By Jeffrey Sanzel
Arcadia Publishing Co.’s Images of America Series’ latest offering is Charles Denson’s illuminating and handsomely constructed Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Park. The book doesn’t just explore the area’s oldest and most famous attraction, the Wonder Wheel, but honors Brooklyn’s Coney Island as a vibrant neighborhood of variety and independence. It also celebrates the importance of our country as a melting pot:
The story of the Wonder Wheel is the story of immigration in America. The century-old landmark comes with a narrative: this incredibly complex machine was designed, built, owned, operated, and ultimately saved by immigrants with little formal education who came to the United States penniless and wound up realizing the American Dream.
In 1907, 17-year-old Romanian-born Charles Hermann immigrated to the United States. While working in San Francisco, he saw the Aeroscope at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was this device that most likely inspired him to design his “perpetual motion machine.” (His early concept bore a resemblance to one of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches for a similar invention. The book smartly shows the drawings together.)
In New York, Hermann teamed with the more business savvy Herman Garms (born Rosenfeld) to form the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company. (Coincidentally, Garms and Hermann both arrived in the U.S. in the same year; the latter from Germany). It was realist Garms who suggested that it become a wheel and be used for an amusement ride. The pair were joined by businessman William J. Ward who was instrumental in the development of Coney Island. It was Ward who enabled the erection of the Wheel on the site of the torn-down Roosevelt’s Rough Riders roller coaster.
The book succinctly traces the building and opening of the Wonder Wheel in 1920 and notes that once built, Hermann walked away from it to pursue other projects. Typical of Hermann, he was more interested in creation and innovation than he was in financial gain. His life was a series of sometimes brilliant inventions for which he received little financial renumeration. In contrast, Garms stayed with the Wheel and his descendants would operate it for the next sixty years.
Throughout the 1920’s Coney Island flourished. Between 1917 and 1923, the City bought back the beachfront property from private holders to create a wide beach and public boardwalk. Rollercoasters — the Thunderbolt, Tornado, and Cyclone — were joined by two luxurious theaters: the RKO Tilyou and the Loew’s Coney Island. The Half Moon Hotel, fourteen stories high, opened in 1927. Ward was the driving force behind much of the renaissance.
The book continues by briskly tracing the events of the ensuing decades, highlighting the ups and downs with interesting and informative anecdotes. It shows the shifts in the attractions (changes in the businesses, various fires, etc.) and leads up to the purchase of the Wonder Wheel by Greek immigrant Denos Vourderis, in 1983.
Vourderis (born Constantinos Dionysios Vourderis in 1920) joined Greece’s merchant marine at the age of fourteen and then fought for the Americans in World War II. He began with a hotdog pushcart before growing his business to restaurants and food concessions. Fulfilling a life-long dream, he bought the Wonder Wheel and its environs, creating Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park, a family business that endures today. Vourderis is another wonderful example of the fulfillment of the American Dream.
One of the great joys of the Images of America series is, of course, the pictures. There are literally hundreds of photos spanning a century, each telling its own story. There are fascinating sketches and blueprints that show Hermann’s process and progress. There are maps and admission tickets, promotional stills, and candids. There is artwork from the popular Spook-A-Rama and behind the scenes photos revealing many of the innerworkings. There are also publicity pictures from films that have used the area as a location juxtaposed with the myriad visitors and employees. And, of course, dozens of pictures of the families that have been integral to its upkeep, survival, and improvement.
One particularly fun photo is an advertisement that includes the Wheel’s statistics (Height: 150 feet; Weight: 150 tons; Cars: 24—8 “dip” cars; Capacity: 132 riders) with “THRILLS” emblazoned across the Wheel along with “CONEY’S COLOSSUS!” and “STUPENDOUS! AWESOME! THRILLING!” in the text. The Wonder Wheel did not come with an operating manual; there is a photo of the only existent instructions, jotted down on the inside of a cigarette carton. At the end of the two columns is “Good Luck.”
The Wheel is more than an amusement ride. It’s a work of art and the ultimate survivor in an ephemeral world — a link to Coney’s remarkable past.
Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Park is an the ideal tribute to a ride, a place, and a way of life.
The executive director of the nonprofit Coney Island History Project, author Charles Denson grew up in Coney Island and began documenting his neighborhood as a boy, a passion that continues to this day. Pick up a copy of Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel Park at Book Revue in Huntington, www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com.