December 9, 2012 - By: Richard Morgan

Rough Ride for Arcades at Coney Island Park

GypsyAs Coney Island rebuilds after Sandy, the operators of its amusement parks face a specific challenge: to refurbish beloved but antiquated games, park owners have to reach out to special tinkerers to repair fan favorites like Grandma's Predictions. As storm-battered Coney Island rebuilds after Sandy, the operators of its famed amusements face a specific challenge: how to refurbish beloved but antiquated rides and games without stripping the novelties of their character. Since most contractors or fix-it crews don't have experience with carousel parts and bumper cars, park owners are reaching out to a unique cadre of experts and professional tinkerers to painstakingly repair old relics and fan favorites. "We planned for the worst. But it got worse than that," said Dennis Vourderis, 54 years old, who co-owns Deno's Wonder Wheel Amusement Park with his brother, Steve, 50. "We spent our youth here and never left, never will." Despite the damage, the park plans to reopen as expected on March 2013. While most of the city pushes toward glitz and newness, from the High Line to Atlantic Yards, Coney Island has long existed as a kind of communal souvenir snow globe of yesteryear. So replacing old favorites with shiny new replicas isn't an option for the Vourderis brothers, who are going to great lengths to double down on tradition before their March 2013 reopening. Some of the park's novelties were lost forever during Sandy. Dozens of games were destroyed, from claw machines full of water-logged stuffed animals to a $70,000 Scarface shooting gallery that shot back at player with pneumatic water guns. For Dennis Vourderis, the 20-year-old, four-player Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game held special meaning. "My kids grew up on that game," he said. "That sucked, throwing that." The brothers are going through the animated characters in the Spook-A-Rama haunted house one by one to see if they can be salvaged—Dennis Vourderis is currently evaluating a Frankenstein, a devil, a piano player and a man in a barrel. Local muralist Barbara Listenik is also retouching damaged firefighter figurines from the Kiddie Park. Even if they fail to pop out or move, the creatures and ghouls will be cleaned and returned to Spook-A-Rama; new creatures will be purchased to replace those damaged beyond repair. Restoration has been less vexing for Coney Island's Luna Park, which includes the 85-year-old wooden Cyclone roller coaster. Luna Park's Italian parent company, Zamperla, has a division of mechanics to fix machinery. "It's easier for us to have that internal resource than to look for outside help," said Nicole Purmal, the marketing director at Luna Park's Coney Island site. But for the rare machines at the Wonder Wheel park, high-level specialists have been called in. Dearest to Dennis Vourderis was what he calls the park's "good luck charm": Grandma's Predictions, a fortune-telling machine built between 1929 and 1932 that has stood at the same spot in the park since its current owners' father bought the property in 1983. Grandma had stood next to an equally celebrated Zoltar, the turbaned fortune-telling machine made famous in the movie "Big." But now Zoltar's head lies in his hands, amid broken "test-your-strength" machines. "Grandma was older and wiser than Zoltar," Mr. Vourderis joked. "She knew how to survive." Grandma now sits in a kind of intensive-care ward for century-old knickknacks in the Westchester County workshop of Bob Yorburg, 57, who specializes in carnival repair, and who recently revamped the carousel organ for the Big Apple Circus at Lincoln Center. In the summer, Mr. Yorburg was visiting Coney Island to show off some Punch and Judy puppets and to make a video for the Coney Island History Project. For Mr. Yorburg, Coney Island is a special place: He learned sleight-of-hand magic from famed magician Al Flosso, who billed himself in the 1910s as "The Coney Island Fakir." In his workshop—amid candlestick telephones and a hoard of subway tokens—Mr. Yorburg tinkers with Grandma. He has found her new vintage wax hands, a new dress and new wig, but mostly he is fixing her guts, which were completely submerged in the storm. Like many machines of its sort, Grandma was full of jerry-rigged clutter—a paper clip holding this bit together here, two parts that shouldn't be glued together there. Inside Grandma, he pulled out a bottle of Clorox bleach that he estimated to be from the 1920s and a bathroom light from about the 1950s. "This stuff was made to last forever," Mr. Yorburg said. "And it really can. It's actually mechanical, so it's not like this is shorting out like a modern arcade game." As a baseline, Mr. Yorburg is comparing Grandma to an identical twin he found and is using as a model. "Admiring craftsmanship and antiquity is all well and good," he said, "but it's better if you can see it work. I get to do that. I bring these machines back to life."