Restoring childhood memories
Skilled hands revive local landmark
For several weeks the ponies have patiently waited. They’ve been stoic when little noses pressed against the glass and looked longingly at them. Meanwhile, in the silence of the Carrousel building they’ve submitted to the tender, loving touch of Bette Largent, president of the National Carousel Association, and restoration expert.
Their ears have been touched up, their saddles painted, their stirrups polished and some of their tails replaced. In addition, each horse’s shoes received a fresh coat of silver paint. “My dad used to say, ‘You can’t go out unless your shoes are polished,’ ” Largent said with a grin. All this sprucing up is in preparation for the Monday reopening of the Looff Carrousel and a yearlong celebration of the Spokane icon’s 100th birthday.
According to Largent, the Carrousel was created as a wedding gift for Looff’s daughter, Emma. While originally located in Natatorium Park, the Carrousel has been at its present location since 1975.
Like Band-Aids denoting wounds, blue tape marks the spot on each figure that needs attention. With 54 horses, a giraffe, a tiger, a goat and two dragon chariots, there’s plenty of work for Largent’s skilled hands. “Billy Bob’s got a bad leg,” she said, pointing the popular gray goat. “I have to go in and re-dowel him.”
Each patch of faded paint tells a story, and Largent, who’s cared for the Carrousel for 17 years, knows most of them. She pointed to the worn paint on Gerry Giraffe’s ears. “Little kids grab his ears to steer him.” She can discern which figure is most popular with certain age groups by the height at which the paint has been worn away.
Every intimate detail of the Carrousel is known to Largent. “Can you find the horse with the gold tooth?” she asked a pair of park workers who were helping with the touch-ups. “How about the three horses with hearts?”
As Largent walked around the Carrousel a gray mare caught her eye. “This is Miss Lilac,” she said. “We can’t look her in the mouth – she’s our gift horse.” The “Miss” in Miss Lilac stands for Missoula. “We helped them with their carousel,” Largent said. The bejeweled gray pony was a thank-you gift.
Some of her memories aren’t quite as fond. “One horse I called Joker knocked me down.” Largent had the horse on a stand in her workshop. “When I spun him around, he clipped me in the back of the head!”
This former librarian is still discovering new things about the beloved landmark and its creator Charles I.D. Looff. One thing involved his name. “I’ve been doing a lot of research with a great-grandson of Looff,” she said. “His name wasn’t Charles; it was Karl Jurgen Detleff Looff.” An immigration clerk’s messy handwriting led to the mix-up.
Largent traces her love of carousels to childhood. For her, they’ve always had the tantalizing lure of the forbidden. “My father was very conservative,” she recalled. “He took a dim view of carnival rides.” Her mother, however, loved carousels, and Largent’s earliest merry-go-round memories are of spinning on a ride at a state fair. “We’d wait until Dad got busy at the horse barn – then we’d sneak off. It was the forbidden fruit.” Her brown eyes twinkled at the memory.
Caring for a National Historic Landmark was far from her mind when she began working at Riverfront Park in the early ’90s. From her career as a librarian she went on to work in the travel industry, but art has always been her passion. “I’ve been an artist since I could hold a pencil,” she said. Her plan was to work in the park gift shop and to paint watercolors in her spare time, but fate intervened. “I just happened to be here when the previous restoration expert left.”
Recently, after making her circuit around the Carrousel she stopped near the heart of the ride – the 1900s-era band organ. While she’s hoping to convert the music to midi files and incorporate contemporary music (“I want ‘Louie Louie,’ ” she said), Largent acknowledged the band organ with its paper rolls is a treasure. The organ was rebuilt in 1998, but is played only on special occasions because the rolls are deteriorating. Usually, patrons ride the ponies to the tune of recorded band organ music.
But Largent couldn’t resist firing up the band organ for her guest, and soon the familiar upbeat, exhilarating music of the Carrousel filled the building. “It’s the music that makes me cry. I don’t know why,” she said, her eyes glittering with tears. “It gives me goose bumps.”
However, there’s something else that thrills her even more. She said what she finds most rewarding is “the little kids that pound on the door, their hands pressed against the glass asking, ‘Is it open yet?’ ”
And then there’s the young lady in the wheelchair who Largent knows will be the first customer when the ride reopens. “She’s our first rider every year. Her dad gets her a season pass,” Largent said. “There are lots of stories like that. It’s what keeps the Carrousel turning.”
Contact correspondent Cindy Hval at email@example.com.