WHEN carousel barker Billy Bigelow bragged about his son-to-be in Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 musical hit, ``Carousel,'' he rated life on a carousel at least on a par with being ``president of the United States.'' America's love affair with merry-go-rounds (the two terms are interchangable) goes back a long way, to a ``ring of flying horses'' that appeared in Salem, Mass., in 1799.
But according to Frederick Fried, author of ``A Pictorial History of the Carousel,'' the merry-go-round got its start from a 17th-century contraption used to train young men in jousting. The knight-in-training, suspended by an overhead arm from a center pole, aimed his lance at a ring: hence the term ``catching the brass ring.''
Between 1873 and 1935, as many as 10,000 carousels - propelled by steam, gasoline, or electric motors - may have been manufactured in the United States, according to Mr. Fried. (American carousels turn in a counterclockwise direction; British carousels, called roundabouts, turn clockwise.)
Today, says carousel expert Arthur Curtze, about 170 of these antique American machines remain, including those in storage. Most of the rest have been lost to fires, floods, and simple neglect.
Ironically, says Mr. Curtze, in recent years carousels have suffered from the opposite of neglect: The hand-carved horses and other figures have become a hot item for collectors, who buy them for display in their homes.
``Suddenly, there are instant collectors everywhere,'' he says. ``Everybody has discovered them.'' People who break up carousels ``don't mean any harm,'' he says. ``But it ends up being a wicked process.''
Last March, the New York Times reported that Sotheby's auction house in New York had set a world record by selling a carousel figure for $148,500. At Guernsey's, another New York auctioneer, a carousel figure it sold for $25,000 just six years ago is expected to fetch ``well over $100,000'' when it is auctioned in December, says co-owner Barbara Mintz.
Why the interest in painted ponies?
They're ``a souvenir of everyone's past,'' says Ms. Mintz.
Curtze says the ``world-class'' hand carving on many of the horses also attracts collectors. ``Now, real high-society (people) want them.''
Curtze doesn't buy the argument that carousels are better preserved as decorations in homes rather than as part of operating machines. Although a carousel can ``never be as pristine as a living room, you can come close to that'' with proper maintenance, he says. After all, he says, ``even an antique car buff takes his car out for a parade.''
Besides, the joy of riding a top-notch carousel is something the pony collector could never buy, he says.
``You forget your troubles, ... (there's) a sensation of wonder (and) sheer enjoyment, and everyone sharing in it; all the lights and the music.''