It all started with a proposal: For three generations, Coney Island’s iconic Wonder Wheel has been run by a family originally from Greece
“Marry me,” he promised, “and I’ll give you the biggest ring in the world.” Who could turn down an offer like that? Although it took thirty years, Deno D. Vourderis kept his promise. In 1983, he bought the most famous Ferris wheel in the world: Wonder Wheel on Coney Island.
“As always with decisions like this, the extended family council convened,” says Deno Junior, known as D. J., one of Deno D. Vourderis’ grandchildren. The wheel is still owned by the Vourderis family, and is now operated by the third generation. “Everyone met around a table, red wine was served.” The family had no debts, and takers for a 250 000-dollar Ferris wheel that was past its best were thin on the ground. Deno D. turned to his wife, Lula, and asked: What shall we do? She replied: Buy it! “That was the best decision our family has ever made,” says D. J. “It was the day we became part of American history!”
It’s a blazingly beautiful April day, and we are standing beneath the wheel, squinting up. It has been here for 99 years, turning day in, day out, whatever the weather. The brightly painted steel beauty gleams in the sunlight. Considering it’s so close to the water, it’s a miracle that there isn’t a speck of rust to be seen. The city’s bridges could learn a thing or two from it.
In its heyday, Coney Island was world famous. It was a visible symbol of “Americana,” that cornucopia of U.S. pop and entertainment culture that blossomed between 1890 and 1950. Long before television and cinema, the amusement parks offered mass entertainment across all social classes, with rides, circuses, dancehalls, freak shows, magicians, restaurants, aquariums, bathing houses, gardens and fireworks. They were the first places where young men and women could meet without chaperones and kiss on the roller coaster. The teenage date was practically invented here.
It wasn’t the Statue of Liberty that immigrants saw first when their ship arrived in New York, but the hundreds of thousands of light bulbs twinkling on Coney Island. Deno D. Vourderis was one those immigrants: Twice he came on a merchant ship and jumped overboard, and twice he was fished out and sent back. He was lucky the third time. Vourderis sold ice creams on the boardwalk, then got promoted to hot dogs – and that’s where the story started. He was Greek, Lula was the daughter of a Greek. He sold hot dogs, so did Lula’s father.
According to the family legend, he won Lula, 15 years his junior, with a trick. Every evening, he would give her twenty dollars – a significant amount in those days – and ask her to take it to the bank for him. Next day, he would withdraw the money and give her the same banknote in the evening. All he had was twenty dollars, but she thought he was rich.
D. J. leads me down below the Wonder Wheel into the workshop, an endless treasure trove that extends under the park and a fair way under the beach. It is crammed with spare parts, tools, old props and most importantly, a professional coffee grinder, on which he has lavished many hours. D.J. originally trained as an actor: “Acting helped me to open up. I was painfully shy.” He also met his wife there, acting in the off-Broadway play “Tony’n’Tina’s Wedding.” Now they have a son, who is three-and-a-half; since his birth D. J.’s Harley Davidson has gathered dust next to the cast-off parts of the Coney Island Spook-a-rama, a wonderfully old-fashioned ghost train.
The park has 16 kiddie rides, five attractions for adults, including Stop the Zombies, all part of the family business. The family council still convenes: Father, uncle, D. J., his two brothers, four cousins and all the wives. “It’s like the Knights of the Round Table,” days D. J. “Everyone has a say.” And at the end of the proceedings, father Steve decides. “He’s King Arthur.”
D. J. and Steve Vourderis work full time on the Wonder Wheel. The other family members are attorneys, fitness instructors, IT experts. But if necessary, everyone pitches in. “What can I say? We’re southern Europeans!” An entire family with a head for heights? D.J. laughs. “I was scared of heights as a kid. But I knew my family duty…” When he was 14, he tackled the problem head on. On one of the rare days his father wasn’t there, D. J. climbed up the wheel, nearly to the middle. He stuck it out for ten seconds then gingerly clambered back down. He had conquered his fear: “But you should never lose respect for heights.”
In 99 years, the Wonder Wheel has only stood still three times: During the New York blackouts in 1977 and 2003 – and in 2002, when Hurricane Sandy blasted the coast. “I sat at home, staring at my phone.” The screen showed live images from his security cameras. “The water kept creeping higher and higher, and there was nothing I could do.” The next day he tried to get to the Wonder Wheel, but wrecked rides were scattered across the site, fences and gates had buckled under the pressure of the water. At the rear of the workshop the water was almost three meters high – the line on the wall is still visible today. It took them days to pump out the water. Much of the equipment that had been taken underground for safety was ruined. It was a disaster. “But do you know Harry Stamper? He’s the guy Bruce Willis plays in Armageddon. That’s what my father’s like. He’s Bruce Willis! He gets things done.“
Isn’t it a bit intimidating to have King Arthur and Bruce Willis for a father? D. J. laughs. “It spurs me on!” There’s a clear division of labor: Steve is in charge of anything mechanical, D. J. handles technical revolutions: new computers, solar panels, a 3D printer. He hopes to run the wheel with hybrid technology one day. The warp-factor speeds on the control panel? That’s a joint effort: Father and son are massive Star Trek fans.
The old and the new – D. J. loves bringing them together. Not that the family council always approves: “I’m the techie who’s always giving them headaches.” The 1920s engine still works, and is sometimes wheeled out as “a backup for the backup.” It takes only five minutes to switch over to technology that’s a century old. Operations will always remain manual. The old wheel is buffeted by the wind like a tanker in the ocean, and you can’t just steer and brake it without knowing exactly what you’re doing. Depending on the wind direction, weights need to be balanced and the wheel needs to be delicately accelerated or braked. D. J. literally plays it by ear: “You can always hear how much the wind is slowing down or speeding up the wheel, how much it’s pounding the structure by the different sounds the engine makes.” A large part of his work involves listening.
Spending one’s daily life where others come to forget it – D. J. works in a strange bubble. Often he is so engrossed in his work that he forgets his magical surroundings. “I rarely appreciated it.” But a few years ago, possibly on Memorial Day, he and his wife took a ride in a gondola. There were fireworks. “And I thought to myself: it’s so beautiful!” Since then, D.J. has taken the odd moment to gaze across the water and down the Boardwalk. It’s almost like being back on stage, looking into the eyes of the people he’s doing it for – and seeing their joy.
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