- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 1, 2006

Old-time carousels — complete with hand-carved and hand-painted horses, tigers and lions and loud, waltz-playing band organs — are few and far between.

“There used to be 6,000 of them. Today, there are 152 left nationwide,” says Bette Largent, president of the National Carousel Association. “A lot of them were just scrapped and used for firewood.”


On the bright side, the Washington area is home to several of these joyful remnants of a bygone era when even amusement park rides deserved the skilled hand and eye of an artist.

Among them are the 1940s Allan Herschell carousel (often referred to as the Smithsonian carousel) on the Mall, the 1910s Herschell-Spillman carousel at Wheaton Regional Park and the 1920s Dentzel carousel at Glen Echo Park.

Even though children have many activities, including television, video games and sports, vying for their time and attention, the carousel at Glen Echo still welcomes about 100,000 visitors — many of them children — each year, says Max Hurley, carousel technician at the park.

“There’s something about going around and around, about riding the animals that appeals to children,” Mr. Hurley says, raising his voice over upbeat waltzes radiating from the old Wurlitzer band organ, which was installed at the park in 1926.

Children aren’t the only ones who love the carousel. Kandi King of Northwest, who spent a recent afternoon at Glen Echo Park while baby-sitting Sally Mandel, 7, and Caleb Glover, 5, says there’s nothing quite like a carousel ride.

“I actually love carousels. I make my adult friends ride them,” Ms. King says and laughs. “I think part of it is nostalgia. Part of it is the combination of motion and music. It feels good; it’s fun.”

Sally says riding on a carousel horse makes her think of a real horse. In fact, throughout the ride, she pets and strokes her carousel horse.

Dentzel carousels are known to have not only horses, but a menagerie of animals. The Glen Echo carousel, for example, has 40 horses, two chariots, one giraffe, one lion, four ostriches, four rabbits, a tiger, and a deer eating a green leaf.

“Dentzel was one of the finest carousel makers in the country,” says Sam Swersky, park ranger at Glen Echo Park. “The animals were hand-carved; they were symmetrical and very pleasing to the eye.”

Nevertheless, artistic workmanship — in details such as wavy manes, tassels and jingle bells — was not wasted on parts not viewed by the people in line, such as the animals’ side facing in toward the carousel center. It was the outside — the “romance” side — that was fancy.

The Glen Echo carousel recently underwent renovations in which an artist restored the figures and panels, re-creating the shine and bright colors of years past. The artist had to remove about 14 coats of paint in her detective work to discover how the originals had looked.

Dentzel, the last name of a German carousel maker who came to the United States in the mid-1800s, is still a name in the carousel-making business. Bill Dentzel, a fifth-generation carousel maker in Washington state, has made several hand-carved carousels.

“I didn’t think I’d get into making carousels until I retired, but then in my 30s, I started making one and people got excited about it, and I had a lot of fun,” Mr. Dentzel says. “I decided I couldn’t wait.”

Mr. Dentzel’s carousels are much smaller than the 50-plus-figure carousels his grandfather and great-grandfather made. (His father was a lawyer who made carousels on the side.)

One of Mr. Dentzel’s recent creations is a solar-powered eight-figure carousel in Hopland, Calif. It features animals native to that area, such as a mountain lion, a skunk and a wild turkey.

“To build the kind of carousel that Glen Echo has probably took 10 years and a hundred people working full time,” Mr. Dentzel says. “Today, that would cost millions of dollars.”

Even if someone could and wanted to pay that type of money, the workmanship wouldn’t be the same, he says.

“A lot of people trained in apprentice shops back then,” he says. And they — many were Italian and German immigrants — were very specialized. “They would have people who did only [horse] legs. So, you can imagine, they got pretty good at legs,” he adds.

Though the burning and auctioning off of carousels (which started in the 1960s) has nearly ceased, the future of classic carousels — or any carousel — is uncertain, Mr. Dentzel says.

“The question is, where do you put them? In our car culture, there is no natural place for them,” he says. “They have to be in a place with a lot of foot traffic, but in amusement parks today, there are so many high-tech things, carousels kind of get lost.”

Instead, he says, carousel restoration and building can be part of an overall revitalization of urban centers. He says baby boomers and other retirees with woodworking skills and time on their hands are the best hope for carousels.

He probably would be happy to know about a project in La Plata, Md., started by retirees who have set out to build a carousel with 40 to 50 animals. Burkey Boggs is one of the people spearheading the project.

“We’re woodcarvers, and this is something we can do for us and the community,” says Mr. Boggs, who lives in La Plata. “We can leave something for our grandkids to enjoy.”

Like many others, he finds carousels carry nostalgia. He remembers taking the Wilson Ferry Line to the now-closed Marshall Hall Park, an amusement park in Charles County just across from Mount Vernon, with this wife many decades ago.

“We went before we were married,” Mr. Boggs says. “We would always ride the carousel. … It was fun and magical.”

Mr. Boggs’ group, the Southern Maryland Carousel Group, hopes to have the carousel ready by mid-2008, when Charles County celebrates its 350th anniversary. The county already has designated land, and the group is close to completing its seventh carousel figure.

Mrs. Largent says she’s encouraged by this type of community effort.

“Carousels are still at risk, but this new resurgence in interest is encouraging,” she says.

Yet, while enthusiasts applaud the efforts, should the rest of us care? Are carousels still relevant?

“Every child deserves to have a carousel to ride, whether that child is 2 or 80,” Mrs. Largent says. “During the Depression, they helped wipe out bad memories for people. I think they still have that ability.”

Area’s antique carousels:

The Mall (in front of the Arts and Industries Building), 900 Jefferson Drive SW; 703/938-9899. Open 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily except Christmas Day and during inclement weather. Cost: $2 per person. Description: 1940s, Allan Herschell, wood carousel.

Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Ave., Glen Echo; 301/492-6229. Open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and noon to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday during the summer months. Cost: $1 per person. Description: 1920s, Dentzel, wood carousel.

Watkins Regional Park, 301 Watkins Park Drive, Upper Marlboro; 301/218-6757. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday during the summer months. Cost: $1 per person for Prince George’s County residents, $1.25 general admission. Description: Circa 1905, Dentzel, wood carousel.

Wheaton Regional Park, 12012 Kemp Mill Road, Wheaton; 301/942-6703. Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily during the summer months. Cost: $1.50 per person. Description: Circa 1910-1915, Herschell-Spillman, wood carousel.

Lake Accotink Park, 7500 Accotink Park Road, Springfield; 703/569-0285. Open noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday during summer months. Cost: $1.25 per person. Description: 1930s, Allan Herschell, wood carousel.

Lee District Park, 6601 Telegraph Road, Franconia; 703/922-9841. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday during summer months. Cost: $1 per person. Description: 1918, Allan Herschell, metal carousel.

Source: National Carousel Association

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