THE CAROUSEL. Preserving a high art. Magnificent steeds spring back to life
With their hands, they froze a moment of fantasy. The master craftsmen of the last two centuries created exquisitely carved carousel menageries, and an art form as well. It's this art, not amusement, that has given rise to a carousel renaissance in this country.Skip to next paragraph
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As sheer entertainment, the carousel is actually an anachronism, offering only a lope and a prance when today's fun-seekers hunt for thrills that tear up the turf. But the beauty of the art remains; and Judy and Carlos Sardina have spent the last seven years bringing this beauty back to life.
In a country setting where greenery and greenbacks abound, the Sardinas put their prize horses in top form -- without feed or pasture, saddles or stables.
Since 1979, they have been refurbishing a merry-go-round menagerie -- mainly horses -- hand carved by master craftsmen between 1860 and 1930.
The dozen major carousel carvers of that time were mostly European immigrants, who were ``so very competitive,'' Mr. Sardina says. ``Because of this, they produced magnificent pieces.''
The Sardinas have scouted 20 states for carousel art they can put back into shape and market. Other owners ship their woebegone animals for fix-up to the Sardina studio, near the couple's home on a scenic 25 acres outside St. Louis. The workshop is wrapped in security devices, plus a Doberman for good measure. After all, antiques of this stature don't sell for singles -- or hundreds. (A tiger -- not the Sardinas' -- recently sold for a cool $32,000 at a New York auction.)
Although the Cuban-born Sardina first became captivated by carousel animals during his childhood in Havana, he never managed to bring one home until his Missouri days. In the '70s, he discovered a gem of a horse in an antique shop, a ``find'' that kicked off the hobby.
A hobby that started out as just horsin' around has burgeoned into a second business for the Sardinas, whose mainstay vocation is designing and manufacturing decorative accessories.
``I restored it,'' Sardina says. ``And after that I bought another one, then a few more, and I sold a few, and I bought more, and. . . .'' the couple's carousel career was under way. The Sardinas now own a complete carousel that spins at the Union Station shopping complex in St. Louis. Made in 1898, it carries four chariots and two dozen horses.
``It's the only carousel we know of that's operating with the original steam engine,'' says Sardina, who explains that during World War I and II, most carousel steam engines were melted down for the war effort, leaving merry-go-rounds at a standstill.
For years, this particular steam-engine carousel stayed amid the hay in a Missouri barn. Then one day, along with barrels, bottles, and cattle, it came to the block at a rural auction. And the Sardinas trucked it home. Fashioned in ``country'' style, their carousel is simpler and smaller than many, designed to be easily put up, taken down, and transported from fair to fair.
In addition to this country style, Sardina cites the two other major types of merry-go-rounds. The Coney Island style, founded by the famous carver, Charles Looff, mirrors all the flamboyance of its New York namesake. Lavishly decorated, the animals sport armor that's gilded and bejeweled. The Philadelphia style presents animals more realistic in form and more regal in bearing.
Historically, the carousel is a throwback to a perilous game played by Arabs in the 12th century. While riding in a circle at top clip, horsemen tossed clay balls to each other. The object was to make a good catch and not get pelted. Crusaders spied the game and carried it back to Europe, where the French embellished it with pomp and costume.
By the 1600s, riders no longer threw balls. Instead, they carried spears, aiming them at rings suspended by ribbon from tall poles. In the late 17th century, these circular maneuvers were mechanized, with mock horses hung from crossbars pegged to a center pole. Astride these wooden mounts, young nobility learned their early lessons in spearing the ring. And pity the mule -- or men -- who provided the power for turning this contraption.