Author Ray Bradbury wrote about carnivals like this. A character might step off a modern train or though an innocent doorway into the nineteenth century where pace was slow, ambience peaceful, people friendly. A place where rides were hand-cranked, run on steam, or salt circuit motors (the guts of these pieces have been updated, but not their hearts or spirits), where innocence seemed natural and pleasures simpler. (Top, The Velocipede or Bicycle Carousel).
Seven oak-shaded acres of Governor’s Island are currently playing host to just such an enchantment as Colette’s Gigi might’ve attended. Fête Paradiso, the largest functional grouping of vintage rides, carousels, and museum quality carnival components to be assembled in recent history, is cheerily ensconced through September 29, 2013. There are no souvenir stands, no rides with representation of licensed characters, no blaring music, fast food, or multicolored maps.
Music Hall Ball Guzzler
“We want people to just discover things,” comments American producer Chris Wangro taking aim, with a rubber fruit, at the open mouth of a wooden Josephine Baker. It sinks! He looks surprised. We all are. The ten large, hand carved and painted caricatures representing famous French entertainers is a Music Hall Ball Guzzler. I recognize Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier and singer, Mistinguett besides Baker. Aim is not the only talent required here. The figures mouths open and close, hand pumped from behind by the booth’s pitchman; timing is of the essence. A child winner gets a lollipop, an adult a drink at Le Gamin, the on-premises café. I didn’t come close.
Regis Masclet & Adrien Masclet
Fête Paradiso combines portions of two prestigious French collections of 1850-1950 rides and amusements, that of Francis Staub and Regis Masclet. Independently acquiring for decades, they may have met at the 2011 collection auction of Francois and Fabienne Marchal. The Marchals were passionate about their avocation and managed to secure and restore a great many undervalued, historical treasures.
Staub, who designed his first enameled pot in an old artillery factory in 1974, founded the prestigious company that would become a benchmark for enameled cast iron cookware, eventually sold his successful concern, and is retired. He tends to collect museum quality pieces, many on display here separate from the rides. Monsieur Staub is the fête’s main underwriter.
Masclet, a former advertising executive, grew up surrounded by the ethos. His father helmed an association of carnivals in northern France. Perhaps reaching back to his childhood or childhood per se, he purchased the first merry-go-round upon birth of his older son. Both boys work with him now in a separate enterprise lovingly repairing, restoring, and renting this kind of equipment for film and video. Both flew over to help set up the fête; Adrien remains as master technician.
Dressed in 19th Century Clothing
One pint-sized boy accompanies his parents, all in the 19th century regalia of a daguerreotype. He wears a straw boater, a dapper blue vest, shirt, tie, knickers and high socks. Papa, in a cool, white suit and fedora places him in a flying chair while mama, wearing a tilted chapeau and long gathered skirt, looks on. There are two Flying Chair rides, one for adults and one child-scaled, red velvet seats. Both are secure.
I notice a chandelier hung from the center of the raised, wooden platform filled with picnic tables which turns out to be a repurposed 1900 Bumper Car Pavilion. Since WWII, it’s been used as a beer garden and special events space. Wangro tells me the chandelier is operational. Thinking they could find anything in New York, it didn’t occur to those mounting the fête that bulbs would be an issue. Electrical service is, of course, different in Europe. Not only is the fête running on three sources of 100 percent biodiesel power with wiring underground, but its producers ended up having to ship over a thousand bulbs from Belgium because nothing here fit. “The truth is, it’s much more complicated than what meets the eye,” he adds.
Today, people have chosen from the menu at Robert Arbor’s Le Gamin (tent) where Chef Christophe Breat serves up classic French fare like croque-monsieur (I tasted this; it’s splendid), savory and sweet crepes (the ham and cheese is delicious), rotisserie chicken, salads, and sausages in addition to burgers, fries and the occasional – no kidding – roast pig one sees turning on a spit. A “Bar Carousel” (the framework of a 1940s kiddie carousel) next to the eating pavilion, offers beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages. People also picnic on the grounds.
The Call Organ and Its Music
Masclet’s son, Adrien, accompanies me to the automated “call” organ, so named because it was usually a stand-alone attraction placed at the entrance of a fair to beckon people, designed to be heard above the noise of crowds. A fine example of work by the Limonaire Brothers whose workshop was requisitioned for arms in WWI, it’s the only one left of its size. The young expert shows me how music is fed into the machine. Marked by coded punch cards like the score of a player piano, each accordion-folded song is drawn from its own wooden box and laid carefully across a conveyor belt at the back. One stack runs over fifteen minutes and must be watched or aided in its journey. There are 92 keys, while other organs of this period had 50. Adrien is tender with his task. People are drawn. Two front figures are meant to strike bells, one does, drums beat from behind, piano keys activate at its sides. When fully mechanized, the figures revolve. It’s an ebullient sound.
I hear a cheer and turn to see action at The Ring Toss. Ornate wooden figures on poles sport oversized feet onto which rings are thrown. Circle the head of a decorative peacock and secure another ring. I almost achieve this and am given a lollipop for coming close, apparently a frequent outcome. There are two large, wooden wheels propped up against the back of the booth. Once upon a time, spinning these might win a player five kilograms of sugar, olive oil, meat or a bottle of wine.
Two girls walk by with “barbe a papa,” papa’s beard, the French name for cotton candy. Unlike the familiar American pink, this was purple and conjectured to be grape flavored. Who knows? The French are subtle with foodstuffs.
Row Boat Swings
Large Boat (rowboat) Swings from the 1930s host several gleeful children being pushed by their fathers; bigger kids rock on their own after a few shoves. Paris-based producer Tristan Duval then shows me an 1890s kiddie version delicately painted with foliage. It looks like a dollhouse toy. At the moment, there’s only one child here, wide-eyed and sailing on air. Oh what dreams tonight. It was Duval at whose impetus the two collectors joined so that we might enjoy what would otherwise be closeted in a museum. His own children are playing on the grounds.
Ballerina, Elephant, Lion
Pointing out the Babydream Carousel, meant for little ones, Duval explains that the pig, bent over ballerina (one perches on her back), carriages, convertible car and animals are Staub antiques, while the Masclet mainframe comes from the 1950s. “We put this one together.” There’s a little Asian girl in one of the elaborate, rotating gondolas. She sits dreamily, arms wide along the back, eyes closed, smiling. An adult-sized all-gondola carousel exists for those who wish to drift undisturbed. The carving and artwork is incredible.
Standing by trees and on other unused mainframes are an amazing collection of carousel creatures. A parrot that once went up and down is attached to a stable elephant with a basket to seat several on its back. There’s a marvelous lion, painted and unpainted horses and every kind of real or mythological beast. The carousel collection is constructed mostly without roofs, though roofs are owned, in order that we might see both mechanism and the trees. It all looks open, lighthearted, and rather magical.
Chinese Dragon Carousel
Ah Carousels. From the old Italian word Garosello or Carosella “little war or battle,” the merry-go-round was inspired by soldier’s spear or grab-the-ring “bague” exercises that replaced jousting tournaments in the 16th century. (Too many inadvertent deaths of important nobles.) These were referred to as “horse ballets.” First powered by men or animals, then steam (1861), most are now electrical. An exception is the undulating, Chinese Dragon Carousel, which is powered by saltwater circuit and is quite fast. Hold onto your kids. A Great Horse Carousel from 1850 is all “jumpers” which move up and down.
The Velocipede, or Bicycle Carousel, is one of only two in the world created in 1897 and employed at The Exposition Universelle that also introduced Le Tour Eiffel and the Ferris wheel. (The other is in the Musée des Arts Forains in Paris.) Duval tells me Tesla himself provided the engines. Meant to acclimate people to bicycle riding in an age when horses were disappearing from streets, human exertion was necessary. Pedals move by themselves now, but one can speed up literally making the ride go faster. If you don’t have rubber-soled shoes, feet may slip. Just raise them and curl your knees along the oversized wheel cover. Bigger kids invariably want to pedal. There are, however, raised seats for ride-only experience. This one also goes backwards which is a peddling feat. Bags are stored on the base along the core so hands can be free. Whimsical design and novelty make this terrific for photo ops.
Enjoying the Rides, 1910
More pieces remain in France and others are in storage here. Both Staub and Masclet continue to collect. Wangro feels the grove should not be overcrowded. Interestingly, no one pushes or yells, nor did I hear a crying child despite many in strollers. Something in the air? By midday, there are lines at the more popular rides and Le Gamin, but nothing fatally discouraging. Young people who run rides are sweet, helpful and good with kids.
Fête Paradiso runs through Sept 29, 2013, Saturdays and Sundays only 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Free Ferries from Manhattan run 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and every half hour after, till 7 p.m. and return every half hour starting at 10:30 a.m. From the Maritime Building corner South & Whitehall Streets.
Ferries from Brooklyn can be boarded at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 -the foot of Atlantic Avenue. These begin at 11 a.m.
Admission is free. “The ticket price helps with our daily nut. It’s a public park. Both Staub and Maclet are big kids at heart; they want the world to see it and I’m with them,” says Wangro, himself a former circus impresario.
Tickets for games and rides are $3 each and are purchased at a single booth.
Come September, the fête will be open Saturday nights and feature entertainment. Until then, it’s available to rent for private parties. Contact Chris Wangro, email@example.com
Duval, Wangro, Masclet and Staub hope to take the fête on the road when it leaves New York, possibly setting a southern route to avoid winter conditions. “We could even set it up inside. Though not preferable, there would be things we could do inside we can’t do outside. We could make it work.” (Wangro)
Until then, come dance, look, dine, and ride. Take yourself out of context to a manifest fantasy. Hold hands, wonder, wander; dress up. This is a delight.
The fête is not an all day activity even if you explore the rest of this pastoral island, i.e. kids won’t get overtired. The only real restrooms are at the ferry dock. Otherwise it’s porta-potties. Go to the website for Fête Paradiso.