This isn't the right carousel. It's a picture I took of the carousel at the House on the Rock in 2007, because that's all I have on me.
This isn't the right carousel. It's a picture I took of the carousel at the House on the Rock in 2007, because that's all I have on me. Credit: Philip Montoro

In 2012, I wrote about a late-1970s cassette recording of a dying carousel in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as part of the Reader‘s In Rotation series. It had been posted by a blog called Tape Findings in 2009, but in 2012 it wasn’t online in any form that I could embed on our website. I recently discovered that this situation had changed: in 2017, somebody named Shogun_Okami uploaded the tape to YouTube. Now I can make you listen to it—or, more accurately, I can put the choice to do so within a single click of your innocent ears.

The last time I tried to describe this “music,” if you want to call it that, I called it “hilariously abject and decrepit.” The carousel’s calliope was clearly long past the end of its service life. “The horns sound like slowly deflating geese, and various valves jammed open or closed produce queasy, out-of-place drones and melodies gap-toothed with missing notes.”

The fellow who provided Tape Findings with this recording, Nate Hurley, says that his father made it during the carousel’s last days in operation—that the whole attraction was being taken out of service. But Hurley also says his dad referred to it as the “Como zoo carousel.”

That got me to wondering whether the carousel on the tape is the same one that’s currently in Saint Paul’s Como Park. Built in 1914 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company and located on the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair until 1989, it was rescued from auction in ’88 and restored by a nonprofit called Our Fair Carousel. It reopened in Como Park in 2000, and it’s now named Cafesjian’s Carousel after Gerald L. Cafesjian, by far the largest donor to the restoration effort.

The fairgrounds, which have been in their present location since 1885, are several blocks from Como Park and its zoo, though—which raises the question of why, in the late 70s, anyone would’ve called the state fair’s carousel the “Como zoo carousel.” As best as I can guess, either there was just the one carousel and Hurley or his dad conflated the two nearby locations, or else there was a second carousel at the zoo that really was permanently decommissioned in the late 70s. I haven’t been able to reach anyone at OFC to check—Cafesjian’s Carousel is doubly closed, due to COVID-19 and the winter. If you know, please comment!

At any rate, even if the carousel in Como Park today is the very same one you can hear disintegrating on this decades-old cassette, it’s been completely overhauled since Hurley’s dad recorded it. It probably sounds pretty decent now. I brought up this tape again after almost nine years because it sounds terrible—and what’s more, it sounds terrible in a way that speaks to me as I begin my 12th month of pandemic isolation. Maybe you’ll know what I mean.

Listen to this disastrous rendition of “Hello, Dolly!” (It’s one of seven songs on the cassette, and the whole thing is on Shogun_Okami’s YouTube account.) Notice how the motor driving the calliope’s various valves, pistons, and levers plows ahead at a relentless tempo, charging through the jaunty melody heedless of the total collapse of basically every mechanism that’s supposed to regulate intonation or articulation.

If an analogy doesn’t immediately present itself to you—between an incapacitated carousel putting a brave face on a barely coherent song and a broken-down person trying to keep up a “normal” schedule while the wind whistles through holes in their psychological infrastructure—then your pandemic experience thus far must’ve been pretty different from mine. But whatever you’re going through, I hope you make it out OK, and I’m rooting for you.

If like me you’re far enough gone to find this funny, look on the bright side: that’s the only way you’re getting anything out of it, because it certainly isn’t any good.

  • The still image on this video is of Cafesjian’s Carousel, but I don’t consider that an authoritative identification.

Update: Within 12 hours of publishing this story, I heard from Tracy M. Tolzmann, president of Our Fair Carousel. (He’s also grand sheik of the Block-Heads tent of the international fraternal organization Sons of the Desert—in other words, president of the Twin Cities chapter of a worldwide Laurel & Hardy fan club.) This is about the best possible outcome of my questionable decision to write this in the first place, so I’m pretty excited!

Tolzmann confirms that the carousel recorded by Hurley’s father is not the carousel now in Como Park. As I speculated, there were in fact two! One is long gone, and the other, today called Cafesjian’s Carousel, was relocated decades ago from the state fairgrounds to the park. Tolzmann has also corrected my terminology—the instruments built into both these carousels are called band organs, not calliopes.

“There was a small portable merry-go-round in Como Park until the mid-1990s,” Tolzmann explains. “That small ride had a decrepit Wurlitzer 105 Band Organ as its music source. It is undoubtedly that instrument that Mr. Hurley’s father recorded sometime when the organ was on its last legs.”

The O’Neil family, which operated this carousel and several other rides in the park, repaired their band organ repeatedly over the years, but eventually it needed a total restoration. The O’Neils couldn’t afford that, so the instrument responsible for this astonishing version of “Hello, Dolly!” was removed and sold, to be replaced by recorded band organ music.

“Many professional recordings of band organs were made of instruments that weren’t quite up to snuff and a little out of tune, and I own many of them,” Tolzmann notes. “But I must say that none measures up to the putritude of Hurley’s recording!”

The original band organ in what’s now Cafesjian’s Carousel was destroyed by fire in 1939. As part of the ride’s complete restoration, it was outfitted with a Wurlitzer 153 Band Organ, rebuilt by OFC board member Mike Merrick. “A Wurlitzer 153 is roughly twice as large as a 105, with a much wider range of musical capability within its achromatic scale,” says Tolzmann. “I assist Mike on annual spring tunings of the organ’s 163 wooden pipes, and we routinely touch up the tuning when it is obviously out of tune, which is rare. The Cafesjian’s Carousel Wurlitzer is considered one of the best-sounding 153 organs in the U.S.”

Tolzmann also provided video of the carousel from summer 2017, so you can judge for yourself. I’m entirely charmed—maybe someday when we’re all out of the woods, I’ll be able to pay it a visit.  v

  • Cafesjian’s Carousel and its immaculately restored Wurlitzer 153 band organ. Tolzmann is standing on the ride in a blue shirt.

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Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. You can also follow him on Twitter.