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Painted Ponies

Diane Smith
He's sitting on his mother Carol's lap in a bright chariot while his proud pop, Paul, shoots home videos.  The Newington parents were afraid the whirling carousel and the Wurlitzer band organ playing tunes from yesteryear, like "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," might alarm the baby. But Aaron loved it, bouncing merrily with the music.

The carousel was built in 1914 and installed in Hartford sixty years later. It is one of three surviving examples of the work of Russian immigrants and master carvers Solomon Stein and Harry Goldstein. The merry-go-round features thirty-six jumper horses and twelve standers with bulging eyes and flaring nostrils. Painted sea scenes embellish the carousel, along with delicately applied gold leaf. A twenty-four-sided wooden pavilion protects the ride. Fifty cents buys you a whirl into a nearly bygone era.

Between 1890 and 1930 there were as many as six thousand carousels in the United States. Today there are estimated to be only a few hundred antique wooden carousels still operating across the country. A dozen merry-go-rounds dot Connecticut, accord-ing to Louise DeMars, the executive director of the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol and the Bushnell Park Carousel. Some are antiques, others modern reproductions made from resins and alu-minum. The museum's Carousel Trail brochure identifies the locations of existing Connecticut carousels and marks the homes of those that are now extinct.

"Senior citizens love the carousel-they grew up with it as their entertainment form. Adults adore it. They remember their early days riding the carousel," Louise says. "It's the children today who don't have a lot of carousel experience. They're busy being bombarded with video games."

So the Carousel Museum formed an outreach program to educate kids about these  disappearing wonders, like the Carousel at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven. Assembled in 1916 in a Savin Rock workshop, the wooden carousel is one of the large~ anywhere, boasting seventy-two figures, including camel, on a sixty-foot platform. For years a ride or the carousel was a highlight of a day at the beach. But time and all those damp bathing suits worn by riders took their toll on the horses, and the aging pavilion was damaged by sea air, storms, and hurricanes, forcing the city to board it up in 1977. Three years later the pavilion and carousel were under restoration, however, and an "Adopt A Horse" program provides funds to continue the upkeep.

In Bristol the New England Carousel Museum nurtures its own carving school, featuring artists like Juan Andreu from Spain, who has grown accus-tomed to working with an audience of admiring kids and adults. "It takes about three pieces of wood to make the head, then the body is one piece for the top and another piece for the bottom with a hollow center," Juan explains as a small crowd clusters around him.  Juan restores antique animals and carves new ones, including some inspired by Connecticut's coastline--a manatee, a dolphin, and a sea otter.

From the smiling face of a baby on his first carousel ride to the giggling girls whirling on the merry-go-round that's been delighting children - adults at Lake Compounce Theme Park since 15 it's clear Connecticut's carousels are treasures.

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