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Carousels Go for the Ride of Their Lives : Fun: Hand-carved wooden merry-go-rounds are giving way to models made of metal and synthetics. But they're as popular as ever.

December 20, 1991|JOY L. HAENLEIN | THE STAMFORD ADVOCATE

Horses, pigs and roosters are fixtures on the farm. But carve these animals from wood, give them rich histories and put them in America's parks or amusement centers, and they become a dying breed.

So turns the world of the antique carousel.

Born of competition between America's immigrant craftsmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and numbering as many as 6,000 before the Great Depression, the hand-carved carousel has fallen prey over the last 70 years to disasters, changing tastes and the collectibles craze of the 1980s.

Today, only about 160 carousels remain; the rest have been destroyed or sold piecemeal to collectors.

Although a sluggish economy may have slowed the pace of carousel sales over the past year, the antique merry-go-round still may be in for the ride of its life.

New carousels with Fiberglas or aluminum figures--far less expensive to buy and maintain than the real McCoys and more vandal-resistant to boot--are becoming so popular in shopping malls and other attractions that enthusiasts say future carousel memories may ring hollow, and not just because the new pieces are cast from metal or synthetics instead of poplar or bass.

"We don't have too much culture left in this country," says William Manns of Millwood, N.Y., co-author of "Painted Ponies," a guide to American carousel art. "The carousel is one of those very special, unique artistic elements that add to the culture.

"It's sort of like tearing down the old courthouse," Manns says of the demise of the antique carousel. "To preserve any piece of historic architecture is the responsibility of governments to future generations."

In a way, the antique carousel is a study in American ingenuity. Although Manns traces the earliest carousel-style rides to AD 500, America indirectly grabbed its brass ring when Gustav Dentzel of Germany, Marcus Illions of Lithuania, Russians Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein and Charles Carmel and others immigrated to the eastern United States, many of them during the late 1800s.

Not all were carvers when they arrived, but a flourishing carousel business made them fierce competitors by the turn of the century. Depending on the amount and type of decoration, carousel carving styles tend to fall into one of three categories: Coney Island, Country Fair and Philadelphia.

Personal signatures are unmistakable, however. Daniel Muller hung military memorabilia from his horses because he was infatuated with the cavalry, for example, and Dentzel liked to decorate his saddles with birds.

But carousels were more than testaments to the Melting Pot. Enthusiasts say antique carousels are among the nation's most durable pieces of utilitarian art. "They're art objects, but they have a job to do," Manns says. "What amazes me is that they still work. The carousel is basically unchanged in 100 years, and it still operates as intensely as it did when it was brand-new.

"It's as if we were using a 1915 Cadillac as a taxicab today," Manns says. "Can you imagine what shape that car would be in?"

Fire, floods and storms destroyed the lion's share of the original carousel figures, according to Manns, but changing taste did its part, too. In the 1940s and '50s, old-time carousels were even bulldozed and used as landfill, he said. And as recently as the late '70s, prime carousel figures could still be purchased for less than $1,000.

But the collectibles craze of the late '80s changed that.

"Two things happened," says Nancy Loucks, owner and editor of the Carousel News and Trader, a monthly 6,000-subscriber publication based in Mansfield, Ohio. "By 1985, some people started to realize that if we don't do something, we're going to lose our carousels. And other people began to see carousel pieces sold at auction and said, 'I've always wanted a carousel horse. Now I know where I can get one.' "

The increased interest drove up auction prices, and each time a sales record was set--tops: an Illions jumper horse sold for $121,000 in 1989, Loucks says--more and more families decided to dig around in grandma's attic, hoping she too had an old carousel figure to sell. By 1988, antique dealers and speculators also were part of the carousel's boom market, driving prices even higher.

The sluggish economy and Persian Gulf War have choked the escalation, and although buyers still can expect to pay a minimum of $2,000 per antique figure, animals that would have sold for $50,000 to $100,000 two years ago now are selling for far less--if at all, Loucks says. Prices for full carousels generally range from $500,000 to nearly $2 million.

"Instead of putting them on the market, people are holding onto their carousels," Loucks says. "It's a good time to buy, but prices are so low that no one wants to sell."

Even Bridgeport, Conn., the city that became a national symbol of urban decay when it filed for bankruptcy recently, is holding onto its carousel--for now.

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