Coney Island came into view. But, with a sense of what is unusual and culturally important, Weitekamp perked up when a letter proposing a donation from the famed Astroland Park came across her desk last fall.

"I was immediately intrigued," said Weitekamp, who grew up in Bradford, Pa., and now works as a cultural historian in the museum's space history division. The star's design reflects what the curator calls "the enthusiasm of the early space age."

Working with the family that owns the now-shuttered Astroland, Weitekamp went to Coney Island for the first time in January. She evaluated the rides, the ticket booth, the entrance booth and the towering stars that marked the entrance. She decided on one star.

The five-point star is 8 feet tall, 7 1/2 feet wide, weighs 200 pounds and has 160 light bulbs.

It was donated by Carol Hill Albert and Jerome Albert, who owned the park and also are the operators of the landmark Cyclone roller coaster. Jerome Albert's father, Dewey, enamored of the space race, founded the attraction in 1962.

"He had been such a space enthusiast. He was very caught up in the space craze of the early 1960s -- the decision to go to the moon, John Glenn's [flight]. He was confident people would respond to that theme," Weitekamp said. "Astroland was a response to what really happened. Dewey Albert took what was new and real and exciting and made it even more real."

In 2008, after 46 years of continuous operation, the park closed and the Alberts sold the land to a developer. In recent years, several proposals to revitalize all of Coney Island have stalled.

"Carol Albert was looking to give us the very first rocket simulation ride. It was 71 feet long, 12,000 pounds and the whole thing would move up and down," recalled Weitekamp. "That was a little more than the Air and Space Museum could handle."

The giant star fit several criteria of the cultural history division, which has 4,200 items of memorabilia from the space program and from science fiction. The Astroland star will join other originals, including the studio model of the space ship from the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and 139 pieces of science-fiction toys, such as a Flash Gordon action figure.

Museum officials hope the star will be a showstopper, much like the studio model of the Starship Enterprise from the original "Star Trek" television series, the largest piece in the cultural history collection.

In recent years the star's owners added the park's Internet address to the bottom, and that will remain. "We don't plan to light it or rotate it, though the temptation is great," Weitekamp said.

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