Taking Rides Back into History

By Rohan, Virginia | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), July 28, 2013 | Go to article overview

Taking Rides Back into History


Rohan, Virginia, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


If you turn your back on the Manhattan skyline, you can easily imagine you're at a Parisian carnival in 1898.

That feeling is enhanced as you climb aboard an ornately beautiful, late-19th-century bicycle carousel, which starts to twirl, first forward, then in reverse, as riders pedal faster and faster.

This charming merry-go-round -- originally designed to help horse- loving Parisians get over their fear of the new and far cleaner bicyclette -- is one of the highlights of Fete Paradiso, a celebration of vintage French carnival rides, carousels and games that recently made its American debut on Governors Island in New York City. The festival, open to the public every weekend through Sept. 29, is just a free seven-minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan.

It's not huge -- in all, 17 rides, games and fairground artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including boat-shaped swings, a flying-chairs ride, a majestic pipe organ -- and, of course, carousels (among them a couple just for children, and one with a dragon theme). Though most are still actively enjoyable -- rides and games cost $3 each -- a few, no longer operational, are just for display. But it's fascinating to see the artistry, workmanship -- and whimsy -- behind all the attractions, even the beautifully carved and painted pieces that are propped up against trees.

"There are a lot of people who are coming out -- a lot of adults on dates, a lot of photographers -- to visit the fete as if it were a museum," says its creative producer, Chris Wangro, a onetime circus ringmaster whose company, Zaragunda, specializes in what he calls "large-scale, complicated outdoor public events."

"But you get the dual life, because we've taken what would have been, I think, a pretty staid museum and made it a living festival."

The idea for the traveling fete originated with two passionate French collectors of vintage carnival rides and art -- Francis Staub and Regis Masclet.

In 2011, at a Paris auction, Staub purchased more than half of the vast inventory of Francois and Fabienne Marchal, who since the 1970s had amassed what was considered the greatest collection of vintage carousel and carnival rides.

Staub thought of creating a museum in Paris, but the City of Light already has the Museum of Fairground Arts (Musee des Arts Forains). He joined forces with Masclet, who was originally in the advertising business and "ended up falling in love with various carnival and carousel rides and buying pieces and restoring them," Wangro says. "They put their works together and decided that, better than it being just a museum, it should be a living, breathing carnival."

In just a few months, Wangro and his team -- along with Masclet and his two sons, Adrien and Thibault -- made the fete "come to life" on Governors Island. "It was really a mad, mad rush," says Wangro, a former special events director for the New York City parks, noting the challenges of adapting the French display to the United States, where concerns for public safety, and even our electrical voltage systems, are very different.

Just a short walk from where the Manhattan ferry drops you -- follow the carousel horses painted on the path -- Fete Paradiso is spread across Nolan Field, which is surrounded by lovely yellow Victorian homes that once housed officers during Governors Island's days as a military base, and are now used for seasonal exhibitions and shops.

The attractions at Fete Paradiso include:

* Music-Hall Ball Guzzler, a carnival game sculptured in western France and dating to 1934. It involves tossing a faux apple into the ever-opening-and-closing mouths of caricatures of that era's celebrities -- including Josephine Baker, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Maurice Chevalier. Back in the day, if you got five balls into their mouths you'd win a bottle of wine. Now, if you succeed, you'll get a free drink at Le Gamin at Fete Paradiso (an outpost of the Manhattan bistro), whose menu runs from croque-monsieur to hamburgers. …

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