Historic Jewish merry-go-rounds up for sale
In a storage yard in Long Beach, painted ponies in rose garlands prance atop a giant wooden disc, waiting for a new owner.
The Illions Supreme Carousel, which twirled riders for decades at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona, is one of the most elaborate wooden carousels carved at the beginning of the last century by Marcus Charles Illions and his group of Jewish immigrant craftsmen.
If the current owner, a private collector, can’t find a buyer for the carousel — a city, museum or amusement park — the historic specimen of Jewish Americana could end up broken apart or shipped to Dubai, where the amusement park industry is flourishing and the weak dollar makes American cast-offs a bargain.
The Illions Supreme isn’t the only Jewishly carved carousel in jeopardy. On April 23 in Auberndale, Fla., Norton Auctioneers will take bids on a Coney Island merry-go-round created by European craftsmen trained in the art of carving Torah arks and bimahs.
The 45-foot diameter merry-go-round, carved in 1909 in the shop of William F. Mangels, with horses, giraffes, goats, camels and chariots, has been owned and operated by the same family for 93 years. It is expected to draw at least $500,000, but the auction has no minimum opening bid. Individual horses will not be sold to antiques collectors.
The Illions Supreme, which operated at the L.A. County Fairgrounds for about 40 years through the 1980s, is worth about $5 million. Illions carved only three Supremes, and this is the only one left, according to Daniel Horenberger of Brass Ring Entertainment in Sun Valley, which is selling the carousel for the private owner.
Illions Supremes are considered the most elaborate carousels ever carved, according to Roland Hopkins, editor of Carousel News. The wildly animated menageries and chariots are adorned with more than 10,000 pieces of gold leaf. Among those horses is the American Beauty Rose horse, a gold-maned white mare dripping with colorful roses featured on the cover of “Painted Ponies,” the definitive book about carousels.
Today, new carousels are made of fiberglass, often from molds made from the wooden classics. Many of the 200 extant antique carousels are owned by cities or big parks and are thus protected, but many others, such as the Illions, are in private hands and could be sold at any time.
“These are real pieces of history,” said Horenberger, who restores carousels at a shop in Long Beach, home to many past and current ride manufacturers. “These are hand-carved, wooden animals made one at a time by some of the greatest carvers of that time. They’re almost 100 years old, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Horenberger is working hard to find a home for these two carousels. While the Skirball Cultural Center expressed some interest in the Illions Supreme, occupancy restrictions and space limitations preclude operating a 50-foot diameter carousel.
But the Skirball does have other art from Illions in its permanent exhibition — two carved lions from atop a Torah ark, part of an exhibit on the carousel carvers in the permanent exhibit on the American Jewish experience.
Like most of the carousel artisans, Illions learned his craft carving Judaic ritual objects in his hometown of Vilna, where his father was in the horse trade, and later in England. Illions and other carvers created elaborate, towering wooden arks and bimas painted in bright colors for Europe’s famed wooden synagogues.
“These carvers came to American and they transformed their creative skills into making carousels and were part of that phenomenon at the turn of the 20th century of making wonderfully elaborate carousels,” said Grace Cohen Grossman, Skirball’s senior curator
An exhibit on this called “Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses,” which just closed at the Folk Art Museum in New York, is the first to explore the link between the carvers’ ritual objects and amusement rides. The exhibit will travel to the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., from May 24 to Sept. 1.
Illions moved to Southern California at the end of his career, bringing the Illions Supreme with him and landing it at the L.A. County Fairgrounds. Before he opened his own Coney Island shop in 1888, he worked for Charles I.D. Looff, a non-Jewish immigrant, who also moved his shop from Coney Island to Long Beach, where it operated at The Pike waterfront park from 1928 through the 1970s.
Looff had been the main carver for Mangels, where he built the carousel now up for auction in Florida, working alongside Jewish carvers Solomon Stein, Harry Goldstein and Charles Carmel. Some of Carmel’s and Looff’s carvings sit atop the carousel in Griffith Park, built in 1926. Stein and Goldstein produced the largest carousels ever made — 60 feet in diameter, and created the merry-go-round still operating in New York’s Central Park.
The Florida carousel operated in Harvey’s Lake, Pa., for many years before it was moved to Florida. The owner now plans to retire on the proceeds of the sale. But Horenberger hopes someone will step forward to keep both the Florida carousel and the Illions Supreme not only in one piece, but in the hands of people who will appreciate its history.
“I hope someone can help save it,” he said of the Florida carousel. “I would hate to see that carousel lost. It’s just about 100 years old, and it would be sad to see it torn apart and broken down on its birthday, or to see it go overseas and lose a piece of American history.”
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