For 50 years, Bill Brown has been running in circles at work.
Don’t feel sorry for him: he runs the Balboa Park carousel.
He stayed at work this long because he likes to work in a place where fun is the object and everyone is in a good mood. Now, man and machine have become inseparable, preserving an attraction in San Diego that is more than a merry-go-round. It’s a time capsule.
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The carousel is almost exactly as it was when it started operating in Balboa Park 100 years ago this month. Much the same menagerie of 52 hand-carved wooden animals and four chariots, powered by the same 10-horsepower General Electric motor. Same military band organ playing the same music. Same oil paintings adorning the decorative panels. Same opportunities to grab the brass ring.
All of this makes it a rarity even among the few thousand “Golden Age” carousels built between 1890 and 1930. About 150 remain scattered across the country in various stages of their original splendour.
Yet it is not a museum piece gathering dust. In 2019, the last full year before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the carousel was ridden more than 102,000 times.
Riding it now, a thought comes to mind: what other attraction in San Diego has offered an experience essentially unchanged for ten decades?
Sitting on the sand at the beach, maybe, if you close your eyes.
There’s another old carousel in Seaport Village, circa 1895. But it’s only been there since 2004, moved from Burbank after stints in other cities including Dallas and Portland. Some of its main features have changed over time.
The zoo, incorporated in 1916, looks nothing like it did in its early days as a motley collection of cages along Park Boulevard, and – unlike the carousel – the animals there now are no longer there. the animals there. The Giant Dipper roller coaster at Belmont Park dates back to 1925, but its passenger cars are not original. The Indoor Plunge, also at Belmont Park and of the same vintage, started out as a saltwater pool and is now freshwater.
And the Hotel del Coronado, built in 1888, is intentionally a shell of itself. Although it looks like places it always has, inside and out there are modern luxuries.
The only modern things on the carousel are the LED bulbs above, an arch with the increased lighting efficiency that time and electrical engineering have brought.
That the ride has remained essentially intact all these years is a testament to its handful of owners and the equally small number of managers who meticulously passed on, mostly by word of mouth, the carousel’s maintenance and operating procedures.
The not-so-simple secret to its longevity, according to Brown: “We take good care of it.
New York to San Diego
The rides trace their beginnings to 12th century jousting and cavalry training in Asia and Europe. The riders rode in a circle, spearing small rings with their weapons. Over time, a version of the exercise was adapted for children and carousels appeared in parks and at festivals.
They spread to America and became popular in the 1880s as cities grew and recreation developed. Streetcar lines took people to beaches and parks where carousels and other entertainment were a big part of the draw. Several companies made them, adding more elaborately carved mirrors, lights, music, and animals.
The one in Balboa Park was built in 1910 by Herschell-Spillman Co. in North Tonawanda, NY, just outside of Buffalo. He went first to Luna Park in Los Angeles and then, three years later, to Coronado’s Tent City, a summer attraction erected on the beach.
In the early 1920s, the Navy wanted the land in Coronado where Tent City was located. The owner of the carousel, Harold Simpson, was arguing with the city council over license fees. He and his wife moved from Coronado to a house in Bankers Hill.
On March 17, 1922, the San Diego Union published an article about construction projects at Balboa Park. He quoted Simpson telling a city committee “it will open tomorrow with a ride, right at the railroad entrance at the east end of Balboa Park.”
This location, where the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center now stands, housed the carousel for the next 46 years. In 1968, with plans underway to widen Park Boulevard, the carousel and the building that houses it were moved on a flatbed truck to their current location near the zoo entrance.
Some people believe the ride was in the park before 1922, crossed the bay to be part of the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition, and then returned to Coronado.
But David Marshall, a local architect who has researched the story, said there was no evidence the carousel went back and forth for the exhibit – no photos, no maps, no newspaper clippings, no contracts.
“It’s a great story,” he said, “but there’s no evidence that it happened.”
Gaps in documented history come as no surprise to Marshall. For many people, the carousel was an afterthought: still there, that’s okay.
In 2007 he collected a collection of 200 postcards in the book “San Diego’s Balboa Park”. He selected them after going through some 2,500 postcards. Not one had a picture of the carousel.
“Everyone loves this carousel, but most don’t realize how rare and unique it is,” said Marshall, a board member of the nonprofit Forever Balboa Park, which owns the carousel. “Very few of them have their original elements.”
Late last year, the city approved an application he prepared to have the ride designated as a historic resource. The designation means the city officially recognizes the carousel as a landmark that must be protected and preserved, he said. This also makes the attraction eligible for grants from various organizations.
Forever Balboa Park, which bought the carousel in 2017 and raised $3 million to renovate it, plans to reinforce the 12-sided building that houses the ride, replace the ticket office and possibly add restrooms and a gift shop.
There’s always work to be done on something that’s over a century old. Ask Bill Brown.
Growing up in San Diego, Brown remembers as a child he favored one of the horses in the outer row of the carousel, a black horse. He liked to ride it and grab the brass ring.
He was 16 when he started working there part-time. “It looked like everyone was having fun,” he said. He continued to work weekends as he graduated from San Diego High, went to San Diego State, even as he traveled to Los Angeles for a career as a composer of music for films.
After a while, part-time became full-time, and institutional carousel knowledge was passed on to him. Which gears to grease and how often. How to release the handbrake and engage the clutch just like that. How to take care of the 102 rolls of paper that play the music in the music organ.
Last Sunday, about an hour before the ride opened to the public, he had climbed a ladder adding oil to a glass bowl. The oil lubricates a giant bearing that helps turn the carousel. A drop falls on the bearing every 10 seconds.
Brown wasn’t mechanically inclined at all when he started out. Now he knows the carousel better than anyone, a walking encyclopedia. He went twice to the Herschell Carousel Museum in North Tonawanda to learn more.
He also oversees “Catering Tuesdays,” when volunteers gather at the carousel to work on the various animals. The menagerie is atypical in its size: horses, dogs, cats, zebras, pigs, ostriches, frogs, donkeys, roosters. There is a lion, a tiger, a camel, a stork and even a sea monster.
Each of them needs a paint job from time to time, and some have been done more faithfully than others. When the carousel was run by a Brit, he covered the stars and stripes on a few horses. Uncle Sam, on one of the tanks, has become a pirate.
Volunteers sometimes find five or six coats of paint on animals that they restore. Such was the case for Tracey Ferguson and Gloria Shepard, who have been working on a giraffe since January, sanding it down and prepping it for a new coat.
They named him Kenny, after Ferguson’s cousin Kenrick Wirtz, who died in 2019. (You get naming rights if you sponsor an animal: $50,000 for the outside row, $35,000 for the rows interiors.) They chose a giraffe because Kenny was tall.
Ferguson and Shepard, both in their 60s, live in the San Carlos area. They grew up in San Diego, went to local schools, rode carousels.
“It lasted because people like it,” Shepard said last Tuesday as they worked. “They ride it when they are kids, then they take their kids there, then they take their grandkids there. It is transmitted from generation to generation and becomes a treasure worth keeping.
They take painting seriously. They went to the zoo to see giraffes, to take pictures. They want the spots to be perfect.
Before too long, Kenny will be back in action. A rider will run to the giraffe, climb aboard, and wait. In the center of the carousel, Brown will ring a brass bell, the age-old way of asking an assistant if it’s okay to set the carousel in motion. The assistant will clap twice: everything is clear. Brown will ring again to confirm he heard the applause.
Then he’ll release the handbrake, engage the clutch. It will flip a three-minute hourglass to know when to stop the ride.
The organ plays, and somewhere out there, in the imagination, another music joins it. Talking heads.