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.

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.

It's not surprising that the term carousel derives from early Italian and Spanish words meaning ``little war.''

Because the carousel craze centered for so long in Europe, ``we thought the best horses would be over there, but they're not,'' says Mrs. Sardina. ``Carvers over there -- the first rate ones -- wanted to work for the church, not the carneys [carnivals].'' This is why the Sardinas do the bulk of their research and searching in the United States.

``It takes about 100 hours to restore just one animal -- if you know what you're doing,'' says Carlos Sardina. And they do know what they're doing.

First step is to remove all the paint, sometimes 15 coats, with a heat gun. Old-time carnival owners weren't particular about preserving carving detail, and they would hire children, vagrants -- anyone who would slap on paint for a quick 50 cents.

Residue is cleaned from the cracks with fine files and dental picks. Then there's oiling to ``feed'' the wood. And sanding. And more sanding.

Sardina, who used to sculpt clay, carves the missing pieces, and like the master craftsmen, he works in basswood and poplar because these woods have little grain. ``In woods with heavier grain, the chisel goes obediently through the soft parts, then hits the grain and goes where it wants,'' his wife explains.

On carousels, nails are taboo; they rot the wood. So the Sardinas use only dowels and glue when fitting pieces back together again. Eventually, three coats of primer are laid on. Then two coats of paint. And on top of these goes a special stain that mellows colors to antique hues.

``I sometimes leave a few small nicks on the flanks or around the reins' area,'' Mrs. Sardina says, a reminder of bygone ``giddyaps'' and high-button shoes.

Is theft a threat? Mr. Sardina pats the Doberman and shrugs. Who can fence a workshop animal that's only half in shape? As for the couple's own collection of 40, it's under lock and key at several storage locations in the city. Sardina also explains that stolen animals are fairly easy to trace because each is so individual. It's not like tracking a mass-produced Care Bear.

At present, the couple is putting a large 64-animal carousel into shape for the St. Louis County Department of Parks and Recreation. Having miraculously survived an amusement park fire in the '60s, the carousel has all its original components except one animal and the organ.

This turn-of-the-century treasure will soon join the revival of moving memorabilia when it's set up in a climate-controlled building in the county's Faust Park.

According to figures from the National Carousel Association (NCA), only about 175 carousels are operating today in the US and Canada. But back in the merry-go-round's heyday, from 1890 to the late 1920s, it estimates that about 5,000 carousels made their rounds.

This carnival art form met its demise during the Great Depression, with the last known animal being carved in 1932. ``Few people had money for such frivolities during those years,'' Mrs. Sardina explains. Then, after World War II, fiberglass and aluminum won out over wood, and assembly lines replaced hand crafting.

The ll-year-old NCA, with its membership of 1000, has the broad purpose of preserving carousel art. But more specifically, it tries to stem the dismantling of merry-go-rounds -- a common practice because sellers reap bigger profits when animals are sold individually. It's recognized, however, that some carousels are beyond resurrection, while others have been in the piecemeal state for years with their carved creatures deteriorating in barns, basements, sheds, and attics.

What's the rationale for keeping carousels intact?

Mrs. Sardina, an advocate of the practice, sums it up this way: ``How can the public appreciate the art of the carousel if all the animals are sitting in living rooms?''

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