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11 Years of Loving Labor, and a Ride of Sorts Is Over

Starting in Garden Grove and finishing in Missouri, one man offers the world an antique treat.

September 22, 2004|David Haldane | Times Staff Writer

Chuck Donohue is nearing the end of what seemed an impossible dream more than a decade ago.

Late last month, the electrician-turned-artisan added the finishing touches to the 82-year-old merry-go-round he refurbished. Over the last 11 years, he has meticulously hand-carved wooden horses, roosters, rabbits and pigs. All mounted with glass eyes. He has re-created cherubs and busts, painting them ivory, lavender and gold, and setting them against an ornate, mirrored frame.

Now, as he sits in his rural Missouri yard admiring the majestic reminder of a bygone era, Donohue finds himself wondering what one does with a fully operational 1922 carousel. More specifically, to whom do you sell a 36-foot-diameter, 18-foot-tall carnival ride?

The answers to those questions, he hopes, will justify time spent and the $100,000 he has invested in the project. He hopes the Allan Herschell original will fetch $356,000 on the Internet.

"We're tickled to death to see it go around," he said, but "I'm getting tired. I'm 67 years old and I'm tired of working all these hours."

For more than a decade, Donohue refurbished the merry-go-round in his Garden Grove backyard after work and through weekends. Even "Monday Night Football" had to be worked into the schedule.

"I had a TV set up in the garage," he said with a sigh.

His mission started innocently enough in the early 1990s. Donohue, an electrician who was teaching at a Long Beach trade school, would grab lunch across the street from where a crew was installing a carousel.

"Every day I'd go over there to see what they'd done," he said. He had always loved working with his hands but had never been particularly interested in merry-go-rounds.

On one of those lunch hours, he blurted out some mechanical advice. "Some guy stuck his head up and asked, 'Do you know machinery?' " Donohue recalled.

That was the beginning of his friendship with Ed Roth, described by experts as one of the nation's premier carousel woodcarvers.

Suddenly smitten with carousels, Donohue began to practice woodcarving while he and Roth searched for a merry-go-round frame.

They eventually found one, made by the Allan Herschell Co., which built the bulk of America's carousels.

"We brought it to my house, backed it up and dumped it in the backyard" in Garden Grove, Donohue said.

It was the start of a long journey for Donohue, who continued the project on his own.

He rebuilt the carousel's motor, gears and lubrication system. He replaced the floor. Then he sandblasted all the metal parts and fixed the fluorescent light fixtures.

He also restored the carousel's decorative panels, which had been replaced by after-market fiberglass.

Though generally faithful to the original details, Donohue bowed to modern sensibilities in two instances: He covered the once-bare breasts of female figures with painted cloth, and he applied varying skin tones to the cherubs to reflect a diverse world.

In January he retired from the construction industry and his family moved to a large house on 1 1/2 acres in Theodosia, Mo., overlooking a lake. He set up the carousel in the yard and, late last month, finally finished.

"That was the day I walked back from it, took the covers off and started taking pictures," he said.

When all was done, he had carved nearly 30 wooden animals and 36 cherubs.

He still hasn't taken a ride on any of his carved masterpieces.

"I'd rather just look at them. Every time I look out there ... I kind of giggle inside."

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