Lula Vourderis, who owned and operated Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park with her husband for more than three decades, died in Queens on Feb. 18. She was 87-years-old.
The beloved matriarch of the landmarked Wonder Wheel, who died after a years-long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, was a fixture in Coney Island, according to its unelected mayor and the founder of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, who said he first met Vourderis and her husband, Deno, back in the ’80s when he opened his home of human oddities.
“She always had a glow about her, a generosity and friendliness about her,” said Dick Zigun. “She was very much a mother to all of us in the amusement community.”
She lived most of her life in the distant borough of Queens, but Coney Islanders always considered her one of their own, Zigun said.
Indeed, residents recognized Vourderis’s role in making Coney the entertainment destination it is today back in 2014, when leaders of neighborhood group the Alliance for Coney Island awarded her a lifetime achievement award for her decades of commitment to the community, according to the alliance’s head, who praised Vourderis’s humility and bootstrapping spirit.
“She was the epitome of the American dream,” said Alexandra Silversmith. “She was not a flashy person at all and didn’t want attention on all the good things that she was doing — she was definitely someone who left an impact on a lot of people.”
Vourderis, who often doled out homemade fried potatoes, shish kabob, and cotton candy to visitors of the People’s Playground, originally hailed from upstate New York, and spent part of her childhood in Greece — where, at 6-years-old, she lost her mother to typhoid, and later struggled to get by while living in the country during World War II, according to her grandson Deno Vourderis.
After the war, her family returned to Manhattan, where Vourderis’ father bought a pushcart and began selling hot dogs — a job Vourderis took up just a few years later. She soon met her future husband, a fellow Grecian and wiener seller. The pair spent their weekends on dates in the People’s Playground, where they took in the sights and sounds of Sodom by the Sea. And on one hot day in 1947, Deno proposed to Lula on Coney Island Beach, promising her the iconic Wonder Wheel that loomed overhead in lieu of a ring that he couldn’t afford, the pair’s grandson said.
“He said to her, ‘I don’t have money for a ring, but if you turn and look at that big wheel over there, I promise that one day I’ll buy it for you,’” the younger Deno said.
The couple went on to have four kids — Aristea, Dennis, Steve, and Helen.
And more than three decades after her husband made his promise, Lula finally got her Wonder Wheel. In 1983 the pair bought the more than 60-year-old, 150-foot-tall, 400,000 pound ride from owner Fred Garms — whose father, Herman, was its first owner-operator — and dubbed it “Deno’s Wonder Wheel.”
The duo then got to work restoring the contraption, which the city landmarked six years later, in 1989 — three years after the husband and wife bought the land next door to the ride, which they christened “Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park” for its range of other attractions for kids and adults.
Vourderis spent a decade cleaning and cooking at the amusement park, where she served food from the couple’s snack bars — a passion born from her own food-insecure years in Greece during the war, her grandson said.
“After going hungry, she took joy in feeding people, even if they couldn’t pay,” he said.
Vourderis retired in 1995 — the year after her husband died — and spent the rest of her life as a grandmother and great-grandmother living with her family in their Queens home, the younger Deno said. Her sons Dennis and Steve took over the family’s fun business, which they run to this day.
Doctors diagnosed Vourderis with Alzheimer’s in the early 2000s, and Steve took care of her until she died surrounded by her family this month, according to her grandson.
And through it all, Vourderis never forgot her love for Coney Island, a place she loved for its ability to bring people from all walks of life together, he said.
“It was a place where immigrants could live out their American dream,” her grandson said. “After seeing so much war in her life, diverse people enjoying life together meant the world to her.”