The Boardwalk’s Oldest Ride
Whether you call it a merry-go-round, carousel, or whirligig, visitors have always been enchanted with the Boardwalk’s oldest ride.
In August of 1911 one of the great carousel carvers of all time delivered the merry-go-round to the Boardwalk. Danish woodcarver Charles I.D. Looff had achieved success with his first complete carousel placed at Coney Island in 1875 and went on to create several more around the country, including Santa Cruz. Charles’ son Arthur Looff later built the Boardwalk’s Giant Dipper.
According to Charles I.D. Looff’s great-granddaughter, Charleen Cowan, Looff was an immigrant to America as a young man when he chose his middle initials. Ellis Island officials told Looff he had to have a middle name “for his I.D.” (or identification), so he chose “I.D.” Looff’s sense of humor and personality show in his hand-carved horses.
Several of the Boardwalk’s carousel horses display their teeth in open smiles; others are more serious, with a gentle demeanor and closed mouths. Each horse is unique, with colorful details, from swords at their sides to garlands of flowers around their necks. Real horse hair tails, muscular bodies, and decorative, jeweled trappings also add to the charm. In all, the carousel is home to 73 horses (71 jumpers and two standers) and two Roman chariots decorated with the heads of rams and cherubs.
It is also one of only a handful of carousels in the world still featuring a working ring dispenser. Rings were once hand loaded by “ring boys,” as the young employees were called. The process was mechanized in 1950. Steel rings are used today, with brass plated rings added on special occasions. Riders on outside horses can grab rings from a dispenser as they spin, then toss them into a large clown’s gaping mouth, rewarded by bells and flashing lights.
Music for the carousel is provided by a 342-pipe Ruth und Sohn band organ built in 1894. The “Ruth” as it is affectionately called has played alongside the carousel since 1911. The rare, German-made music machine received a beautiful new facade and complete refurbishment in 2009. In 2007, a rare Wurlitzer 165 Band Organ from San Francisco’s (now closed) Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park was purchased by the Boardwalk. Both organs can be seen (and heard!) in the carousel building.
With the passing of Looff and his peers, the art of carving carousel horses has almost disappeared. Due to scarcity, they have become collectible and increasingly valuable. The Boardwalk’s entire carousel cost $18,000 in 1911; now, a pair of the Looff horses are valued at more than that.
Carousel horses seem magical, ethereal, and even immortal; the reality is that these beautiful carved figures are sturdy but all too mortal. Over the years some of the Boardwalk’s Looff horses have been lost to the ravages of time and wear. However, the Boardwalk was able to reinstate its collection in 1978 with the acquisition of additional Looff horses from parks in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Belmont Park in San Diego.
To preserve their beauty and enhance their value, the Boardwalk has restored many of the steeds and continues to do so. Ongoing maintenance includes touching up worn or chipped paint, mechanical adjustments and repairs, and frequent polishing of the ride’s many brass poles and ornate mirrors. Each charger must be stripped of paint; the next step is to repair legs, knees, surface holes, or cracks in the wood by using dowels and wood fillers. Restoration is as much a preservation of history as the refurbishment of an amusement park ride.
Visitors from around the world have enjoyed the carousel, and the hard-working antique has enjoyed its share of glory. It has been seen in a variety of feature films, commercials, and made-for-television movies. Film credits include The Lost Boys (1987), The King of Love (1987), Brotherhood of Justice (1986), and Sudden Impact (1983). In 1987 the U.S. Park Service declared the ornate merry-go-round a National Historic Landmark along with the Boardwalk’s 1924 Giant Dipper roller coaster.
The admission-free Boardwalk is the site of 35 rides, including its circling star: the beloved merry-go-round.