by Michael Bell

History, oral history, and folklore of the Looff Carousel at Crescent Park.

The rider strains to maintain a one-handed grip on the reins as the horse beneath him, sheathed in bejewelled armor, bounds up and down. More than sixty other riders, astride mounts with bared teeth and bulging nostrils, stretch toward the prize. The speed and sound are dizzying, making a difficult task even harder. In the end, the reward is small, but it is, after all, the attempt—living on the edge—and not the material gain, that matters.

Is this a page from the King Arthur legend? Is it from the Arabian Nights? Is it a folktale, handed down from generation to generation? Yes, yes, and yes. It is all of these and more. It is a ride on Crescent Park's Looff Carousel, any time during the past one hundred years. A ride where fantasies reign for three minutes at a time. For those who attain the ultimate prize, the gold ring, the dream may continue for three minutes more.

Carousels and amusement parks

The connection between carousels and knights in armor is more than just fantasy. The word carousel comes from the medieval Italian word carosello—literally, "little war"—for a tilting match or tournament. An ancestor to the present-day carousel helped young nobles prepare for jousting matches. They would ride the rotating machine and attempt to spear a ring. So, the custom of reaching for the brass ring probably emerged with the merry-go-round itself. Knights, carousels, and brass rings have been united ever since.

Carousels as we know them today began to evolve in the 1860s. Before then, power was supplied by horses, or even men, trudging around and around in a circle. With the development of the steam engine, much larger structures could be moved, and much more quickly. In England in 1870, an enterprising artisan, Frederick Savage, produced roundabouts (as they were called in that country), some an unprecedented forty-eight feet in diameter. Savage also invented an overhead cranking device enabling the up-and-down motion that we associate with merry-go-round horses. By the 1890s, Savage had many competitors vying for a growing audience eager for fairground amusements, and the manufacture of ornamented roundabouts had become a highly skilled craft.

Crescent Park, in the Riverside section of East Providence, Rhode Island, is the home of the carousel created by Charles I.D. Looff in 1895. Crescent Park was one of a string of amusement parks that grew up along the coast of southeastern New England at the end of the last century. Most of these parks could be reached by street cars and trolleys, bringing them within reach of thousands of working-class people on their days off.

During this time, the population increased rapidly, as immigrants were drawn to work in America's factories. These workers helped create a market for low-cost recreational opportunities, and fueled the growth of amusement parks, shore resorts, campgrounds, and other recreation areas. America's Gilded Age was also the golden age of amusement parks.

Amusement parks evolved from the earlier shore resorts, which had tended to develop somewhat randomly. These resorts typically included dining halls, ballrooms, and various beach and water activities, as well as cottages, hotels, and campgrounds. But amusement parks were more formally organized business ventures: admission was charged and visitors were offered an array of the most up-to-date, exciting mechanical rides. By 1920, Americans enjoyed thrills at more than 2,000 amusement parks.

Crescent Park and the Looff Carousel

George B. Boyden, a caterer for dining facilities in the area, was the man who transformed the shore resort at Riverside into an amusement park. In 1886, he rented land located on the Providence River from the Providence and Warren Railroad, dubbing it Crescent Park. Three years later, he bought the adjacent What Cheer Hotel and renamed it the Crescent Park Hotel. In 1892, he arranged for Charles I.D. Looff to build a carousel at the nearby wharf, and in 1895 contracted with Looff to add another, the Crescent Park carousel that we know today.

Boyden added other attractions, including a midway, some rides, a Wild West show, and a bicycle racing track, proclaiming that his park was the "Coney Island of the East." By the turn of the century, Crescent Park occupied more than 300 acres and offered a variety of rides, including four carousels. It also contained dining facilities for 1,000 people, the region's largest dance hall (the Alhambra), a hotel, and cottages. On weekends during the peak season, an estimated fifty to seventy-five thousand people—brought by steamers that docked every half hour and trolleys that arrived every six minutes—sought thrills and amusement at the park.

According to the National Register Nomination Form, the existing Crescent Park Carousel is the largest, most elaborate, and probably best preserved of the surviving works of Charles I.D. Looff, one of the earliest and foremost manufacturers of carousels in the United States. Shortly after immigrating to New York from the Danish province of Schleswig-Holstein in 1870, the eighteen-year-old furniture maker began carving carousel figures in his spare time. In 1876, he mounted his creations on a frame and platform at Coney Island—the first carousel at what soon became America's premiere amusement park. Looff's horse-powered creation was so successful that by 1880 he was working full-time to meet the demand for his carousels and had opened a plant in Brooklyn. When orders began to arrive from Rhode Island, Looff opened a branch factory at Crescent Park in Riverside.

By 1890, Looff employed four carvers, while continuing to turn out animals himself, even as he managed the business. Eventually his son, Charles Looff, Jr., joined the workshop, specializing in saddle packs for the horses. Frederick Fried, in A Pictorial History of the Carousel, describes Looff's horses as gentle-seeming creatures and "jolly, with bulging nostrils to show heavy breathing… Many had teeth exposed in a smile." One of the models Looff worked from was a large painting of George Washington astride his favorite horse. While limiting the number of poses for his steeds, Looff specialized in varied saddle decorations, trappings, and colors. Many of his horses' tails were full length and made of real horse hair. Other Looff creatures included lions, tigers, panthers, camels, zebras, greyhounds, storks, ostrich, and deer. Fried calls Looff "the first of America's great carousel carvers," whose style influenced that of many others.

Looff manufactured two or three carousels during the winter months, most of which were large "pit" carousels. To create "jumpers" without infringing on existing patents, he designed his machines so the horse rods could go below the level of the platform on their downward stroke. The pits needed to be as deep as three feet, which made this model impractical for outdoor use.

Looff made the Crescent Park factory his base of operations in 1905, when the Brooklyn plant was condemned. Once he had relocated in East Providence, Looff embellished the Crescent Park carousel so that it could be used as a display for prospective clients, although it remained a working carousel. New animals were added over the next few years, each different, and each representing the latest model.

The Crescent Park carousel is probably the oldest existing, and only one of a handful remaining, of the more than 100 carousels Looff built during his lifetime. Very few carousels in the country have been so little altered. Because it served as his "showroom" carousel during the five years he was headquartered in Riverside, the Crescent Park carousel includes some of the finest examples of his carving. Indeed, the National Register Nomination Form refers to this carousel as "a veritable museum of Looff's work." The Crescent Park Carousel is a living museum, not only of Looff's work but also of New Englanders' pursuit of pleasure.

Looff's showpiece, larger than the average carousel, is a sixty-two-horse, four-abreast carousel on a wooden platform fifty-five feet in diameter, decorated with cherubs and neo-baroque carvings. No two of its sixty-six figures are exactly alike. The carousel includes fifty-six jumping horses in fourteen sets of four, four ornately carved chariots with dragons and serpents, and six stationary figures of camels and horses. The ornamental framework around the perimeter of the carousel functions as a frame, intensifying the visual impact of the vivid figures. The rim decorations are a blend of Looff's earlier and later styles, with alternating paintings and mirrors. Subsequent Looff carousels carried only mirrors around the rim.

To house the carousel, Looff designed and built a fourteen-sided, wood frame pavilion with a polygonal roof-and-onion dome, which he called the "hippodrome." Above each bay are three-panel stationary transom windows with border panels of colored glass made by the Sandwich glass makers of Cape Cod. Access to the carousel is provided by folding doors on all sides, which also expose the carousel to view and permit the organ music to be heard at some distance. The pavilion contains a distinctive, hand-carved band organ made by A. Ruth and Sohn, a noted manufacturer from Waldkirch, Germany. Few Ruth and Sohn organs were produced, and even fewer still exist. Looff paid about $10,000 for the organ, more than most carousels cost at that time! All sixty-six of the current figures probably were completed by the time Looff left for Long Beach, California in 1910.

Other locations in Rhode Island where Looff carousels operated include Roger Williams Park in Providence (c. 1890-97, original gone), Bullock Point, in Riverside, just south of Crescent Park (c. 1890-97, gone), and Slater Park in Pawtucket (c. 1900-07, extant). Both Rocky Point Amusement Park and Goddard Park had a Looff carousel, in fact, the same Looff carousel. This particular carousel, carved in the Crescent Park factory, was first installed at Lakeside Park in Syracuse, New York, in 1901, and then returned to Rhode Island—to Rocky Point—in 1908, where it was remodeled from a stationary to a "jumping" model. After operating for twenty-two years at Rocky Point, it was moved to Goddard Park by Joseph Carollo. (Carollo, known as "Rhode Island's carousel king," was an immigrant from Naples, Italy, who began working at Crescent Park at the age of thirteen, sweeping up, picking up the brass rings, and collecting tickets. He eventually owned several carousels in Rhode Island and elsewhere.) When the part of Goddard Park that housed the carousel was closed in 1974, Carollo sold the carousel out-of-state. The famous flying horses at Watch Hill in Westerly, probably installed in the late 1860s, were built by the Charles W.F. Dare Company, not Looff.

'Round and 'round she goes

Ed Serowik has worked at Crescent Park since 1950. He started even before that, cleaning out the pony barn to get a free ride: "When I got old enough, fourteen years old, I started working as a ring boy, three or four years as a summer job, and then they hired me steady year round." According to Ed, the carousel was run by steam when it was first built. The steam was piped up to the carousel from a large boiler down the midway. The same boiler also ran other rides, such as the Rivers of Venice and the Chute-to-Chutes. Now, of course, the power system has been updated and the carousel is run by electricity. Ed described the mechanics of the ride: Beneath the carousel, there's a fifteen-horse electric motor with a flat belt that transfers over to a drive gear, which is a long shaft that goes all the way from the basement up to the top of the ride. This gear drives another gear, and that's what turns the ride.

The fifty-six jumping horses are run by the cranks that are over every row of horses. All the gears are timed, so once it gets to full speed, the carousel almost pulls itself around because the horses are going up and coming down in sequence. It's like the numbers 3, 6, 9, and 12 on the face of a clock, with every fourth horse coming down.

Ed says it's got a mainmast like an old sailing ship. The gears that are up inside are not fastened to the mast. If they were and something ever got caught in the gears, it would rip them apart. So the gears are held in place with wooden shims—concaved pieces of wood banged in around the mast and the gear. Since it's just friction holding them in place, if anything slips, the shims would let go and the mast would just turn. That way, nothing gets damaged.

Despite the change in how the ride is powered, almost everything else has remained unchanged for the past one hundred years. The horses and other figures, the pine floor, the brass poles that go up and down on the platform, the maple bushings set in the floor that the poles go into, the steel gears, and the upper bearings are all original.

Carousel Manager Ed Amaral said that the music stays on all the time. There are two rolls: one's playing while the other one's rewinding, and when that one's done the other one plays. Each roll plays about twenty-five minutes. The music includes drums and chimes along with the organ. The Wurlitzer organ rolls used now are similar to piano rolls, but the original "rolls" were actually made of cardboard that folded into a box.

This carousel has a reputation as being one of the fastest around; it now goes about eleven-and-a-half miles an hour, but it used to go fourteen miles an hour. Ed Serowik said that the insurance company asked them to slow it down. Ed doesn't want to kill the thrill of the ride, but he would like to slow it down even a little more some day, because the faster it goes, the more stress is put on the already very old machinery.

Even at the slower speed, getting on and off the moving ride requires practice. Experienced workers know that the trick is to lean with it and use your left foot to get on first, which kind of sponges you. Getting off is just the opposite: you push off. The knack is more difficult to acquire than most people think. To emphasize this point, Joe Kdan told the following story:

I heard something about a horse kicked a fella once… A fella I used to know… was working over at the Inn but he had a break (that's when they had the Inn over there). So he come over here… and he says to me, "How about having a ride on the carousel?"

I said, "Sure. You can if you want to." So I jumped back on and the ride's going around. Next thing I knew I heard somebody goin' boom! Bang! And the guy's laying on the floor over there. I says, "What happened, Dick?"

And he said, "Darned horse kicked me."

He tried to get on when the ride was going. He saw me, so he thought he could do it. There he is rolling on the floor over there. He didn't wait until the ride stopped.

Joe has worked at the carousel since 1945 or 1946, about half of the carousel's hundred years. He started when he was eighteen years old. I asked who taught him when he first came to the carousel and he replied, "A fella named Charlie Simmons, the old guy. He married Helen Looff, whose father built the horses. They used to have an apartment right here… in the carousel… Charlie used to check the ride from inside the apartment. He had a door with a one-way window so he could see out but you couldn't see in. They kept a tally, it used to light up on the board how many were ridin'." Gail Durfee, an original member of the Carousel Park Commission and an active participant in preserving the carousel, said that, according to the ticket count, they now get over 250,000 riders every season.

At thirty-five cents a ride (or three for a dollar), it seems like a real bargain. But Ed Serowik recalled that when he started working on the ride, it cost fourteen cents. Joe Kdan added that it was twelve cents when he started. Since there was a two-cent tax, it was actually ten or twelve cents a ride.

A good example of the occupational folklife of running the carousel—of learning on the job—is the technique for replacing the brass rings (which are actually iron). The wooden arm that holds the rings rotates around toward the horses, bringing it closer to the riders. The rings are placed in a slot that runs down the length of the arm. As one ring is taken, gravity pulls the next ring to the end, and so on. Standing on a ladder to reach the device, the "ring boy" takes a handful of rings from a wooden box (mounted adjacent to the arm) with his left hand and lines them up so that he can transfer them to his right thumb. From there, he can feed them into the slot with his right hand. When there's a big crowd, it gets really hectic trying to keep up with the rings.

There's also a learning curve for grabbing the rings from the moving horses. At the beginning of the season, the younger children are trying and trying but just can't seem to reach that ring. But, by the end of the season, they're hanging off the side and grabbing the rings like veterans. As Rose Conroy, the "ticket lady," said, it's not that they've grown taller—just braver. Rose's observations are confirmed by other longtime carousel watchers:

Two summers ago… my daughter and I took her three children and spent a happy afternoon at the carousel. Her oldest daughter, who was not quite nine years old at the time, caught the brass ring several times much to my amazement, but her brother, who is two-and-a-half years younger, could not quite reach far enough to catch one. On the first ride he just tentatively reached for the ring from his seat on the carousel horse, but after two or three rides, he was standing up and leaning out as far as he could trying to reach that ring. It brought back memories of my own childhood.

This woman, who grew up less than two miles from Crescent Park, vividly recalls the importance of reaching for the rings:

My earliest memories of the carousel are of reaching out as far as I dared to try to catch a brass ring. I would be riding in back of the girl who lived next door. She was older than I and taller than I and very athletic. She always caught that brass ring, and I always missed catching it. Which meant that she got to ride more times than I did.

The challenge, after catching a ring, is to throw it into the clown's mouth. For some of the people I interviewed, that's more fun than getting the gold ring for a free ride. Several people recall that what is now a picture of a clown painted on canvas was at one time, probably before World War II, a face representing "Little Black Sambo."

There seems to be some mystique surrounding the carousel rings. One woman who has been going to the carousel since she was a child sixty years ago described a family ritual, which I suppose some people might call a superstition: she has always told her children, and now tells her grandchildren, to take home the last ring they catch on the ride at the close of the season, usually around Columbus Day. She explained that she thinks this practice guarantees that they will return the next season. In folklore, this logic is very similar (perhaps in a reverse way) to the traditional notion that if you leave something of yours at a person's house, it means you subconsciously want to return. Both of these beliefs seem related to the larger folk idea of "unfinished business." Having a ring at home, instead of in its rightful place at the carousel, is an open-ended situation, unfinished business. To achieve closure, the ring must be returned, which means that the person possessing the ring will have to go back to the carousel. Thus, taking the ring home at the end of the season ensures that one will return the next season.

The carousel workers admitted that people did like to take the rings home. Gail Durfee told me that the ring boys have their own folklore about the rings: "If the gold ring is missing, the ring boy considers that a bad omen. They try to keep the same gold ring all season… That's why, if you notice while you're riding the carousel and someone catches the brass ring, whoever is putting the rings in jumps right down and gets on that ride with a ticket good for one free ride and takes that ring. Many times the people that caught it don't want to give it up." Taking the rings seems to have been such a common practice that there is still an aged sign attached to the carousel warning, "Do not take rings from building under penalty of the law."

Gail Durfee described another folk tradition: officially, the carousel opens for the season on Easter. But by tradition, the ride opens, unannounced, on Palm Sunday—a week early—to get any kinks out of the ride because it's been shut down for several months. Gail said it was amazing that two or three thousand people come through there on Palm Sunday, people who've caught on and just know by word-of-mouth.

Like the carousel itself, the schedule has remained virtually unchanged over the years. It's open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from Easter until the middle of June. Then, from the time school lets out until Labor Day, it's open from Wednesday through Sunday. The schedule returns to three days a week from Labor Day into October. By that time, as Ed Serowik told me, "It just gets too cold to run the machinery. Some of those things are so old, when it gets cold [you] could have metal fatigue."

Preserving the horses is probably the most important maintenance task; it certainly is exacting and expensive. The brittleness of the wood, combined with the way the kids climb all over the horses, has led to damage such as cracks and broken legs. The horses are made of basswood that has been dowelled together, with no nails or screws. When a horse breaks a leg, they try to repair them the same way they were built, by drilling and dowelling them back together, then sanding and refinishing them.

Dominic Spidola, who was still working as he approached his nineties, helped maintain the carousel figures for more than sixty-five years. When we asked Dominic if he changed some of the original colors, he replied:

Oh, yeah, they were all changed. They'd been painted before, and before, you know. That was years and years afterward. And then everybody got in there… They were painted by park people that worked in the park and made benches and stuff… I painted them at night when I finished the other work… I came weekends or when I was in between jobs. Mrs. Looff had me come over there to touch them up, see.

Dominic described his approach to preserving the horses:

When I touched up the horses, what I used was a glaze, you see. I go over again. I work it thin, you see… It's enamel paint… I mix a vehicle with oil, driers, and varnish. That's my glaze. Now I have it a little thicker, I can thin it down. I have another bottle with thin stuff, you see. I put that in the cup and I add my drier and I make a color. Now if I want a color to go over that light, I'll put yellow ocher or umber, or whatever colors I want, and I put that glaze. And I test that. When you test that, it's just like the light, the shadow, you see. It's all one color. But if you try to do that with paint, you got other paint, it's hard to control it, see? With the glaze, you do it… Now they have air guns. They didn't have air guns. I handled it my way. I glazed this stuff.

Now the horses are sent to R&F Designs (better known as Finkelstein's), in Bristol, Connecticut. When they restore them, they go back down to the original color. Of course, it's quite expensive: as much as five to six thousand dollars per horse, which means that the horses don't get refurbished very often. Horses that get adopted can get refinished. It costs about $5,000 to adopt an outside horse. Because the horses get smaller as you go from the outside to the inside, the cost of adoption also decreases: it goes five, four, three, two—thousands of dollars—from the outside to the inside. One woman has adopted five!

Folklife of the carousel

That the Looff Carousel is a work of art—a living museum of Looff's genius—as well as an exhilarating experience, seems obvious. But the carousel has also played an important role in bringing together various communities, from families to folk groups based on occupation or ethnic background. As community-based art, the carousel has helped shape some folk traditions while enriching others. It's easy to lose sight of some of these social and cultural functions of the carousel. After all, every detail has been designed to draw people into their own private world of imagination: the carvings, the trappings on the saddles, the paintings, the mirrors—all of these visual elements (including illumination by both natural and artificial light) work together with the music and the motion of the carousel to create an other-worldly experience. Yet a visit to the carousel also nourishes shared experiences, forming common bonds across generations among people in the real world of community.

Since Crescent Park has always opened on Easter Sunday, there is a natural combining of these two events. Bob Perry, who "grew up… as the crow flies, about a mile from Crescent Park," recalled walking down the beach to the park on opening day. His wife, Valerie, added, "Everybody would be down there in their Easter finery. All dressed up." Another significant occasion for a ride on the carousel was the last day of school. A continuing tradition is that for every "A" on your report card, you get a free ride on the carousel.

For many local families, almost any rite of passage, from a birthday to a wedding or anniversary, demands a visit to the carousel. Even for those who lived near Crescent Park, a ride on the carousel might be reserved for special occasions, making the experience even more memorable:

I lived within walking distance of the carousel, but because my mother did not approve of amusement parks and did not have the money to spend on something she considered frivolous, I seldom got to ride on the carousel… When out-of-town relatives came to visit, usually once or twice a year, we always went to Crescent Park to the shore dinner hall. While there, I got to ride on the carousel. Also we usually celebrated my birthday during the last week of August with a visit to Crescent Park and several rides on the carousel.

Formal group outings were probably the most consistent events to be scheduled at Crescent Park over the decades. The fact that the employees of Filene's Department Store in Boston repeatedly chose Crescent Park for their annual outing vouches for the park's popularity. A 1913 brochure reported that the employees' committee unanimously chose Crescent Park, "which holds more opportunity for a good time for you and all your family and friends than any other place on the map."

One of the largest, perhaps longest-running, outings at Crescent Park was Emancipation Day. Fred Williamson, State Historic Preservation Officer and former director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, attended many Emancipation Day celebrations, which he described:

August first was a day that most African Americans looked forward to, a day when they could all get together at an amusement park and the kids could play and the older folks could gather and reminisce about what had happened in the past year… It was called Emancipation Day, and the latter-day celebration was generally at Crescent Park.

It really celebrated the emancipation of blacks in the West Indies. Since there was a very large number of blacks from the West Indies in the area, that particular day was… celebrated to such an extent that many of the American-born blacks… sort of adopted the holiday… even though the American Emancipation Day was in January (that is the day that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation).

Even though there were a lot of children, the adults—and the teenagers—loved the Looff Carousel so much that they vied with the youngsters in getting rides on the carousel. Everybody enjoyed it. For the brass ring. And it was just a great time to ride on the carousel and to always say at some future date, "Oh, yes. I was at Crescent Park, enjoyed Emancipation Day, and rode on the carousel." They would always, in the course of conversation, mention that they had ridden on the carousel.

That day not only drew people from around Rhode Island, buses came down from Providence, Worcester, even Springfield. And sometimes there was a bus over from Connecticut… Black communities in those neighboring states would make up a party, hire a bus, and come to Crescent Park that day.

The shore dining hall… served clamcakes and clam chowder and all the usual things, you know, that shore dining halls serve. And that, during the course of the day, was a great focal point for those people who did not bring their lunches. Of course, a lot of people brought picnic baskets, and there were areas… in the park that had benches where people could lay out their picnic baskets and… have what they wanted to eat.

At night, the Alhambra Ballroom was the scene of a big dance. And… one of the leading black bands in New England… would play… The band would start in the evening and… play until closing time, around one o'clock, even though the rest of the amusements would close down.

It was a great time for teenagers to meet, because the fellows and the girls had dates and that sort of thing. I guess a lot of the romances that eventually ended up in marriages had their inception at Crescent Park on Emancipation Day… It was a great day.

Political fund raisers are also common events at the carousel, and candidates for office frequently have their campaign photographs taken at the carousel. An eleven-year old girl said that her earliest memory of the carousel is having her picture taken on the carousel with her cousin and their grandfather, who was running for political office. Who can resist a candidate riding on a merry-go-round with his grandchildren?

If you were a teenager in the early 1960s, Crescent Park also meant rock-and-roll:

One of the things I remember about Crescent Park is they used to have rock-and-roll shows there… It was on the opposite side, on the Shore Dinner Hall side. It was almost like a big, outside bandstand down by the water. And they had big… they called it a "rock-and-roll revival" or something. They had the Supremes, Ivory Joe Hunter—they were big names. The Supremes were just beginning at the time. They weren't as popular. The traffic—I remember hearing the traffic report on the radio—it was backed up all the way into Providence. They had to helicopter all the stars in because they couldn't get through. I mean there were thousands and thousands of kids there that night. That, to me, was one of the most exciting nights I can remember… They used to have Sunday afternoon shows. They had a show one Sunday with Bobby Vinton, Brian Highland ("Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini"), and Gene Pitney. There were a lot of big names, big rock-and-roll names, in the early '60s. And we used to go to all those shows… I just lived on the outside of Pawtucket Avenue growing up. We used to go down to Crescent Park a lot.

For those who lived some distance from Riverside, a trip to Crescent Park could be such a rare treat that it is vividly remembered decades later:

I can remember going at least twice with my grandmother… At the time we were living in Chad Brown [in Providence], and my grandmother lived down the street. We would walk down to the corner, pick up the bus that would take us into downtown Providence. And I think somewhere around the Outlet Company is where we would pick up the second bus—either there or somewhere near the Shepherd Store, I'm not sure which side of downtown—that went directly to Crescent Park and would drop you off in the front of the park itself, right where the carousel was.

I can picture the carousel from where the bus would let you off, on the opposite side of the main road. There was a little parking area where the buses would stop and as it would drive away the first thing you could see outside of the crowd of people, depending on what day and time it was, was the carousel. And you could hear the music from there. My first experience, I was really kind of awe-struck because it was the first time I had been there and saw that many people outside of downtown Providence. The music and the excitement, the smells in the air.

People came to Crescent Park just about any way it was possible to go anywhere: by foot, on bicycle, in trolleys, automobiles, buses, and excursion boats. Some even canoed across the Providence River on sunny weekends! Given the state of the roads and bridges in the early part of this century, going by boat was sometimes the fastest, easiest, and most direct route to Crescent Park. For more than fifty years, there was ferry service across the bay from Pawtuxet Village, which straddles the line between Cranston and Warwick, to Crescent Park. During the summer, the ferries Iola and Viola provided hourly passage to the park from early in the morning until at least ten at night. For a fee of twenty-five cents (children rode free!), you could be at the park in fifteen minutes.

One Riverside resident remembers the heavy traffic going to and from Crescent Park:

We seldom went to the carousel on summer week-ends during the 1930s because of the heavy traffic. On summer week-ends Bullocks Point Avenue from Crescent Park all the way to Pawtucket Avenue would be just solid with cars, all moving about ten miles per hour. People who lived along that road would complain because they couldn't get in or out of their driveways.

Save the carousel

Over its long history, the popularity of Crescent Park has ebbed and flowed. Even before the Depression took its toll in the 1930s, amusement parks in general had begun to lose their luster as new opportunities lured away the public. The phenomenal growth of the movie industry changed many habits; by the late 1920s, nearly eighty percent of Americans went to the movies every week. Availability of the automobile opened further options for a public once dependent on mass transit. By 1940, only 240 remained of the 2,000 amusement parks that existed in the country just twenty years earlier.

Although Crescent Park survived both the Depression and the Hurricane of 1938, by 1940 pollution had made its waterfront unpleasant. World War II, which brought numerous military men into the area, sparked a brief revival of the park. After the war, an effort was made to attract families with the installation of Kiddieland, but this was not enough to save the park in the long run. By 1977, the closing of the park was imminent. The rides were to be sold piecemeal and the land sold at auction.

But a strong and determined group of East Providence residents banded together to save the carousel. One of this group, Gail Durfee, recalled the struggle that lasted almost eight years: "We got together, the few of us who cared—five housewives, one longshoreman, and a Roman Catholic nun (Arlene Violet)… and filed suit in Superior Court asking for an injunction to stop the sale until people had their say. We finally settled the suit out of court… In the settlement, they agreed to give us the carousel, the land it sits on, and the acreage, including the beach—seven acres—across the street." The Looff carousel was back in operation by 1984.

More carousel folklore

As we have seen, a certain amount of folklore has been created during the carousel's one-hundred years of operation, such as the customs surrounding the rings, opening day, and other occasions for a ride on the carousel. But, as Gail Durfee told me, there are other examples of folklore: For example, there is no lead horse on the carousel. Gail said that many people believe that the white charging horse known by some as "Gregory" is the lead horse, but it's not so. She said that it's actually the camel that's "the lead" in the sense that it is used to mark where the tickets are collected from.

Many carousel riders develop an attachment to certain horses (or perhaps one of the other figures). As one man explained, "Everyone had a special horse that belonged to them. The older kids had theirs already, so the younger kids had to find different ones, or just wait. I guess you could say it was like a pecking-order." Maybe the most noticeable preference among carousel riders is for an outside horse so they can grab a ring. As more than one person told me, to have to sit on a horse that didn't go up and down or—even worse—in a chariot was "so wimpy!"

As the "special horse" custom demonstrates, a ride on the carousel can be an occasion for older members of a group to assert their seniority and demonstrate the upper hand in a power relationship. I found other ways, too. This one may be unique:

My brother's eight years older than I am, so… of course, he's not going to go with a seven-year-old, eight-year-old, and his grandmother… He was part of the preparation for the trip. My mother told me… that grandma was going to take me the next day to Crescent Park. And I'd never been there before. I had no idea what it was, but it sounded neat—all these different rides. Later that day, in the evening, upstairs in our room, my brother was telling me about the horses. And immediately, I thought he was talking about real horses.

He said, "No, there's a carousel that you're going to be going on." He used to call them "dobbie horses." "That's what you're going to get on, these horses. And you need to be careful, because you want to keep your hands away from the tails."

And I remember him saying something about the mouths as well, but I'm not sure whether it had to do with the entrance or the exit of snakes. Because that's what he said they fill the horses with, snakes. So you had to be careful because every now and then one would get out or might still be alive. So, I was… somewhat apprehensive when I got on that first horse… I can remember holding on firmly to the reins but not putting my hands anywhere near the mouth, but carefully watching the horse that was in front of me, because the tails are very realistic. For a kid, you're looking at them and saying, "Wow." And you keep watching, looking for those snakes to come out. But nothing happened, and I think on the second year it probably didn't even faze me at all… I don't think he ever owned up. He never told me that was a big lie."

Gary Anderson, who has restored the flying horses at Watch Hill in Westerly, told me about finding three dead squirrels inside one of the horses: apparently they had gotten in when the horse was down for repairs and then became trapped inside. So, maybe the snake story is based on fact? Or, maybe it was started by the park people who wanted to discourage kids from grabbing the real horsehair tails?

An intriguing bit of lore circulating among those who work on the ride is that the faces above the mirrors are, in actuality, Looff's own face. A close comparison between those faces and photographs of Looff reveal that, well, it just could be true!

"The stuff that dreams are made of"

One observer noticed that older people often seem to be transported by the carousel back to their childhood:

It's nice to sit down and watch other people, particularly adults. Because you can just about tell folks who have been there as children, I think. They have a favorite horse. They don't just go on it for one ride. They'll be on it for as long as their kids are on it. Sometimes there are adults there who haven't brought any kids. And they're riding it, and they're grabbing those rings and throwing them in, and they're having a pretty good evening. Those are the folks, I think, that have been on it a few times before, probably when they were kids. And then you can hear some of the conversations, too, if you're sitting there watching what's going on with people talking about what it used to be like. The midway and the other rides that were there. Their memories of when they were children.

I think Fred Williamson spoke for the thousands who have ridden the carousel when he summarized the feelings and memories it summons:

Of course, the most striking thing about the carousel: it's just a wonderful blaze of color and fantasy. The horses, the Looff figures, are just the sort of thing you've never seen anywhere else. He had a fantastic imagination.

It's really the stuff that dreams are made of.

Youngsters, or anybody who had read fairy tales and looked at some of the wonderful things in the East and Arabia—all of the talks of Aladdin and the lamp—get figures running around in their minds about all sorts of things. When you go to the Looff Carousel, you see it all there.

I remember standing there listening to the carousel and watching the kids laugh as it went around, and in the back of my mind I remembered the circus parades that used to take place in my town. And always at the end was this calliope. Sometimes you could see the steam coming out of it.

And as I sat there watching the carousel go around and listening to the music, I had an image of myself as a little boy on the sidewalk watching this and feeling sorry that the calliope came by because, even though I liked the music, that meant that that was the end of the parade.

It is important to stress that, throughout most of its century in operation, the carousel was part of a larger amusement complex that included, not only other rides, but also the Shore Dinner Hall and the Alhambra Ballroom. Yet, for many, it was a ride on the carousel that made a visit to Crescent Park most enjoyable and memorable. As one lifelong resident of Riverside said, "The carousel was an integral part of Crescent Park. It was on the road. It was right at the street, on Rose Point Avenue, right there. And that was the first thing you saw… the carousel. On one side was the Shore Dinner Hall, on the right hand side, and the carousel was on the left. And that opened up the midway."

His wife, who also grew up near Crescent Park, agreed on the central importance of the carousel: "I remember when we used to go to Crescent Park… there was a ticket stand right outside for the tickets for the midway, and we'd get a dollar's worth of tickets. We had a routine where the carousel was always your first stop… We'd ride on the carousel for a few rides and then do the midway. And the carousel was always the last. We'd always end up at the carousel." Literally and figuratively, the carousel has always been the beginning and end of Crescent Park.

Related links

Home movies of Crescent Park in the 1950s:

Michael Bell, formerly Rhode Island's official state folklorist, is the author of Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England's Vampires. Work on A Living Museum spanned 1994–1999. Michael Bell conducted interviews, wrote the interpretive text panels and essay, delivered illustrated lectures, and produced a teachers' guide to community based projects. Alex Caserta created an extensive photographic record of the carousel. Sarah Gleason researched the carousel's history. The research and the traveling photographic exhibition were funded by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. The related educational component was funded by the Rhode Island Foundation. The exhibit was shown at four public libraries, the Newport Art Museum, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Heritage Plantation on Cape Cod.

This article last edited May 8, 2015

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