Coney Island

Woody Allen returns to Coney Island for his latest film ‘Wonder Wheel’

August 18, 2017 By John B. Manbeck Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A postcard featuring the Wonder Wheel from the 1950s. Courtesy of John Manbeck

Woody Allen has returned to Coney Island for his latest film, “Wonder Wheel.” His 1977 success “Annie Hall,” starring Diane Keaton and Allen, was filled with scenes filmed around the first Thunderbolt roller coaster in Coney Island. Then he revisited Coney in 1987 for scenes in “Radio Days.” In this latest annual, a possible Oscar contender, he restricts himself to director and writer. The film is scheduled to occupy the prestigious closing position in the New York Film Festival in October 2017 and will open nationwide Dec. 1.

Filmed on location, the cameras started principal photography in September 2016 and then settled in for nine days at Deno’s Wonder Wheel in October 2016. Woody’s crew had full access to the park owned by brothers Dennis and Steve Vourderis and their families. Off season, the Wonder Wheel landmarked ride is open to the public only on weekends.

Rumors are afloat that a Cyclone scene was shot for the upcoming film and that even the Parachute Jump has been reborn for this production. Reports claim that some scenes were set in other Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brighton Beach and Vinegar Hill. More scenes were shot in Long Beach, New Jersey and possible the Bronx, according to IMdb.

It is likely that few cast members know about the evolutionary changes in the amusement park since two of the stars, Kate Winslet and Juno Temple, are British. A third star, Justin Timberlake, comes from Tennessee, and Jim Belushi from Chicago.

But New Yorkers Tony Sirico, Debi Mazar and Steve Schirripa are also on board (and with Max Casella offer a reunion of sorts for “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas”).

As with past movies set in Coney Island, Allen’s story deals with romance and lovers who meet on the beach. Winslet plays a waitress named Ginny who works in a clam bar while Timberlake takes on the role of a lifeguard named Mickey. The plot revolves around a middle-aged ride operator (Belushi), his wife (Winslet), their estranged daughter (Temple); lovers and assorted gangsters. The movie is produced by Amazon Studios.

In an interview, Dennis Vourderis answered several questions about the creative process on the shores of our famous Atlantic Ocean beach. To recreate a mid-century locale, movie sets were built and a few alterations were made to the Ferris wheel ride to return its historical form. The kiddie park and the snack bar were also included, while the park’s firehouse game was altered to look like a balloon-bust attraction.

The 150-foot Wonder Wheel was built in 1920 by Charles Hermann and the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company and owned by Herman Garms. As with most rides from the golden age of the “world’s largest playground,” the Wonder Wheel instills fear in the riders as the red cars swing out in space and over other smaller attractions. For the film, none of the stars rode the wheel. But historical records show that over 14,000 riders risked that chance on July 4, 1947, while it was still operated by the Garms family.

Deno Vourderis, the father of the brothers, bought the Wonder Wheel from Garms in 1983 and built other rides around it and over the former Eureka bathhouse that faced the boardwalk. Freddie Garms sold Deno his last property, the Spook-a-Rama ride, that same year. After Deno’s death, his sons added their father’s name to the original Ferris wheel ride.

Through the years, the Wonder Wheel has received exposure in the movies with cameo and “walk on” credits in commercials and documentaries and big budget major films such as “On the Town” (1949); “Coney Island Holiday” (1954); “Imitation of Life” (1959); “Lords of Flatbush” (1975); “Remo Williams” (1985); “Enemies: A Love Story” (1989); “Romeo Is Bleeding” (1993); “Crooklyn” (1994); and even an X-rated movie, “Hot Stuff” (1985). But never a starring role!  

For Woody’s 48th film, Deno’s Wonder Wheel is posing for its major profile. So, Mr. Allen, “Lights! Camera! Action!”

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