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‘Carousel nerds’ descended on SF and turned me on to merry-go-rounds for life

National Carousel Association Convention-goers ride the LeRoy King Carousel at the Children’s Creativity Museum at Yerba Buena Gardens on Sept. 16, 2022. | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

A week ago I had no idea that such a thing as the National Carousel Association existed—but now I’ll never forget. 

The group’s 49th annual convention took place across the Bay Area last weekend, highlighting our region’s beloved historic carousels and giving the many enthusiasts who adore them a cause for celebration.

For some, these rides are deeply personal. Ward Bray, a fifth-generation carousel enthusiast, has numerous family members who designed, carved and painted carousels. His grandfather’s original paintings remain on the carousel at Golden Gate Park. “I had no idea they still existed,” Bray said. 

Tobin Fraley is a carousel historian whose family helped to restore the Tilden carousel in Berkeley. “A carousel is the first thing you see or hear on the midway,” Fraley said. “Everyone is drawn in by the music.” 

As I followed the self-described “carousel nerds” from the LeRoy King Carousel at Yerba Buena Gardens, to the carousel at the San Francisco Zoo, I learned a number of things about these carnival relics that surprised me…

The National Carousel Association gathers at the Eugene Friend Carousel at the San Francisco Zoo on Sept. 17, 2022. | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

Carousels Tug at the Heartstrings

“I cry at carousels,” said Bette Largent, who served as president of the National Carousel Association from 2004 to 2016. “They’re sentimental.” When I asked her to explain why, she became too emotional to continue. 

Alexander Major, development and membership manager of the Children’s Creativity Museum, operates the LeRoy King carousel that he himself rode as a four-year-old. Now a young man, he recounted how his mother played carousel music to him while he was still in the womb. “It feels like a hobby, not a job,” Major said of operating the carousel. 

This year’s convention-goers demonstrated their enthusiasm by donning patches, jewelry and colorful hats as they made pilgrimages to carousels across the Bay Area, delivering plaques and taking rides. The attendees—many of them retired seniors—clapped gleefully astride the multi-colored mares, proving that carousels aren’t just for the young: They’re for the young at heart. 

Five-year-old Aiden Sagerman takes a spin aboard the tiger on the Eugene Friend Carousel when the San Francisco Zoo reopened to the public in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2008. | Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The Rides Are Fun, but the Work Is Serious 

The National Carousel Association, which has been in operation for nearly half a century, was founded in 1973 in Sandwich, Mass., by Barbara Charles and Frederick Fried. 

The association has 425 “units,” which can be individual members, families, or institutions, in addition to over 7,000 members in their Facebook group that includes carousel aficionados from around the world. 

The group holds an annual convention and is dedicated to the preservation of historic, wooden carousels. “We haven’t lost a carousel to an auction since 2002,” Largent said. 

National Carousel Association Convention onlookers point and photograph the Dentzel Carousel at the San Francisco Zoo while sporting carousel-themed jewelry on Sept. 17, 2022. | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To

Carousel enthusiasts can tell the maker of a merry-go-round just by looking at one. Charles Looff and Gustav Dentzel are among the most respected carousel designers in US history. 

Looff is recognized for creating the so-called “Coney Island style” of carousel that features flamboyant horses adorned with jewels and gold leaf. Dentzel is credited with what’s typically called the “Philadelphia style,” which features more realistic-looking animals. 

There are other telltale signs, like the scoop of the saddles, the style of rosettes, the horseshoes, the plaster. “It’s like recognizing relatives,” Largent said. 

The 1963 publication of Frederick Fried’s Pictorial History of the Carousel marked the beginning of carousels being recognized as an art form unto themselves, according to Fraley. “They’re something other than deteriorating rides,” Fraley said. “They’re folk art.” 

National Carousel Association Convention-goers ride the LeRoy King Carousel at the Children's Creativity Museum at Yerba Buena Gardens on Sept. 16, 2022. | Julie Zigoris/The Standard

They’re A Dying Breed

A carousel ride is a multisensory experience. The cheerful carnival music; the brightly colored, often shimmering, animals; the feeling of the wooden horse underneath you. The experience, and its deep connection to childhood, cements a place in one’s heart. Unfortunately, many of these treasured connections to the past are disappearing.

While at one point, thousands of carousels operated across the United States, today there are only 158 in service, according to Largent. The National Carousel Association is dedicated to preservation, so that the rides still in service can continue to be enjoyed by all. 

“Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” said Bray. “They’re split up and the remnants end up in someone’s living room.” 

Still, folks like Largent refuse to believe the colorful bobbing horses of their favorite carousels will ever go the way of the dodo: “Things are cyclical,” Largent said. “We’re still turning for the next era.”

In the Bay Area, we are lucky to have representatives of the three major carousel styles—Coney Island, Philadelphia and North Tonawanda. Here’s your call to visit them all: 

LeRoy King Carousel

Coney Island Style | Charles Looff 
Children’s Creativity Museum at Yerba Buena Gardens

Eugene Friend Carousel

Philadelphia Style | Gustav Dentzel 
San Francisco Zoo 

Golden Gate Park Carousel 

North Tonawanda | Herschell Spillman Company
Golden Gate Park, 320 Bowling Green Dr.