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The Carousel

By Christopher Flynn

With a life span of over one hundred years, the Palace carousel was among the most important ever created , with a menagerie of flamboyant animals hand carved from poplar and other hard woods by immigrants at the very dawn of America's golden age of the carousel.

In 1888, Charles I.D. Looff, one of the nation's first great carousel artists, produced for the Palace a three row machine with stationary animals painted in realistic colors and decorated with unusual and fanciful objects. A few animals carved by a fellow German
Palace carousel, before the 1910 fire. Photo courtesy of Peter Lucia.
immigrant, Gustav Dentzel of Philadelphia, were also included, most likely purchased by Looff to meet his delivery deadline. The carousel initially was powered by steam from a boiler in the northwest corner of the Palace.

A fire in 1910 seriously damaged the carousel, destroying a number of Looff animals. Palace owner Ernest Schnitzler turned to William Mangels, an engineer and ride manufacturer from Coney Island, to manage the reconstruction. Unlike Looff who both carved the animals and made the machinery, Mangels produced only the carousel machinery, contracting with independent carvers to procure his stables of horses, lions, tigers, bears, and other assorted creatures.

Under Mangels' direction, the Palace carousel expanded to four rows. Mangels added a jumping mechanism, and converted to electric power. To carve the animals that replaced the Looff originals, Mangels brought in Marcus Charles Illions, also of Coney Island, whose flamboyant style featured many glass jewels, and large amounts of silver and gold leaf.

The carousel operated in this configuration of Looff, Dentzel and Illions animals until ravaged by another fire in 1942. Sparked by a mishandled cigarette during a repainting project, the fire destroyed 14 animals and seriously damaged others. By then, the immigrant owned carving firms were no longer in business and the Palace's new owners, Edward Lange and Zemil Resnick, were forced to scavenge dismantled carousels for replacement animals, irrespective of style. In his oral history for "The Carousel Keepers" (by Carrie Papa, McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company), Lange said he believed the replacements came from a carousel at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, confirming a later report in William Manns' "Painted Ponies" that listed a census of Dentzel, Loof, Illions, and Stein and Goldstein animals at the Palace.

The Palace had three band organs which provided the musical backdrop to the carousel. Two were installed at the center of the carousel itself. Former Palace employees describe one as a Wurlitzer 153 created in North Tonawanda, NY. The second, of unknown origin, played classical music and was largely unused from the 1960s onward; organ expert Rip Mohl said Edward Lange favored the more upbeat American music from the Wurlitzer 153. The third organ, with hand carved wooden figures that were animated to the beat of the music, was a Gavioli, one of the finest European fairground organs made. It was installed, unusually, in a loft high above the main floor and provided the musical accompaniment to the rest of the Palace until shortly after Edward Lange took over the Palace.

When it closed in 1988, the Palace was one of a sharply declining number of amusement parks still using the carousel ring machine as a way of dispensing free rides; many other parks discontinued the game due to the rising costs of rings and insurance. According to the latest carousel census by the National Carousel Association, only 16 carousels still use rings. The final ring machine at the Palace was most likely created in the 1950's, dated by the presence of slick plastic signs and flashing neon lights on the arm that dispensed the rings. Urban archeologists working at the Palace in May 2004, just prior to demolition, found hundreds of rusted rings in a storage box and in the crawl space under the carousel house.

Carousels carved in the 1880s were expertly painted in fine and fast drying Japan Oil paints, then lovingly protected with layers of varnish. Only a few examples of original painting exist today, as most parks, including the Palace, repainted the animals in what is commonly known as "park paint." Taking a cue from the renaissance of the American carousel in the mid 1980's, the Palace's final owners, Henry and Sam Vaccaro, used a local artist to repaint the carousel, without following the original color scheme.

The National Carousel Association states that of the 3,000 to 4,000 wooden carousels carved in America between 1885 and 1930, fewer than 150 still operate today. Some disappeared in fires and natural disasters, others due to neglect. Unintentionally, the publication of Frederick Fried's book "A Pictorial History of the Carousel" in the late 1970's fueled a collectors market that convinced owners, including the Vaccaros, to auction off their carousels. After closing the Palace on Nov. 27, 1988, the Vaccaros put the carousel on the auction block at Sotheby's in New York City, despite a vigorous Save the Carousel campaign. Under unusual circumstances [Click on: Inside the Sotheby's Auction] the carousel was withdrawn from auction to give Save the Carousel advocates more time to finance a purchase. Within days, however, a potential backer had reneged on his earlier offer and under threats of law suits and conflicting accusations, the Palace carousel was broken up, with most of its animals later auctioned at the Gurseney's auction house in New York City.

The operating mechanism of the carousel, along with some original wooden horses, an original wooden chariot, and the Palace's historic Ferris wheel, were sold in August 1989 to an amusement park located outside Biloxi, MS., and operated there for a number of years; by 1998, however, the park had closed and both the Ferris wheel and the remnants of the carousel were again up for sale.

Encouraged by local preservationists, New Jersey real estate developer William Sitar bought and returned the operating mechanism, the wooden chariot and a number of horses to New Jersey, with hopes for eventually installing them in a restored Palace Amusements building. With the Palace now demolished, the carousel is in storage, and again up for sale.

The auctioned carousel animals have disappeared into private collections, but fans can still experience the Palace’s Wurlitzer 153 organ. After a restoration at the Durward Center in Baltimore, it became part of the permanent collection at the Stone Mountain Antique Car and Treasure Museum, located 16 miles east of Atlanta, GA., on Highway 78 off of the 285 bypass, where it is on display. The second Palace organ, which served as a backup into the 1970s, later underwent repairs at a shop in Carlisle, PA and was used for a time in Gettysburg, PA. There, it was purchased by Dwayne Steck and moved to Dallas, TX. Steck rebuilt the cabinet, wherever possible patching, repairing, and reusing original design work. With the lights back in place, Steck said, the organ today would almost certainly be familiar to anyone who saw it in the Palace. As of early 2006, Steck had the organ up for sale.

Asbury Park’s first great writer, newspaper columnist and "Red Badge of Courage" author Stephen Crane, loved the Palace carousel. Historian Daniel Wolff writes in his book "4th of July, Asbury Park" that Crane and his girl friend "rode it over and over" during the early 1890s. Crane also used the carousel as the inspiration for a fictional carousel in some of his writings. Asbury Park’s second great writer, Bruce Springsteen, took perhaps the most famous ride on the carousel on Nov. 11, 1987. Along with a tattooed man, a midget, a dancing bride and other distinctive characters, Springsteen was filmed riding the carousel for use in the "Tunnel of Love" music video. Regrettably, the footage was not used and has never been made public.