Collectors Bring Carousel Animals to Life


A lion, a tiger, a bear--and jeweled horses--have found a haven in the Rolling Hills home of Jo and Rol Summit.

The animals are carousel figures the Summits have collected and carefully restored since he first bought her a small carousel horse as a gift for their second wedding anniversary in 1959.

"He was in medical school," Jo Summit recalled. "I was teaching. . . . We didn't have any money, but he knew I had always wanted one. He scraped enough money together, saved it in bits and pieces to buy it. It has always been this very personal and loving thing."

Today, the Summits' animals are quartered in their living room, bedrooms, den and in a basement gallery. The collection includes about 50 figures, all carved between the 1880s and the 1920s, the heyday of the American carousel business.

When the Summits got their first horse, they didn't intend to start a collection, Jo Summit said. But about four years later, they saw a picture of a giraffe in a magazine layout. They searched out the owner and bought it. The giraffe "looked at us with those big soft eyes," she said, and the Summits were hooked.

"The horse was special. . . . But we knew if we broke that limit--if we got the giraffe--it wouldn't be enough. It was going to start us collecting."

By the early 1960s they had a rabbit, another horse, a dragon and a sea monster. Over the years, they have restored about 275 animals, many of which they later traded or sold.

Rol Summit, a psychiatrist at County-Harbor UCLA Medical Center, has carved legs, ears, teeth and saddles. He has set glass jewels and has gold-leafed horses' manes. Jo Summit has removed old paint, sanded and repainted her animals and attached tails made of real horse hair. The couple also runs a small business, called Flying Horses, that supplies restoration parts to carousel operators and private collectors.

The Summits have animals from Mexico, France, Germany and England. But most of the animals were carved by the major carvers in the United States.

Jo Summit has two favorite carvers: Daniel C. Muller and Marcus C. Illions. She values Muller for his realism. "He carved wonderful crenulated ribbons, rivets and stitching. His saddles were carved to look like tooled leather," she said.

And she appreciates Illions for the exuberance of his horses. "Illions made elaborate tossed manes. Then he added gold leaf to the manes, and gold and silver leaf to the trappings to show them off," she said.

There once were about 2,000 carousels across the country, but the Depression put most of the manufacturers out of business, according to Brian Morgan, chairman of Friends of the Santa Monica Carousel. The growth of more thrilling rides after World War II forced many operators to close their machines.

About 170 operating merry-go-rounds exist today, said Morgan, who also is treasurer of the National Carousel Assn., an organization formed in 1973 to promote carousel preservation. Local riders can take a spin on wooden carousels on the Santa Monica Pier, in Griffith Park, at Shoreline Village in Long Beach, Magic Mountain, Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm.

Figures from broken-up machines are often bought by collectors. Many choose their animals for pragmatic reasons, Jo Summit said, but she based her selections on sentiment. "I picked the ones that I loved."

An antique dealer once offered to trade some of the Summits' horses for one of three big cats he was having trouble selling.

"He had two lions and a tiger and a whole bunch of horses," Jo Summit said. "He was selling the horses like crazy, but he couldn't move the lions or the tiger because they were bigger and cost more."

When they agreed to the trade, she chose between the lions.

"The other lion had lovely carvings," she said. "It had boars' heads behind the saddle. My lion didn't even have a saddle."

The lion's former owner--a lion tamer--had all the trappings removed so it looked more realistic and placed the lion outside his arena.

"The lion had this huge, dramatic mane," Jo Summit said. "All of that just made it special to me."

When the couple began collecting, very little information about carousels was available, she said. They found one book, and they spoke to carousel operators at the Santa Monica Pier, Knotts Berry Farm, Griffith Park, Pacific Ocean Park in Venice and Beverly Park at Beverly and La Cienega boulevards. (The latter two parks no longer exist.)

"They didn't know why we were interested. At first they thought we were crazy," she said.

But their curiosity paid off when they met Illions' sons, Rudy and Barney Illions. Rudy Illions was then in his late 60s and working as a machinist for the rides at Pacific Ocean Park.

Rudy Illions revealed that his father was ambidextrous.

"He told us he was very fast," she said. "He would go along from left to right, all the way to the front of the horse. Then he would switch the mallet and chisel and keep going."

The couple's collection, which includes a number of Illions' figures, is arranged to illustrate different stages of restoration, an informative point for the many groups--ranging from schoolchildren to senior citizens and antique collectors--that visit the Summits' home. Two of Illions' horses are in a white primer coat and other figures have been left in factory paint.

"Some we do in mint condition to show people what they were like--all sparkle and perfect and smooth and zowie," Jo Summit said.

"Some we restore partially, leaving all the cracks and dings . . . we think they show their age and the love of thousands and thousands of riders if you leave on some of that patina of the years."

In the late 1970s, Jo Summit said, the couple stopped buying animals because the number of carousel animals available declined, and prices began to climb. She said they will not buy an animal that comes from an operating machine because they don't want to encourage breaking up machines.

Among factors contributing to the breakup of machines are the high costs of upkeep and liability insurance, said Morgan of the Friends of the Santa Monica Carousel. Liability insurance for the Santa Monica carousel this year was $14,000, said Susan Maysels, assistant director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp. Maintenance and operating costs were about $200,000, she said.

The cost of restoring a merry-go-round can be prohibitive--between $300,000 and $800,000, Morgan said. But he said collectors pose the biggest danger to wooden carousels that are still operating.

"The auction houses realize they can sell the broken-up machines and make a lot of money."

Carousel animals can sell for $10,000 to $50,000 each and rare animals for more than $100,000, Morgan said. In 1978, the American Carousel Society was formed to promote collection of carousel animals rather than preservation of operating machines.

Some collectors believe the wooden animals should be replaced with fiberglass figures, Jo Summit said.

"The collectors have a point, too," she said. "The machines are very badly worn with the constant use. . . . Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that once a machine is broken up, it doesn't tend to be put back together. The old ones are being worn away. The details are being worn away. If the wood is bare and unprotected, that's very sad. But it's also sad to break them up."

And Jo Summit would like carousels to go round and round for a long time.

"It's a marvelous, magical device. The carvings, the lights, the music. It's fun and it's not scary. It's not only for children. It's for adults too."

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