The Last Carousel?

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New York City officials are trying to save the last remaining carousel on Coney Island. The owners of the famed B&B Carousell want to sell it. An auction has been set for next week and there’s interest from around the country. Richard Hake reports.

REPORTER: The B&B Carousell has been operating on this spot, a block from the Atlantic Ocean, on busy Surf Avenue, since 1932. Back then some 25 carousels dotted this historic Coney Island neighborhood, but today it’s the only one left and it’s shuttered behind a steel security gate.

Ever since it was put up for sale back in the spring, the carousel has been closed for fear vandals would take pieces of it as souvenirs. Arlan Ettinger, the President of Guernsey’s auction house, has been entrusted to care for and sell it.

from a long gone Coney Island carousel…and ironically from the designer’s rival. Brooklyn carver, Marcus Charles Illions. Inside the dimly lit menagerie, it smells musty and the horses look like black and white shadows…like in an old movie. Then Ettinger switches on a huge circuit breaker.

As the compressor warms up, the multi-colored lights reveal 50 weathered, but vividly painted horses, ornately hand-carved by legendary carousel craftsman Charles Carmel.

Ettinger: This thing is pretty darn fast even on slow speeds you tend to hold on for your life, but here we go. I’m going to pull the switch.

REPORTER: Ettinger then starts the massive and dusty Gebruder band organ with its wooden pipes, drums, and castanets all reading music from rolls of paper like a player piano.

from a long gone Coney Island carousel…and ironically from the designer’s rival. Brooklyn carver, Marcus Charles Illions.

The horses bob up and down and the air in the room swirls like a giant fan is blowing. You can that one horse stands out.. Ettinger says it’s a replacement

ETTINGER: That horse is one that is covered completely in King Arthur style armor yet has the carving of Abraham Lincoln on it, making it the rarest and most interesting carousel horses ever carved.

REPORTER: Ettinger says there are fewer than 100 vintage carousels left in America, down from some 5-thousand in the early 1900’s. The B&B Carousell is the only one privately owned.

ETTINGER: It doesn’t exist under some preservation protection and hence it’s in that unique position of possibly being the last carousel ever to be sold. The last genuine carousel.

REPORTER: The McCullough family, which has owned the carousel since 1932, could sell it off horse by horse, but wants to keep it whole and hopefully on Coney Island. Carol McCullough is the 4th generation to sell the tickets, polish the brass and help strap children to the horses. She says her father is getting too old to take care of it.

MCCULLOUGH: It’s sad a little bit, but exciting also. I do hope it finds a new home where generations more can enjoy it because it really is a nice carousel.

REPORTER: It’s expected to go for about three million dollars at auction. But Guernsey’s is willing to cancel that if a bidder comes forward with an acceptable offer to keep the carousel in New York. They’ve gotten interest from other cities and a Las Vegas casino. Josh Sirefman is Chairman of The Coney Island Development Corporation.

SIREFMAN: I sure wouldn’t want to be the person responsible for defeating the City of New York in its attempt to keep a true Coney Island treasure in Coney Island.

REPORTER: He says the City did make a formal bid, but can the City afford to go all in against a big-money, Vegas casino?

Guernsey’s says so far the City’s bid is not sufficient and the auction will go on as scheduled. The City is hoping people will come forward with donations to help keep the B&B Carousell spinning on Coney Island as it has for the past 73 years.

For WNYC, I’m Richard Hake.

Photos courtesy of Guernsey's