My wife and I were elated when we spied the Carousel Arcade on the Seaside Heights, New Jersey, boardwalk this past Monday, 9 September 2013. Having ridden and admired its magnificent century old Dentzel/Looff hand carved carousel with its powerful Wurlitzer organ, we were unsure it survived Superstorm Sandy. Fortunately it had, and although the arcade was closed on this post-Labor Day Monday, we peered through the window and wished we had come down earlier in the summer.
We were pleased the boardwalk, one of only a few remaining early 20th century examples of pre-digital mass entertainment, was being restored. Many small cottages that once were the summer homes to working and middle class families – along what have increasingly become beach communities for the wealthy – had not survived. Yet repair and restoration efforts were ongoing and there was hope that the character of this town, made infamous by MTV’s Jersey Shore, would survive both Snookie and Sandy.
Tragically, a mere three days later on Thursday, we listened in horror to the reports as the carousel and most of the historic boardwalk went up in flames. The loss to the community is devastating. The loss of the carousel with its intricately hand carved and decorated animals and the Wurlitzer player organ is equally devastating to those who treasure this vanishing genre of mechanical art. The town and boardwalk can be replaced, but the Dentzel/Looff carousel is gone forever.
Ironically, we had just spent the previous day at the Fete Paradiso on New York’s Governors Island. On a pleasant sunny day in this military base turned park in the middle of New York harbor, we marveled along with hundreds of children, and other adults behaving like children, over more than a dozen restored late 19th and early 20th century French carnival rides and games. These treasures are part of the personal collection of Frenchmen Francis Staub and Regis Masclet, and the installation on Governors Island is their first venture to make a traveling living museum of what entertainment used to be.
The Vélocipèdes is the centerpiece of the collection. One of only two remaining, this 19th-century French carousel ran on pedal power. It was created in Paris to encourage the use of bicycles as a cleaner mode of personal urban transportation than horses. Although it’s pedal power that starts the carousel, they drive a motor invented by Nikola Tesla that adds surprising speed to the ride. The other Velocipedes is in a Paris museum and was featured in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris.
Other features include flying swings, a children’s carousel, a mechanical ball toss game of life-size caricatures of celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Josephine Baker and a magnificent mechanical pipe organ. Fete Paradiso recreates the feel of a summer carnival with entertainers from fire-eaters and sword swallowers to musicians crooning French love songs and an outdoor café created by New York’s bistro Le Gamin. Nothing can replace the loss in Seaside Heights, but for an afternoon the Fete Paradiso reminds me that people will restore and revel in a past that can still become the future.
The Fete Paradiso runs Saturday and Sunday through September 29.