Luna by Brian Butko

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Pittsburgh’s Original Lost Kennywood
by Brian Butko
Senator John Heinz History Center, 140 pp., paper $12.95

It’s not often that a history book begins with a graphic description of a lion attack. But in Brian Butko’s latest, Luna, it is the perfect way to set the stage for this enjoyable look at the growth of the entertainment industry in Pittsburgh at the turn of the 20th century.

The focus is Luna Park, which operated from 1905 to 1909, and its founder Frederick Ingersoll (1876–1927), one of the great pioneers of the amusement industry. An early “exposition” park, Luna set itself apart from the more common, sedate trolley parks of the era with its urban location, elaborate architecture and world’s fair–style exhibits. But what truly made Luna Park shine was the 67,000 incandescent lights that adorned the buildings. At a time when residential electric lighting was scarce, Luna Park was truly a spectacle at night, when it drew its greatest crowds. Unfortunately, this electric wonderland was beset with a series of problems, including the lion attack, a struggling economy, the cost of needed new attractions and unpaid bills. The 1908 season began with a sheriff’s sale of Luna’s assets before the park quietly closed in 1909.

Butko’s work goes well beyond the story of Luna Park to look at the broader evolution of the entertainment industry at a time when people around the country found themselves with increasing amounts of time and money. It sets the stage by discussing the early development of amusement parks in southwestern Pennsylvania and complements the Luna story with tales of the first nickelodeon, the Duquesne Gardens arena, and Forbes Field, the first modern baseball stadium. Butko ends with an epilogue that brings the story to the present day with the contemporary tribute to Luna Park at Kennywood, Pittsburgh’s most enduring amusement park.

The book jumps to life with many rich illustrations, such as photographs, maps, blueprints and original artwork, that enhance this engaging story and make for an enjoyable read, even if you don’t like amusement parks.

Jim Futrell
National Amusement Park Historical Association