March 21, 2009 in City

Carrousel whirling toward 100

Painstaking artist preserves both detail and city treasure’s history
By The Spokesman-Review
 
PHOTO ARCHIVE photo

The Carrousel, built by German woodcarver Charles I.D. Looff in the early 1900s, was sent to Spokane as a wedding gift for his daughter and Louis Vogel, who ran Natatorium Park. Photo taken in 1930.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Open today 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

 Riverfront Park has scheduled extended hours of operation for the Carrousel today in celebration of its centennial – 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There also will be free historical tours, demonstrations of the Ruth & Sohn band organ and raffles.

She probably wouldn’t admit it, but Bette Largent is the Carrousel Lady.

The artist has been restoring and maintaining all the critters on Spokane’s beloved Riverfront Park attraction since January 1991, and she’s still classified as a temporary seasonal employee.

Note to Parks and Recreation: The Carrousel Lady needs a promotion.

After all, there’s next to nothing Largent doesn’t know about the Looff Carrousel, which turns 100 years old this summer.

Today, the park kicks off the season-long centennial celebration and grand reopening of the Carrousel with special events that include a historical tour by Largent, who also is the president of the National Carousel Association.

Designed by master craftsman Charles Looff, the Carrousel began operation in Spokane’s now-defunct Natatorium Park on July 18, 1909. But everybody around these parts knows that.

What you probably don’t know, Largent said, is that the horses on the Carrousel’s outside ring have traveled the equivalent of a trip to the moon and would be headed back to Earth by now.

Or maybe you were unaware that Riverfront Park goes through about 50,000 of those little plastic rings each year despite a prohibition against taking them home as souvenirs.

That’s OK; Largent said she even caught former City Manager Roger Crum stuffing one of the rings in his pocket after a ride.

“He told me it was hard to catch the ring while traveling at 7 miles per hour, and I said it’s a macho thing – you’re not supposed to complain.”

The Carrousel Lady can be tough.

Then there was the time the “Antiques Road Show” guy almost lost his lunch while trying to interview her on the Carrousel while it was spinning.

Speaking of antiques, the assessed value of each horse on the outside ring once averaged $35,000, but that was before the current economic downturn.

“Recession hits antiques first,” Largent said.

What’s unusual about the Looff Carrousel is that the outside horses are “jumpers,” she said. Then, like now, everybody wanted an outside horse, so when the technology to move carousel animals up and down was developed, it was used to attract riders to the inside animals.

Also very rare is the Carrousel tiger. Looff was the only one who carved sneaky tigers with their heads down because the weight of their heads would cause the wood to break. Looff solved the problem by using walnut instead of poplar in the tiger’s neck.

There are only three “sneakies” in existence, Largent said, and Spokane’s is the only one left on an operating machine.

Restoring and maintaining the Carrousel menagerie is meticulous work, and Largent tries to stick to the original Looff colors.

Once, while stripping the pinto pony on the outside row — one of the most popular — Largent discovered that it was originally a bay, so she restored the animal to brown.

“Nobody would ride it, so we put it back to a pinto,” she said.

The Carrousel Lady knows that she is working on a treasure, not just to Spokane residents, but to families from throughout the region who have brought their children to the attraction for decades.

“When I get tired and frustrated and want to hang up the paint brush, my children have a fit, because now they have children,” Largent said.

“ ‘You have to continue this,’ they tell me.”

Contact Kevin Graman at kevingr@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5433.


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