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The Ups and Downs of Griffith Park’s Merry-Go-Round

On Jul 17, 2023

 

The Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round has been a part of Angelenos’ lives for 88 years. Children have gravitated toward the happy, upbeat music from its Stinson Military Band Organ with smiles and laughter.

Some horses date back to 1895. The carved and painted horses each have their own personality. “Devil” is a black horse with one leg sticking out in back as if he is going to kick you. “Hannibal” has a stubby unicorn horn guarding his head. “Isolde,” carved by renowned carver Charles Looff, is a dappled beauty with flowers in her reins. A pure white stallion, “Arthur” boasts the profile of a lion above his foreleg. Adults who used to ride the Merry-Go-Round when they were kids are now having just as much fun riding horses with their grandchildren.

The status of the Merry-Go-Round is currently in limbo (read Park Status, page 5), but first let’s spin back in time for some Merry-go Round reminiscences and notable events.

Retired Park Ranger Bill Eckert shared fond memories of riding the Merry-Go-Round in the 1950s and 60s in The Griffith Park Quarterly, May, 1982:

I used to come to the Merry-Go-Round when you could jump on the outside row and reach out for a ring that was placed in a long chute frame alongside the Merry-Go-Round. Then if you got a lead ring you threw it into a canvas basket. Once in a while I would be lucky and pick a gold ring that would be placed among the lead rings, about every 12 or 20 rings apart. If you obtained a gold ring in those days you could have another ride free just by turning it in to the box office or by giving it to the ticket taker.

The Merry-Go-Round was a favorite with my children. We’d go to the park for a day’s outing in the early 1960’s to enjoy a ride and listen to the Wurlitzer organ music.

As years went by, the price of tickets to ride on the Merry-Go-Round went up. After 1951 the fare went up to a quarter. Now with inflation, the same ride is 50 cents. Where else for so little money can you come to relax on a grassy lawn, have your picnic lunch, listen to the carousel music, have your children or grandchildren ride the colorful Merry-Go-Round or roll down the grassy slopes around it? This is but one of many types of amusements and recreation that Griffith Park has to offer residents or visitors that visit the park year-round.

The 1960s were challenging times for the Merry-Go-Round and Park Center

On Memorial Day, 1961 a group of Black youth jumped on and off the ride without paying, and, taking a cue from the Civil Rights protests of the time, called themselves “Freedom Riders.” Bystanders came to their defense. The owner called the police. Chief William Parker was known for being antagonistic toward the Black community. Responding officers used racial slurs which exacerbated the situation rather than calming things down. The Park was forced to close and it took 75 officers to quell the race riots.

Throughout the 1960s, Flower Children would frequently gather around the Merry-Go-Round for Love-Ins where they painted their bodies with flowers, drank alcoholic beverages and used drugs. Some interior Merry-Go-Round paintings were vandalized. The Flower Children caused other problems for Park Rangers; for a while families did not feel safe bringing their children to the Merry-Go-Round.

Not all large gatherings near the Merry-Go-Round were contentious. In 1980, about 500 fans gathered peacefully in Park Center for a tribute to John Lennon the day after he was killed in New York. The event was organized by radio rock station KROQ.

Families returned to the Park in great numbers. Little Annie Jewell in her red Santa outfit rode a shiny black jumper horse with her mother Lynne in 1988.

A match made in heaven

Julio Gosdinski emigrated from Peru to the United States when he was 12 years old. While at John Marshall High School, he started working at the Merry-Go-Round on weekends which would become his life’s calling. A true kid at heart, Gosdinski loved the Merry-Go-Round and made sure all riders enjoyed it as much as he did.

For years, the arrangement was beneficial. Gosdinski was raised by his single mother, while Merry-Go-Round owner Warren Deasy never had a son. It was a match made in heaven. Deasy appreciated Gosdinski’s love of the Merry-Go-Round, the way he engaged with guests, and his sense of humor. Deasy frequently commented that Gosdinski was the son he never had.

When Deasy died in 2011, Gosdinski was surprised to learn he had left him half ownership of the Merry-Go-Round. The other half is owned by Deasy’s ex-wife Rosemary West. West maintained the horses and Merry-Go-Round while Gosdinski sold tickets, ran the machinery, selected the music, and interacted with the public practically every day. You couldn’t miss his brilliant blue eyes and his irrepressible grin. He knew everyone. He was so proud that his Merry-Go-Round was one of the oldest, largest, and fastest at 14 miles per hour.

Another fan of the Merry-Go-Round was Chuck Simpson’s grandmother Jessie. In her honor, 44 family members and friends paid for the restoration of one horse. They threw a big party on-site on February 16, 1986 to celebrate the return of the shiny horse to Griffith Park. Named for Grandma Simpson, “Jessie” is a brown and white horse with a huge red bow around her neck.

Merry-Go-Round owner Rosemary West described the event to Simpson:

It was wonderful of your family to not only do such an amazing thing for us but to do such a joyous event for your family’s matriarch. Jessie, the horse, has been our ambassador to many events from being on exhibit at a local bank, to being featured in a magazine, which is where the 3 horse picture is from. The other 3 photos are from when we were painting her. The drawing I did of her is on the cover of our coloring book.

The sign for her at the Merry-Go-Round has just the part of the photo that shows the real Jessie and says: “JESSIE”

With fond memories and LOVE The Simpson Family and Friends have supported the restoration of this carousel horse in honor of their Mother, Grandmother, Great-Grandmother, and friend Jessie Gates Simpson.

What is the future of the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round?

Julio Gosdinski died unexpectedly in 2020; he was 49 years young and had no will. The Probate Court is in the process of determining what will happen to Gosdinski’s half of the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round. A determination may be made soon. Friends of Griffith Park is monitoring the situation.

The Department of Recreation and Parks, Friends of Griffith Park, and a plethora of parents want the Merry-Go-Round to continue to operate in Griffith Park. It is one of the few inexpensive activities for children available in the Park — and it brings such joy and memories for generations.

Currently, this ride is closed due to broken parts in the mechanism that operates the Merry-Go-Round.

We anxiously await its reopening and the chance once again to ride up and down and to hear the magnificent music streaming from its booming interior organ.

~Marian Dodge, FoGP board member

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