The old wooden merry-go-round with its hand-carved horses may soon be defunct. The ornately painted and jeweled steeds of childhood have not been made for 50 years, and those which remain are quickly becoming museum pieces and collectors’ items. Despite unconfirmed word of “a man in Florida” and “a man in New York” who will take orders and are attempting to maintain the tradition of hand crafting, the horses remain scarce, while modern, cast-aluminum ones turning to tape-recorded music are the lackluster substitute. Texas is fortunate in having several traditional carousels that keep alive the mystique.
Adult fascination with MGRs (enthusiasts use the abbreviation) seems fairly simple to explain—remembrance of childhood pleasures and an appreciation for beautifully done handiwork. Wildness, however, is the quality in the carousel which seems to catch the child’s imagination. Like circuses and clowns, carousels terrify some and delight others. The horses seem to fly: their legs are outstretched, manes and tails tousled, and necks thrown back or straining forward with elegant violence, bright red mouths baring glistening white teeth. Some are even armored, as if ready for a medieval battle. Alone with the horses and the wind and the music, the imaginative child can find freedom and adventure. For city kids who have never known the natural wildness of which Thoreau wrote, this is it.
According to the late Jackie Lane at HemisFair’s amusement park kids now prefer to ride the miniature Hondas and antique cars that stand on the revolving platform beside her cast-aluminum carousel. “The purple convertible is the favorite of the little girls,” she comments, while the merry-go-round, like the Ferris wheel, is merely a “symbolic” ride that every amusement park is expected to have. It is no wonder that they are so little used, for the mass-produced horses are passive and monotonous compared to their spirited predecessors.
Jimmy Johnson, who founded San Antonio’s Playland Park in 1941, claims his antique merry-go-round still has strong appeal. “Get a person smiling when he hits the gate,” he says. “Then he’ll leave a lot of money and go away happy.” Following that dictum, the carousel is the first ride you see upon entering Playland. A crusty veteran of the amusements business, Johnson believes that adults use kids as an excuse to ride themselves, and claims that “85 per cent of the attendance at parks anywhere in the world is adults.”
Playland’s merry-go-round was fashioned in 1917 by the C. W. Parker Company of Leavenworth, Kansas. The horses are lined up four abreast and, unlike the animals on many old machines, even the outer ones move up and down. Like the other rides there, Playland’s MGR is in peak condition. Johnson employs a resident artist year round to ensure proper maintenance.
Johnson says that the merry-go-round just isn’t a merry-go-round without music, a point few would dispute. But whereas the moderns use a tape recording, traditionalists like Johnson prefer a band organ. He recently purchased a steam-run calliope but is uncertain when it will be running, complaining that he was having difficulty obtaining the necessary instructions for operating it.
At least three Texas MGRs are products of the prestigious Dentzel company: Dallas’ Fair Park, Houston’s Astroworld, and Arlington’s Six Flags Over Texas. Gustav Dentzel’s factory was founded in 1867 in Philadelphia’s Germantown, and the extravagant rides produced there made the company a favorite of connoisseurs. One of Texas’ most exciting machines, the 1907 Dentzel owned by Roy Hofheinz, sports cats, lions, tigers, pigs, rabbits, and ostriches in addition to the traditional horses, offering the Astroworld visitor a menagerie of fantastical animals to ride upon.
The Dentzel ride at Fair Park in Dallas is probably Texas’ most extensively and conscientiously restored. Many of the horses were broken and rotted beyond recognition when the 1919 machine was purchased by the State Fair of Texas in 1972. Charles Noland, who has been personally responsible for much of the labor, has pictures of animals which would have been junked by a less determined man. Last winter the horses in the outer two rows were stripped of multiple layers of paint, often an inch thick, which obscured the delicate carving. Legs, tails, even heads and bodies, were recarved, and flaws refilled with resin or with glue and sawdust. The wood was oiled, then repeatedly primed and sanded until, a smooth surface was ready for a base coat and, finally, color. The end product is one the Dentzels would be proud to claim. Bodies are antiqued, carving is emphasized by careful shading and gold leafing, and each horse is appropriately unique.
Noland completed the two inner rows this winter. It is a time consuming job. More than 1200 hours went into restoring only seven horses last winter, and the animals are only part of the restoration; the housing is equally elaborate and also in need of repair. When Noland began managing the ride, the jesters which adorned the outer rim of the housing were gray and frightening to children. Some of the jester heads required recasting, then all were repainted; they now smile down with the bright eyes and red cheeks they were meant to have. After a search Noland found a man who finally agreed to replace the damaged beveled glass mirrors, also a part of the exterior. Slowly Noland and crew move toward the day when the entire Dentzel ride will be restored to its former glory.
Unfortunately the third Dentzel carousel in the state, owned by Six Flags Over Texas, has not enjoyed such good fortune. The horses are crudely repainted and badly chipped, while ornamental cherubs on the housing have been slopped over with green paint and old mirrors covered with panels. Maggie Marsh, an attendant, touches up chips on her own time, but the horses will have to wait for proper treatment until the administrators are in an “aesthetic mood” at budget time.
One of the problems merry-go-rounds face is the competition from thrill rides. “If you don’t threaten to scare the pants off them,” says Buster Brown, manager of the Bill Haymes traveling carnival, “people won’t ride.” While many modern amusement parks maintain the anachronistic MGR as a token, the late Bill Haymes paid special respect to his jenny (the term for a traveling carousel) by insisting upon personally raising and balancing its vital center pole at every location. Old-timers who work with the Haymes show still consider the MGR the heart of the midway; only after it is set up and the music begins can the carnival commence.
Buster Brown of the Haymes carnival oversees a Herschell-Spillmann jenny made between 1930 and 1938; that company was the only one to survive the Depression. Of the original machine all that remains are the wooden horses; the floor and the housing failed to survive the wear of continuous travel. While the horses lack the individuality of the intricate Dentzels, they have been given a fanciful paint job by H. L. Scott of New Braunfels.
The other ride owned by the Bill Haymes shows is in Fort Worth’s Forest Park. Its origins are unknown, but there are claims that it was made in Germany and is the oldest one in the state. This is doubtful since there are very few German-built carousels in the U.S., though many of the factories in America bore the German names of their immigrant founders. But whatever its origin, and in spite of its lack of music, the gentle-faced grinning ponies with dainty pointed hooves have a delicate charm. The paint is weathered, but it was initially well done and has aged gracefully.
Another outstanding machine is the 1907 Burelli carousel in the Country Fair section of Astroworld. Placed in an incongruous, shiny Stars-and-Stripes-Forever housing are ancient jewel-encrusted horses, some almost totally covered with colored glass gems. Burelli, master of the S-curve, carved quintessential carousel horses, with soft brown eyes, arched necks, and swirling manes. Astroworld’s is reputed to be the only Burelli merry-go-round in existence.
What is most lamentable about the Burelli’s modern housing, which admittedly is a needed, efficient means of protection, is that traditional, carved antique materials are still in storage at Astroworld. Sam Daidone, an antique buff in charge of restorations at the amusement park, complained that his attempts to maintain traditional music on the old rides were lost in a bureaucratic maze. “The Judge,” as Hofheinz is called by most of his employees, is himself an antique collector, and besides the two magnificent carousels operating at Astroworld, has two others in storage. He intends to display a revolving merry-go-round in his new home in River Oaks.
Charlie Meyer is with an agency in San Antonio which specializes in insurance for the amusements business. He calls amusements people “about the last real Americans left,” describing their versatility in a business which demands numerous talents, from handling finances to carving wood. He especially admires those who are sensitive to the tradition they are maintaining, who, in the face of waning demand, continue to preserve their antique rides.
The unusual art of carousel making ended with the Depression. Many of the old rides are gone, victims of fires, weather, time. It is unfortunate to see the remaining ones stuck in museums, but it is sadder still to see these magical creatures slip, like the dodo and dinosaur, into the bestiary of the extinct.