Deno’s Wonder Wheel, a 15-story signature feature of the Coney Island skyline, first spun to life in the wake of the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago. Now, as the coronavirus casts a growing pall over the storied amusement district, the family that owns the wheel says that the whirling behemoth will almost certainly go the entire season without carrying passengers for the first time in a hundred summers.
An ingenious Ferris wheel and roller coaster hybrid built by Italian, Irish and Russian immigrants three years before the construction of the famous boardwalk its park adjoins, the Wonder Wheel was the jewel of the showy, boomtown Coney Island that rose along the newly widened beach in the Roaring Twenties. And it is the oldest surviving ride to operate continually there.
But a grand centennial celebration of the Brooklyn landmark has been put on indefinite hold as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s phased reopening of New York State’s economy has kept amusement parks shuttered during crucial warm-weather months they rely on for their income.
On a recent sun-dazzled afternoon, the great, steel-spoked wheel cast crisscrossed shadows across the ghost town of Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, an eclectic jumble of rides that is normally thronged in summer. Jorge Gallegos, who is known as Chico, spray-painted the skeletons atop the Spook-A-Rama ride in preparation for hoped-for visitors. Reggie Pryor greased the bumper cars.
“Trying to keep busy,” he said. “Getting everything ready, in case we open.”
But by early August, with no definitive word from the state on if or when amusement parks might be permitted to operate this year, optimism about a possible reopening was hard to muster.
“We haven’t given up hope, but it doesn’t seem likely,” said Dennis Vourderis, whose family has owned and operated the Wonder Wheel since 1983. “It’s very sad and financially devastating. To us as a seasonal operator on the boardwalk in Brooklyn, August 15 would be much too late to open for the season.”
The pandemic couldn’t have hit the Vourderises at a worse time, as the close-knit family paid $5.5 million last year to expand their park westward into a lot along West 12th Street and another $6 million to commission a splashy new European thrill ride of an undisclosed type.
“The property we bought next door is in jeopardy,” said Mr. Vourderis. “It makes me realize how fragile we are.”
Denos Vourderis, Dennis’s father and the clan’s patriarch, first had designs on the Wonder Wheel back in 1948, according to family lore. A Greek immigrant who peddled hot dogs from a pushcart, the elder Mr. Vourderis proposed to his future wife, Lula, with a grandiose promise: “You marry me, I buy you the Wonder Wheel.” In 1983, after 35 years running increasingly large food businesses, he made good on his promise, purchasing her the biggest ring of all.
The entire story of the Wonder Wheel is one of immigrant gumption, as the author Charles Denson observes in “Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Park,” a rollicking history that is being published this month by Arcadia. Enlivened with vivid photographs and diagrams, the book presents original research on the enterprising immigrants “with little formal education” who designed, built, ran and ultimately rescued the complex 200-ton machine.
“Coney Island was a place where immigrants could realize a dream,” Mr. Denson, the executive director of the Coney Island History Project, said in an interview. “It was pretty much a laboratory for invention.”
The Wonder Wheel was the brain child of Charles Hermann, a native of Romania’s Transylvanian Alps, who immigrated to the United States in 1907 after being trained as a machinist. Hermann, who spelled his last name two ways — sometimes with two ‘r’s — was an inveterate tinkerer who came to hold multiple patents, including one that his granddaughter, Freddi Herrmann, described in an interview as a “cowcatcher for cars that would push people away instead of running them over.”
Fascinated by Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of a perpetual motion machine, Hermann designed and received a patent for his own, “an eccentric Ferris wheel” with cars that rolled onto a platform to disgorge and admit passengers before rolling back onto the wheel. While working as custodian at an apartment house in Washington Heights, Hermann met and formed a partnership with a tenant named Herman Garms, a German immigrant with a head for business.
Garms persuaded Hermann to redesign the machine as an amusement ride they called Dip the Dip — the future Wonder Wheel — and William J. Ward, a prominent Coney Island landowner, provided a lot on Jones Walk in exchange for a stake in the venture.
“So you have these two uneducated immigrants who wanted to achieve something,” Mr. Denson said, “and they built this magnificent machine that’s really a work of art.”
Though Garms had no financial training, he sold stock to family and local business owners and resisted union interference by bringing steelworkers into the company as shareholders. The result, Mr. Denson said, was “the most successful business in Coney Island — it has outlived everything else and has a perfect safety record.”
Hermann, a dreamer who cared nothing for money, sold all his shares in the wheel to raise money to help realize his vision. Without ever earning a dime from his invention, he moved on.
The Garms family ran the Wonder Wheel for six decades, spending summers in a home beneath the spinning ride, much like the family in the Woody Allen film “Annie Hall” that lived below a rumbling roller coaster.
Freddie Garms, one of Garms’s sons, was the very model of the Coney carny, promoting the wheel by surfing the tops of its swinging cars untethered and adorning the ride with its now famous neon. A Scotch enthusiast, he was buried with a bottle of Chivas Regal and a mink bow tie, according to Walter Kerner Jr., whose father co-owned the wheel in the 1970s and early ’80s.
“To avoid problems with the Mafia, they hired off-duty officers to work the wheel,” said the younger Mr. Kerner. “Some worked more than others, but their presence kept the Mafia out.”
Coney Island fell on hard times after Steeplechase Park closed in 1964, but Wonder Wheel Park was protected at night by a pair of German shepherds, one at the base of the wheel and one on the roof of an adjacent building. In the morning, the wheel operator would stop the ride with one of the cars alongside the roof, and the guard dog knew to get in, as did its four-legged compatriot on the ground. There were food and water in the car, and the dogs just rode around together all day.
“They loved it,” recalled Mr. Kerner. “It was something about the hum of the wheel and the breeze off the ocean.”
In 1983, Freddie Garms offered to sell the Wonder Wheel to Denos Vourderis, who had previously bought the adjoining kiddie park. Coney Island was blighted by this time, and a homeless man stabbed the Vourderis patriarch in the chest with a screwdriver. As he was recovering, his children visited him in the hospital and tried to talk him out of buying the wheel.
Their father would have none of it. “He said, ‘I got guts. You got no guts; tell him I want to buy it,’” Dennis Vourderis remembered. The family bought the ride for $250,000.
The task of restoring the dilapidated wheel was daunting, and the only maintenance instructions had been scrawled on the back of a cardboard cigarette carton, ending with the words, “Good Luck.”
One of the more frightening challenges came after the Vourderises’ first season operating the ride, when the previous owner informed them they needed to lift the gargantuan wheel off its axle to replace some worn steel rollers.
“You ever put your car on a jack and you worry your jack will give out?” asked Steve Vourderis, Dennis’s brother. “Well, this is a 150-foot-tall, 200-ton wheel up in the air, and you’re up there 75 feet in the air working on it, worrying the whole thing could come down.”
In the end, the Vourderises completed a handsome restoration of their prize possession. The wheel was designated a city landmark in 1989, and it has been spinning every summer since — until this year. But even as the financial math becomes more vexing with each week the park remains closed, the family has not abandoned hope for the long term.
“If there’s one thing I learned from my dad, it’s that I have faith in Coney Island, and I know it’ll come back,” Dennis Vourderis said. “So I kind of grew some guts — as well as a gut, from being in quarantine.”
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