Carousels Make A Comeback

a restored carousel
There's something wonderful about an old-fashioned merry-go-round - something beautiful, too, and nostalgic. Dedicated preservationists have been restoring some of them for us, our kids and grandkids. Michelle Miller takes us for a spin:

There's nothing that says childhood and summer quite like a carousel.

In amusement parks and on boardwalks, the air is alive with music. For adults, it brings back memories. For kids, it creates them.

Artist Jane Walentas said "Even infants love it. I don't know if it's all the lights and the mirrors and the action, but kids just really go crazy for it. And that touches me."

Walentas has had a lifelong love affair with carousels.

"I grew up in New Jersey near Palisades Park. As a kid, I spent time in Asbury Park. So I grew up with carousels. I love carousels."

She loved them so much that when her husband David was developing a stretch of New York's waterfront in the 1980s, they thought a carousel would be a perfect fit for a local park.

Knowing that carousels, new or used, are hard to come by, Jane kept an eye out, and in 1984 she got lucky - buying a fire-damaged merry-go-round at an auction at the struggling Idora Amusement Park in Youngstown, Ohio.

She paid $385,000.

The wooden, hand-carved carousel, built in 1922, was shipped to Jane's studio in Brooklyn for restoration.

"It was my dream, when I first started working on it, to save the old original paint," she said. "As I got into it, the old original paint, in most cases, was very fragile. And I couldn't save it. That was a big disappointment for me."

But the chariots (unlike the horses) were not ridden and not as beat up. "They didn't need as much repair, or any repair really. I was able to save the old paint."

Working on and off with a small staff, Jane spent the next 22 years meticulously restoring what is officially designated Philadelphia Toboggan Company #61.

"I really got into it, I really loved it."

Just stripping the paint took 16 years, and used the same kind of paint used to paint carousels in the 1920s.

"You wanted to be precise to the T?" Miller asked.

"Yes, and it really made a difference."

Layer by layer, the carousel revealed its original splendor.

"It was a beautifully made and carved carousel. I really think the carvings are exquisite. I wanted to bring that back to life."

Historian Barbara Charles says carousels first became popular in Europe in the 18th century, in public parks and on estates of the wealthy, though they go back even further.

"The earliest documented reference we have to a ride for the public that really is the carousel as we might know it today, in its rudimentary form, is 1620 in what's now Bulgaria," she said.

They made their way to the United States about two hundred years ago.

At first, men used brute force to operate the rides, but that changed as technology improved.

"I think the golden age, you would have to say is after you get steam power, or electric power," Charles said. "By 1900, we have the up-and-down mechanism, and the true hey day, in my mind, is 1900 to World War I. Then there's a bit of revival in the 1920's. With the Depression, that's the end."

At the peak of their popularity there were about 1,500 carousels in this country. Today, there are only about 150. But they are, as Charles says. "coming back in favor."

The world-famous Central Park carousel is celebrating its 100th anniversary in New York, and after nearly going bankrupt, the Crescent Park carousel in Providence, Rhode Island is once again a big hit.

And with renewed interest in carousels comes new design.

It was iconic figures from his childhood in Tennessee that inspired artist Red Grooms to design the Foxtrot Carousel.

Grooms hand-painted 36 fiberglass caricatures, each a tribute to the Volunteer State.

Among them, Andrew Jackson, the Everly Brothers, Olympic hero Wilma Rudolph, and guitar legend Chet Atkins.

And there's Grand Ole Opry legend Minnie Pearl, price tag and all.

"My mother lived next door to her in Nashville for many years," Grooms said. "She was a good friend to my folks, and a good neighbor. And of course, an absolute classic icon of Opryland."

As for Jane Walentas, she finished the restoration of her carousel in 2006, eventually spending more than a million dollars of her own money.

"When I first started working I just felt it was my duty to do it, to finish it. It's so much more beautiful as a finished carousel than I ever really imagined."

But now the question is, where would it go?

Jane has always intended to donate her carousel to the city, hoping it will go in a Brooklyn waterfront park. But it being New York, differences over where to put the carousel have kept it in a nearby warehouse … which Jane occasionally opens for amazed onlookers and curious kids.

They call her the Carousel Lady.

"Definitely, I am. I have quite a little fan club going in this neighborhood."