At Playland Park in San Antonio, the carousel was always spinning. Even if there were no passengers, owner Jimmy Johnson instructed the operator to keep it whirling. It had four technicolor wooden horses to a row, 52 jumpers in all. Built as a traveling carousel, it could be broken down and packed away on wagons every night as the carnival moved from town to town. But from 1943 to 1980, the carousel didn’t budge from its spot at the front of the park on the corner of Broadway and Alamo. Chances were, as Johnson knew, any kid walking past would see the ornate features in action and insist on at least one go-round.
Zip Zepeda, now 81, fell for the marketing ploy every time. Each time he entered the gates as a boy, he had to visit the carousel first. As he went in circles, he studied the craftsmanship. “I used to be fascinated,” Zepeda says. “I couldn’t figure out how they made the horses.”
No one has taken a twirl on the Playland Park carousel in Texas since the summer ended 42 years ago, but the carousel itself has been on quite a ride. It briefly left the state, came back, was auctioned in pieces, and spent years in storage. Now an Austin entrepreneur plans to make it the centerpiece of a new venue in town.
The carousel’s history is murky. This much is fact: it was built in 1917 by the C. W. Parker Amusement Company in Leavenworth, Kansas. From there, we lost track of it until 1943, when it showed up in Texas. A San Antonio newsreel from 1975 claims it was hand carved by German prisoners of war at the company’s headquarters, but that was a story told by Johnson to add to the legend of the carousel, says Ed Gaida, who was a friend of Johnson’s and is the author of Just for Fun! Jimmy Johnson’s Playland Park. (That claim is false: POWs weren’t held in Kansas until World War II.)
It’s not clear where or how Johnson bought the carousel, but he moved from Chicago to San Antonio for unknown reasons around 1940. (Gaida can’t confirm the rumor that it was due to Mafia ties.) A high-ranking military officer from Fort Sam Houston told Johnson that America would soon enter the war, and service members stationed in the city would need a place to blow off steam, so Johnson set up a penny arcade downtown across from the Empire Theatre. In 1943, he expanded the venture into an amusement park called Playland Park. The Rocket, a wooden out-and-back roller coaster, was a customer favorite over the years, but the carousel held a timeless appeal. And it was always front and center. “It was one of the first rides Jimmy bought,” Gaida said. “As long as he was in the picture, the carousel was there.”
The carousel stopped spinning at midnight on Labor Day 1980, when Playland Park closed for good. It was deconstructed and moved to Bell’s Amusement Park in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it entertained children until 1985—two years after Johnson’s death. His family took the carousel back to San Antonio, where it sat in storage on the Playland Park property until it was put up for auction in 1988. As Gaida tells it, each horse was sold individually. After all 52 were purchased, the bids were added up and 15 percent was tacked on. That was the opening bid for the entire carousel. If anyone purchased it, the bids for the horses would be considered void. “I don’t remember what the number was for the carousel. It was in excess of four hundred thousand dollars. And nobody bid,” says Gaida, who was at the auction. “When it was over, the people who bought the horses simply mobbed the carousel and hauled the horses off themselves.”
Most of the horses were bound for California, Gaida remembers. He approached one woman who left with a horse that had grapes carved on it—she said she was putting it up in the tasting room of her winery.
Dr. Morris Franklin Jr., a local surgeon, went to the auction intending to bid on a 1936 Rolls-Royce. Instead, he came home with the body of the carousel and four horses. He didn’t think it should leave the area. He had hopes of restoring the carousel, and he even created the San Antonio Carousel Foundation with that intent. Zepeda saw a newspaper article in which Franklin asked for volunteers to help restore the carousel, and he joined the cause immediately. The foundation had about three hundred members at one point, who worked together to track down some horses from different C. W. Parker carousels and replicate others. They’d spend weekends scraping, painting, and planning a permanent home for the carousel. But passion wasn’t enough: they needed a building that was big enough to house the carousel. It needed to be fifty feet in diameter and at least two stories high. The concrete floor needed to be reinforced to handle the weight. They didn’t have enough money, and eventually, the number of members dropped to just four. The remaining acolytes had aged in the decades since the acquisition, and in 2012, they decided to pass the carousel on to someone else.
Eight years later, Damon Jones, an Austin-based musician and former film-festival producer, was taking his kids to a traveling carousel at Zilker Park’s Trail of Lights. His mother-in-law asked where he usually takes them to ride one in Austin. The answer was “nowhere.” There isn’t one in the capital city.
“The line [for the traveling carousel] was around the block,” he says. “I recognized the look on people’s faces and the magic of the ride.” After researching for a few weeks, he came up with a business plan: he decided he’d build a carousel for his city. But when he started talking with carousel enthusiasts, he got something even better. Franklin’s son, Morris Franklin III, heard of Jones’s interest through the National Carousel Association and, after realizing their intentions aligned, gifted the carousel to him.
Jones plans to build a glass-enclosed venue for the carousel with an area for events and a stage for live music (“It is Austin, after all,” he says). Jones is in talks with several potential site partners and hopes to open the venue, which he’s named the Magistery, by the end of next year.
For now, the carousel is being restored in Ohio. For the two dozen or so horses he is missing, Jones plans to have some carved to celebrate a few Texans. Willie Nelson’s horse will have his guitar, Trigger, on it. A Christopher Cross–themed stallion will be decked out in a sailboat and flamingos. Shannon Sedwick will have a horse as well. “We get to infuse Austin-style whimsy and flavor into it and create a one-of-a-kind ride,” says Jones. “All while also preserving this piece of Texas and American history.”