Lula and Deno’s Engagement Ring: The Wonder Wheel
To celebrate #International Women’s Day and #Women’s History month here at #greekamericangirl, we are commemorating the passing of a Greek American woman synonymous with a New York City landmark: Lula Vouderis. Lula passed less than a month ago, but her story captures the essence of the Greek American experience. She was the matriarch of operations, the true rudder behind Deno’s Wonder Wheel, the iconic ride that associated Coney Island with nickel rides, Nathan’s hot dogs, and the childhood escape for thousands of immigrants who were looking for a cheap weekend getaway. And it was all just a subway ride away.
Lula’s life is the stuff that demonstrates how the dreams of many a hard-working immigrant in NYC become reality: hard work, resilience and more hard work. It is an honor to document her story.
The following account of her life is provided by her grandson, Deno Voudouris, who was kind enough to speak to me shortly after her passing:
Lula Vourderis was born in Oneonta, New York in 1931 to an immigrant Greek family . Her father was a hat cleaner and shoe repairman. A turning point came in 1935 when she at age 4 along with her mother and sister returned to Greece to visit family. It was there that her mother contracted typhoid and passed away, leaving her and her sister orphaned. Her father, still in America, had to come by steamer boat to take the girls back. This caused a delay of several months. In an effort to find a surrogate mother for his girls, he married another woman from his local village. By then, World War II had broken out. The US government allowed only citizens to return to America. As his new bride was not a US citizen, he felt reluctant to leave her in Greece. Therefore, he decided to wait out the war in Greece. The family stayed until 1946 when they were able to come back. The decision to stay in Greece during the German and Italian occupation nearly cost them their lives. The stories of the war haunted Lula forever. Her family suffered starvation. She never forgot the feeling of hunger.
In 1946 the family returned to the United States, settling in Manhattan. To get a sense of the struggles they faced as poor immigrants without clothing or food, Deno recounts the story of the blankets they received from the Red Cross upon arrival to New York harbor. The blankets came with the American flag on them. Because they had no other means, Lula and her sister transformed the blankets into jackets with the American flag emblazoned on the back. Those jackets saved their lives many times from the cold. Eventually, her father was able to secure a peddler’s license, as was common for many immigrants at that time. He started selling hot dogs and when he heard that Coney Island was teeming with people on the weekends, he pushed his luck all the way to Brooklyn hoping to provide a better future for his family.
But life was not easy. It was a struggle to make ends meet with expenses and days sometimes 16 hours long, in the hot sun in the rain. Lula’s grandfather would give her a $20 bill to deposit in the bank every morning (equivalent to $200 today) to give the impression that business was going well. But what she did not know is that he withdrew the same amount at night so that he would give it back to her in the morning.
And then another turning point in her life happened: she met Deno Verdouris.
Lula and Deno’s Romance and the Engagement Ring that became the Wonder Wheel
Lula and Deno’s life began at the Wonderwheel. They were both humble hot dog peddlers on the boardwalkselling roasted peanuts, pretzels and the famous hot dogs that put Coney Island on the map. Their fathers knew each other and they crossed paths each evening when they parked their carts in the same garage. Eventually Deno built the courage to propose to her. The Wonder Wheel at that time and to this day was the site of countless proposals and newlywed rides, being dubbed “the most romantic ride in the world.” (atlasobscura.com)
Legend has it that he was too poor to afford an engagement ring, so he promised her the only ring he could—the ring behind her. He promised he would someday own the ride and give her “a ring so big, everyone in the world would see how much he loved her – a ring that would never be lost.”
Although it took him nearly 40 years to do so, Deno eventually made good on that promise.
That “ring” has become a national landmark and like his promise, an eternal testament to their love.
Building a Boardwalk Empire
Success took time. Building Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park was a process. They started from selling ice cream, then hot dogs, then to running snack bars and diners. It was not until the late 70s when Pappou Deno became a mechanic for Ward’s Kiddie Park. It was just at around that time in the recession of the 1980s when the previous owner of the Wonder Wheel was looking to find a buyer. On June 7, 1983, Deno snatched his chance; he bought the Wheel for $250,000. There were no operating instructions for the ride, only a handwritten note on the back of a carton of cigarettes that said, “Good Luck.” From that moment on it was known as Deno’s Wonder Wheel.They would work it eventually adding more land until 1986 when the Wheel expanded to Deno’s Wonder Wheel Park.
Even though the operation had Deno’s name on it, it was Lula who was the unofficial manager and CEO of it all. She advised her husband with the daily operations and was intricately involved across all levels of the business: from accounting, to purchasing, training employees, to frying potatoes, cooking chicken and shish kabob, making cotton candy and serving ice cream, and all this while raising her own three children and managing a household. The hunger she experienced in childhood left a lasting impression on her. This is the reason her grandson attributes to the joy she took in feeding people, even customers who could not afford to pay.
When her husband passed away in 1994, she took full control of the business which had become a boardwalk empire. She passed the torch to her sons and eventually retired around 1995. Like the revered matriarch, she lived surrounded by her family with children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her room was never empty of extended family. Her beloved sister passed away in February and on her deathbed uttered a prophetic wish to take Lula with her so they could be together. In less than a month from that wish, Lula fell asleep at age 87, full of years and a life full of meaning.
Her accomplishments will follow for many centuries after. The “ring” that her husband promised her stands as a monument to their love. It remains an American landmark built on the energy, the passion, the perseverance of the Greek American dreams of success.
The History of the Wheel is linked to America’s history of immigrants
The ferris wheel had been a conception of the a Romanian-born amusement engineer named Charles Herman around the turn of the century who wanted to create a ride that would combine the thrill of a scenic railway. From this, the Wonder Wheel was born.
The wondrous ride opened to the public at Coney Island on Memorial Day in 1920. When Herman died, the operation of the ride was turned over to his son Fred. Fred maintained the wheel and even created his own ride, the “Spook a Rama” which operates nearby the Wonder Wheel to this day. Fred wanted out of the business by the 1980s but had trouble finding someone to take over the business. Enter Deno D. Vourderis.
Constantinos Dionysios “Deno” Vourderis was born in Aigion, Greece in 1920. He was the eighth of 22 children. He emigrated to the US at the age of 14 and later was given a peddler’s license by the US government. His first job was selling hot dogs from a pushcart in Manhattan.
Deno used his mechanical knowledge to land a job fixing and maintaining the kiddie rides at Coney Island in the late 70s. On June 7, 1983, Deno’s dream come true; he bought the Wheel for $250,000. There were no operating instructions for the ride, only a handwritten note on the back of a carton of cigarettes that said, “Good Luck.” From that moment on it was known as Deno’s Wonder Wheel.
Since Deno’s death in 1994 his two sons and their extended family still run the Wonder Wheel and the other amusements that make up Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park. The park has become a true institution of Coney Island, creating the many rituals that make it a one-of-a-kind place.
The Wonder Wheel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and five years later it, along with its neighbor the Parachute Jump, was designated an official New York City landmark. In 2016 Deno’s Wonder Wheel celebrated its 95th continuous year of operation. Since its debut it has provided over 35 million rides, with the 40 million mark approaching fast. (atlasobscura.com)