Legend has it that Walt Disney's concept for Disneyland was inspired by the carousel in Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens. It was a magical vision: all those otherworldly horses painted in designs and colors Mother Nature never imagined; all that rousing band organ music; all the swooping up and down and around, like a dream of flying come true.
Generations of Long Islanders have been treated to that carousel mystique in their own backyards: Traveling shows brought dozens of them to the area from the early 1900s to the 1940s. There is one in Greenport and another in Hempstead Lake State Park, but the largest and most famous of the three that remain on Long Island is Nunley's Carousel in Garden City. With 41 hand-carved wooden horses, one lion, two chariots and scenic panels depicting the history of Nassau County, it was the centerpiece of the Nunley's Carousel and Amusements park in Baldwin for 50 years.
Now the century-old ride is being honored in a three-day birthday festival beginning this week at its current home, the Cradle of Aviation Museum. The celebration will kick off Friday with a fundraising ball and will also include a lineup of old-fashioned carnival games, a barbershop quartet and other activities for visitors to enjoy.
"It's been fun for us at the Cradle to watch children's exuberance as they ride the carousel and to bring back the simple games so many people remember," said Gary Monti, director of museum and theater operations.
Older Long Islanders who rode the carousel as children still remember the experience.
"Even though I lived in Garden City Park when I was a teenager -- and still do -- I used to visit a friend in Baldwin, and quite often we'd head for the amusement park and ride the carousel and play the games like 'The Fortune Teller Lady in the Big Glass Case,' " said Bob Stuhmer, 63. "But I especially liked the music, and now I have a hobby arranging soundtracks for band organs."
Rides began in Brooklyn
How this century-old attraction came to rest miles from its longtime home is the tale of an odyssey that started in Brooklyn. Russian immigrant woodcarvers Sol Stein and Harry Goldstein created it in 1912 for William Nunley, owner of a string of carousels. Nunley operated it in Canarsie until 1939, then moved it to Baldwin. In 1964 he sold it to the Lircari brothers, businessmen and heads of a Long Island family.
Eventually, the Lircaris retired and put the mythic ride up for sale in the 1990s. The attention-grabbing appeal of merry-go-rounds was not lost on Nassau County legislators, who ponied up $854,400 for Nunley's Carousel in 1998. It was dismantled and carted off to a storage hangar in Mitchel Field until a new location for it could be found.
While the purchase rescued the aging carousel from sale of its parts at auction, horses, machinery and scenic panels languished like a bevy of sleeping beauties for nine years, the victims of slow political decision-making; it was a gradual slide into obscurity after its Baldwin amusement park home had closed for good in 1995.
The carousel's owners announced its closing many times over the years despite opposition from the community, and its future was the subject of many heated go-rounds among local residents and political leaders. Long Island singer-songwriter Billy Joel, who frequently hopped on for a spin as a boy, contributed an original song, "Nunley's Carousel," which was adapted as the lead music on the ride's band-organ soundtrack, and also helped raise money to restore the wooden steeds.
More funds were raised by the grassroots group Pennies for Ponies, the brainchild of then 9-year-old Rachel Obergh of Wantagh. The nonprofit's fundraising drive targeted local residents, schools, community organizations, businesses and politicians and contributed $85,000 to the $484,000 restoration.
"It's a beautiful example of a dying lost art," said Rachel, now 14. "It's awesome to think it's come through 100 years intact; I felt a responsibility to my generation to help bring it back." She will be helping out at some of the games to mark the centennial.
Restoration gets under way
In 2007, the carousel's parts were packed up and moved once again, this time to Carousel Works in Mansfield, Ohio, the world's largest carousel restoration company. As one of its specialists put it, "This place is like a beauty spa for old wooden horses." For 20 months each animal was meticulously stripped of faded paint, repaired, sanded and repainted; even the mechanical mechanisms were overhauled.
"Stein & Goldstein, the original woodcarvers, had brought their skill for making delicate ladies' hair combs from Russia, and they took a huge leap into creating life-size carousel animals at their Brooklyn company, Artistic Carousel Manufacturers," said Louise Demars, director of the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Conn. Stein & Goldstein carousel horses were a breed apart, very special, she adds: "passionate, with ears flattened back, nostrils flaring, eyes flashing, even some of the tongues lolling out. They look like they're eager to give you a good hard ride. There's nothing docile about a Stein & Goldstein horse."
According to Bette Largent and Patrick Wentzel, officers of the National Carousel Association in Spokane, Wash., there are about 300 antique carousels in the United States, and half are in storage. Wentzel said history traces carousels back to the Crusades, when they were called "carousella," an Italian word that translates to "little war games" because troops practiced their aim by galloping in a circle hurling spears into an iron ring.
The restored Nunley horses and accessories were reinstalled in 2009 on a $1-million pavilion constructed next to the Cradle of Aviation, with Nassau County footing the bill: Glass walls protect the vintage horses' fanciful new painted coats from the elements and allowed the carousel to begin offering year-round entertainment in April 2009.
"As we celebrate its 100th birthday we hope that all of those who rode Nunley's Carousel over the years will come and help us introduce the next generation to one of Nassau County's crown jewels," said Andrew Parton, director of the Cradle of Aviation.