Tim's Turn - July 2018


‘Free the Carousel’

I’m not known for my activism. In fact, the last time I publicly protested anything was during the March on Washington in 1967, when I wanted peace to prevail over war. That is until one Sunday in April 2018. I thought it was time to take a stance again. 

The action took place in downtown Nashville, where we marched and chanted, “Free the Carousel.” Nearly 150 of us carried whimsical signs created by well-known Nashville artist Myles Maillie. The jabberwocky placards were to create interest in our cause, as several tourists stopped me and asked what this seemingly silly march was all about.

This is my story: another celebrated Nashville artist, Red Grooms, designed 36 characters, all based on Tennessee music, political, and cultural history. Among the notables, you’ll find former President Andrew Jackson, the singing Everly Brothers, Olympic track star Wilma Rudolph, and the King of the Wild Frontier, Davy Crockett, all of which were represented in fiberglass on a 44-foot carousel. It was a wonderful way for people to become aware of Tennessee history (if you are not familiar with Groom’s imaginative art, please do a Google search). This beautiful piece of ridable art was christened the Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel and placed along our riverfront in its own pavilion in 1998, where it operated into the early 2000s. 

Due to tourism shifts in downtown Nashville, ridership fell, and the carousel was shuttered. It sat in place for several years until the state of Tennessee acquired it in 2004, with the idea to include it in a new state museum then being considered. The Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel was mothballed in a storage area and mostly forgotten by just about everyone. Fast forward to 2018: The new Tennessee State Museum is expected to open this fall, but with no space for the carousel. What a great opportunity missed. What energy the ride would have given the museum! Did someone forget about the carousel? No, it’s all about the budget, we are told. 

Nashville artist Maillie organized the protest to call attention to the carousel, and to get some sort of momentum going to bust it out from the confines of a stuffy storage space. Patrick Wentzel, president of the National Carousel Association, told me grassroots efforts and local initiatives across the country have saved several historic carousels, and he pointed out several examples. 

The 1922 Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) #61 Carousel, originally operating in Ohio’s Idora Park, was purchased out of storage in 1984, lovingly restored, and began turning again in a beautiful all-glass pavilion on the banks of the East River in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, New York, as Jane’s Carousel in 2011.

The Dentzel carousel created for Chicago’s Forest Park in 1909 and later sold to the city of Memphis was dismantled from its location at Libertyland theme park in 2005 and remained in storage until it was restored and placed in the Memphis Zoo in 2017. The 1919 B&B Carousell (sic) at Coney Island went into storage in 2005 and reopened on the Coney Island Boardwalk in 2013, again by popular demand. The 1912 Stein & Goldstein carousel originally located in Brooklyn, then in Baldwin, New York, at Nunley’s Amusement Park went into storage after the park closed in 1995. Long Island superstar Billy Joel wrote a song about that machine but was unsuccessful in his efforts to get it running again. The Nunley’s Amusement Park carousel languished in obscurity until it reopened in a museum complex in Garden City, New York, in 2009, thanks to local initiatives. 

So, it looks like we have a chance to get this amazing and unique roundabout up and running again. All we need is a couple million dollars and a lot of art and carousel aficionados to step forward, raise their voices, and chant, “Free our Carousel.”

Tim O’Brien is a veteran outdoor entertainment journalist and is a longtime Funworld contributor. He has authored many books chronicling the industry’s attractions and personalities and is the only journalist in the IAAPA Hall of Fame.