Repaired, ready to ride

Repaired and ready to ride

Preparation: Richard Knight brings his carousel animals out of hibernation for their 22nd season at the Inner Harbor.

April 06, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The indignities are appallIng. Horses that had their tails set afire. A rooster whose leg was kicked out from under it and broken off. A zebra decapitated without provocation.

It can be dangerous for the menagerie at the Inner Harbor carousel. Vandals seem to be drawn to it as strongly as children.

But each spring, the carved wooden animals resume their usual rounds between Rash Field and the Maryland Science Center. Today will mark the start of the 22nd season - if owner Richard Knight can get his beloved old merry-go-round ready.

His is not the modern sort of fiberglass carousel one might find at the mall. It is an original Herschel Spillman 40-footer, made by hand 90 years ago in North Tonawanda, N.Y., outside Buffalo, during the carousel's heyday.

Fewer than 120 wooden carousels survive, says the National Carousel Association. "It's one of the rare ones," said Brian Morgan, a Los Angeles accountant who heads the association and has seen Baltimore's prize firsthand. "It's something that should be respected and cherished."

The vandals aside, it has been respected and cherished. By Knight and his family, who store the animals in their Columbia garage every winter. By the Howard County high school students who annually treat the animals' nicks and slather on layers of bright paint. By the producers of the defunct television series Homicide, who put it in an episode. By people such as Penny Levine, who came from New York this weekend to see the carousel.

Just a few days ago, seven of the 24 animals sat or lay on newspaper in the art room at Hammond High School in Columbia. For two decades, art teacher Peg Coulson's students have refurbished the creatures.

"The first class fought me on it; they didn't want any part of it," she said. The boys thought it feminine to paint ponies. Over the years, "it's become a tradition. A lot of kids really want to do it."

On Thursday seniors Lindsay Clark, 17, and Lyndsey Decker, 18, touched up their horse. Its mane - brown with blond highlights - got one last coat of "burnt umber," as Crayola calls that brown. The girls chose a patriotic theme, which meant lots of red, white and blue, and a saddle with gold stars.

Fun of it all

That's part of the fun: Students have free rein to choose the colors and design. "I never get two of the same," Knight said. He pointed to a rooster covered in a riot of colors. "I could never have thought of that."

The rooster is the handiwork of 17-year-old Lauren Treiber and 16-year-old Lindsay Buckingham, juniors in Art I. They began with a purple saddle, then moved to the tail, streaked in pink, magenta and turquoise.

It wasn't to everyone's liking. "There's not going to be a single guy that is going to want to ride that," said junior Matt Stephens.

Buckingham shot back: "Well, no girl is going to want to ride a pig."

Unusual decision

Some people called Knight crazy when he mortgaged his house to buy the carousel more than 20 years ago. A builder by trade, he dared not build another house "on spec" in 1981, with interest rates about 20 percent. Meanwhile, he had read about old carousels and thought one would go well at the Inner Harbor, then about to take off with the new Harborplace.

Knight, 55, tracked one down in Clarkston, Mich., and, $70,000 later, it was his. He could not set it up at the harbor right away, so a neighbor let him borrow her back yard. Since 1981, it has spun at the harbor on land leased from the city.

Originals parts

The carousel has the original transmission and gears, and most animals are originals. Six burned in a barn fire several years ago, and Knight has replaced two, leaving 24. Many of the others bear newer appendages: ears to replace those sliced off or, in the case of that zebra, a whole new head.

Business is not what it once was. From a high of 130,000 rides a year when he opened, Knight is down to about 40,000, with each three-minute ride costing $1.25. He blames the absence of fairs in Rash Field, not to mention towering shrubs that obscure the carousel.

The point is not to make money, Knight said. Anyway, there is a clear advantage over building houses. With the carousel, he said with a laugh, "they pay me before they ride."

Carousel enthusiasts

But the ride has attracted merry-go-round enthusiasts in addition to its staple, kids. A few years ago, 200 members of the National Carousel Association visited. One wore riding boots and jodhpurs.

Yesterday brought a pair of more casual fans, Levine and Michael Wolfson of Long Beach, N.Y.

"I ride carousels wherever I go," Levine said, and the 50-year-old may get her chance today.

As the animals were being returned to their worn wooden platform, Knight's wife, Heidi, asked their 3-year-old daughter Olivia to name the crazy-colored rooster.

"I wanna name him ... "

"Pink and purple?" her mother asked.

"Nooooo."

"Henry?" her big sister Victoria asked.

"Nooooo."

Then what?

After a long pause, she said, "Emily!"

Emily it is. There are perks when Mom and Dad own the carousel.

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