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Sunday, 20 August 2006 01:34

Michael Winship: A Lazy, Hazy Talent to Amuse

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by Michael Winship

Twenty-one years ago this summer, Roseland, the amusement park alongside the lake in my upstate New York hometown, closed down. Like the day the music died, with it went a certain innocence. Its passing marked the loss of a lazy, laid-back source of entertainment and joy far more low-key than the high impact whizbang of plasma TV's, brutal video games, Internet surfing -- the overall carpet bombing of our senses in the mad pursuit of pleasure.

At a time when Canandaigua, in New York State's Finger Lakes, was more rural and less the bedroom and resort community it is today, that amusement park was a startling and delightful part of our small town, like a gaudy, costume jewelry ruby in the navel of the girl-next-door.

It was, in fact, a touchstone for my entire generation of upstate baby boomers. All over the world, when I've told folks of a certain age that I come from Canandaigua, if they recognize the name, chances are they'll exclaim, "Roseland," and smile at the memory.

When I was five years old, we still lived in an apartment over my father's first drug store on Canandaigua's Main Street. My parents were building the house in which their children would grow up and my mother would live until last fall, when she was moved to a nursing facility in Syracuse.

Each day, my father would come upstairs for lunch and after we'd eaten, he'd give me an option: should we visit the house construction site or Roseland? It was a tough choice for a little boy. Bulldozers and steam shovels digging a deep hole were heavy competition for kiddie rides. Still, Roseland held the edge.

No matter what your age, it was a wondrous place, a swirl of sights and sounds, the summer smells of popcorn, cotton candy and sizzling, grilling meat. There were pint-sized boats and automobiles that catered to the tiniest tots; even a junior-sized rollercoaster for incipient daredevils still limited to trainer wheels.

For bigger kids and adults there were the thrill rides like the Skyliner, a very fine, wooden roller coaster to be sure, but there were more genteel pastimes, too, like Skee-Ball. That consummate game of skill challenged the competitor to roll wooden balls up a ramp into a set of ever smaller concentric rings. We played for hours.

Tickets were awarded for points scored and when enough were amassed you traded them for stuffed animals or novelty eyeglasses or pins that bore catchphrases that had gone out of fashion decades before, like, "Oh You Kid" and "Tell It to the Marines."

But the piece de resistance was Roseland's magnificent merry-go-round, the Philadelphia Toboggan Company's Carousel #18, built in 1909. Forty-two painted horses in perpetual spin. In my memory, they forever gavotte to the tune of "Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime," played by an amazing mechanical organ in the 30-ton machine's innards, its drums and cymbals clanking away like a Rube Goldberg version of a one-man band.

Then Roseland shut its gates, an anachronism in an age of giant corporate-owned theme parks, spiraling liability insurance rates, and all too valuable waterside real estate. My then-wife and I came up from the city for the final weekend to shoot a feature story for her television news show; odd to be covering your own hometown as if it was someplace foreign and other.

Community organizers mounted a gallant attempt to keep the merry-go-round, but in the end couldn't come up with the wherewithal to hold the horses. On those rare occasions when antique carousels are sold at auction, bids are taken on all the individual pieces. Then they add up the highest bids, add 20% to the total, and put the entire, intact merry-go-round up for auction at that newly established price. Roseland's sold for $397,500.

Now, she resides at the Carousel Center shopping mall in Syracuse, NY. During my mother's last days, one afternoon, my sister Tricia and I paid a visit.

As much as I resented it being moved away from Canandaigua, I have to admit the Roseland carousel has been lovingly and faithfully restored, even though its setting, amidst struggling boutiques and a Hooter's, now make the old tarted-up lady seem like a dowager queen by comparison.

In my Manhattan apartment, next to the fireplace, resides one other remnant, bought when the merry-go-round and the other pieces of Roseland were auctioned off. It's one of the old ticket boxes, slapped together from pine and held together by hinges and coats of bright orange and aquamarine paint. There are still tickets at the bottom of the chicken wire cages inside.

I'd rather have it than a Faberge egg or a Chippendale chair.


Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.