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Volunteer curator for historic carousel now locked out

Nunley's Carousel, which was housed on Museum Row

Nunley's Carousel, which was housed on Museum Row in Garden City Tuesday and is currently closed due to the pandemic. Credit: Corey Sipkin

For more than a decade, Beth Obergh of Wantagh spent every Friday evening carefully maintaining the Nunley's Carousel, often as a volunteer and with supplies paid out of her own pocket.

It was a labor of love for Obergh, 53, who in 2006 helped raise money to revive the children's ride and find it a new home at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.

But in July — four months after being furloughed during the COVID crisis from her part-time position as the carousel's curator — Obergh was locked out of her beloved merry-go-round and told she was permanently out of a job.

Obergh contends the museum has lost interest in the carousel's upkeep and believes it should be transferred to another vendor who will properly care for the 108-year-old ride.

"I feel betrayed," said Obergh, who outlined her concerns in a July 15 letter to Nassau County Executive Laura Curran. "There's just no reason for it. You just want to do something that is kind and you're met with resistance."

Museum president Andrew Parton said the Cradle remained committed to the carousel, which had remained closed during the pandemic. The museum, he said, was forced to lay off 60% of its staff and reduce its use of volunteers to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

"There's no need to bring extra people into the building," said Parton, who credited Obergh for caring for the carousel and attracting new visitors. "It's not that we are trying to be mean here. But it's just not necessary to have additional people come in."

Nassau officials said the administration had scheduled a meeting with Cradle leadership in the coming weeks to discuss the carousel and other financial issues.

"Our museums and entertainment venues are struggling to survive amidst the pandemic — grappling with the devastating loss of revenues from their prolonged shutdown and other COVID related restrictions," said Curran spokeswoman Christine Geed. "We are exploring ways to support this valuable and beloved artifact to help ensure it’s available for children and families to enjoy for years to come."

The carousel, originally installed at Golden City Park on Canarsie’s waterfront, was moved to Nunley’s Amusement Park in Baldwin in 1940.The carousel operated for 55 years before Nunley's closed in 1995.

Nassau purchased the carousel for $854,000 and stored it in a Mitchel Field hangar, where it gathered dust for a decade. That changed in 2006 when Obergh, who visited Nunley's 's regularly as a child, and her then 8-year-old daughter, Rachel, launched a campaign to bring the carousel back to life.

The Pennies for Ponies campaign raised $96,000 toward the restoration effort, while Nassau allocated $485,000.

When the carousel reopened in 2009, the Pennies for Ponies account had $84,000 on hand but Parton said the museum needed that money to pay off unrelated debt with IMAX. Obergh said she was promised the money would be restored for carousel use but the funds were never repaid.

Nassau gave the museum permission to use the $84,000 in this way, Parton said. The Cradle receives no direct support from the county to maintain the carousel.

Obergh said the carousel, which costs $2 per ride and has hosted hundreds of birthday parties, generated enough money to be self-sufficient. But Parton says that after supplies and staff, the carousel "is a break-even or less proposition for us."

A pediatric physical therapist in the Bellmore School District, Obergh calls herself "fanatical" about the carousel, religiously washing the horses, waxing the floor and replacing seat belts, mirrors and poles. Obergh estimates she has spent $5,000 of her own money, and volunteered at least five hours per week, toward the carousel's maintenance.

The dedication was rewarded as the merry-go-round received the National Carousel Association's 2020 Historic Carousel Award.

But Obergh said she was concerned the carousel would not survive much longer under the Cradle's management.

"It's a silly thing, with all we dealing with in the world now," Obergh of the carousel. "But it makes people happy. It's nostalgic."

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