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Coming full circle, Santa Cruz carousel turns 100

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Click, thump, riiiiing! That’s the sound of something you often hear about but rarely see: A carousel rider going for the brass ring.

It happens on a daily basis on the Looff Carousel at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where painted ponies have been spinning for a century, a triumph of tradition in a field dominated by the pursuit of new thrills.

“I love it,” says 57-year-old Gerry Watt of Sacramento, who has been visiting the Boardwalk for decades and was “never too cool for the carousel, even in my teens.”

The Boardwalk, set beside the long, golden sweep of Santa Cruz Main Beach, goes back to 1865 when a man named John Leibrandt opened a public bathhouse nearby. Others followed and soon Santa Cruz was drawing people who wanted to enjoy the allegedly curative properties of bathing in salt water.

Restaurants and curio shops, followed and at the turn of the 20th century, promoter Fred W. Swanton decided to open a casino and boardwalk that would be the “Coney Island of the West.”

The carousel made its debut in August 1911, built by Charles I.D. Looff, a master woodcarver from Denmark. Looff had already made his name with his first complete carousel placed at Coney Island in New York.

Back then, rides cost a nickel. Today, the carousel, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark, costs $3 a spin.

Looff apparently had a puckish sense of humor. The story is that he chose the middle initials “I.D.” after Ellis Island immigration officials told him he had to have a middle name “for his I.D.”

You can see that humorous vein in the carousel horses, several of which boast toothy smiles. The horses have real horsehair tails and details ranging from swords to flashing jewels. Some have items strapped behind the saddles, including a sheep and a pheasant.

There are 73 horses — 71 jumpers plus two stationary horses that are good for parents with unsteady young riders — as well as two chariots decorated with the heads of rams and cherubs.

The big draw of the carousel is its ring dispenser. Rings were once handed out by “ring boys,” but since 1950, the process has been mechanized.

The rings — mostly steel these days except on special occasions when brass-plated ones are used — are dispensed by a long arm that riders on outside horses can reach. You grab a ring, throw it toward the gaping mouth of a large clown painted on a backdrop near the carousel and, if successful, are rewarded by bells and flashing lights.

Scoring a hit is a kick, one that often is denied the left-handed Watts, although that doesn’t stop him from rushing to secure an outside horse.

“It’s really difficult. There’s something about the trajectory,” he says.

The music has a vintage sound, provided for 100 years by a 342-pipe Ruth und Sohn band organ built in 1894. In 2007, the Boardwalk acquired a Wurlitzer band organ from the closed Playland-at-the-Beach amusement park in San Francisco, and there is a third small Wurlitzer organ.

The carousel has had its moment in the spotlight, being featured in films including “The Lost Boys,” ”The King of Love,” and ‘Sudden Impact.”

Along with rides that range from kiddie to fairly thrilling, the Boardwalk has the usual games of chance, arcades and tempting goodies, including deep-fried Twinkies and Oreos.

If you’re up for a brief walk, the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf is less than half a mile away, featuring several restaurants and curio shops.

A fun choice is the take-away window at The Dolphin at the end of the wharf which serves up a tasty clam chowder in a bread bowl. Fenced holes in the wharf’s planking allows you to get a look at sea lions that may be basking below while you wait for lunch. Watch out for the seagulls; they’ll steal your food if you leave it unattended.

A number of hotels and B&Bs are strung along or near the waterfront, with rates generally getting cheaper the farther you go inland. If you’re up for a splurge, the Dream Inn is a classic beachfront hotel.

The seaside view adds a unique touch to the Boardwalk’s other National Historic Landmark, the Giant Dipper roller coaster.

As a member of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, Watt is a fan of the ride, designed by Looff’s son, Arthur Looff, and introduced 85 years ago.

Despite its age, the rollercoaster packs quite the punch, beginning with a truly scary descent into darkness and moving on to a series of peaks and valleys that will have you shrieking, but not absolutely making out your last will and testament.

“That’s my favorite coaster in the world,” says Watt. “It’s one of those coasters that’s such a combination of things that you can ride it repeatedly because of the view, the ocean and the mountains, and it’s not so big that you get beat up by it. It’s just fun and enjoyable. It’s very re-rideable.”