Fortune telling machines are part of the history of amusement parks in the 20th century, and one of the grande dames is Grandmother’s Predictions, located inside Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park on Coney Island. Akin to other proper ladies, her exact age is rather vague, but she appears to have been built between around 1929. According to Justin Rivers, who created our Secrets of Coney Island tour and is the author of a comic about Coney Island, the automaton was purchased by the Ward family, one of Coney Island’s great financiers who owned the Wonder Wheel and many other amusements. Grandmother’s Predictions is also one of 150+ entires in our book Secret Brooklyn.
Dennis D. Vourderis, who currently owns the amusement park with his brother Steve, tells us that Grandma came to the Wonder Wheel “in the 1930s and has remained in the same exact location since” (apart from a restoration after Superstorm Sandy). The Vouderis’ have been offered large sums for Grandma, as it’s a prized collector’s item, but Dennis says they have “refused as we had promised to never separate her from the wheel. My family was under strict orders to never let Grandma leave the Wonder Wheel site as she was the guardian of the wheel.”
Put in fifty cents, and the mannequin Grandma will start turning her head from side to side and she’ll start breathing. Her hand will move over the playing cards in front of her. The candle will light up, her eyes will open and a fortune will emerge from the slot. Printed on the slip of paper will be no only a prophesy but also lucky numbers and astrological information. Those familiar with the 1988 Tom Hanks movie Big will recognize Zoltar, another fortune telling machine located just next to Grandma.
Grandmother’s Predictions survived extensive damage from Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and was lovingly brought back to life in the specialty carnival workshop of Bob Yorburg in Westchester, New York. In the multi-month restoration, Grandma received a replacement set of vintage wax hands, a new wig and new dress. Then, using a twin game, Yorbug also reconstructed the interior mechanism.
He told the Wall Street Journal in 2012 that “this stuff was made to last forever, and it really can. It’s actually mechanical, so it’s not like this is shorting out like a modern arcade game.” Inside, he saw how Grandma had been impromptu repaired over the years – with paper clips and glue. He even found a vintage bottle of Clorox bleach from the 1920s and a mid-century bathroom light inside the machine.
The wooden cabinet that protects Grandma now was added as part of the 2013 restoration. Vintage photographs of Coney Island from the 1970s show a red metal case instead. The price has also risen from 10 cents, to 25 cents to the current 50 cents. What remains the same, the irresistible question: What does Grandma say?
Join us for a virtual talk on the Lost Amusement Parks of New York. The event free for Untapped New York Insiders. Join today and get your first month free membership with code JOINUS.
Lost Amusement Parks of New York