Julio Gosdinski, co-owner of the Griffith Park Carousel, sits by one of the carousel's hand-painted scenes. Gosdinski inherited half the carousel from his mentor and father figure in 2011. (Photo by Anny Celsi)
In the heart of Griffith Park in Los Angeles, nestled in a carpet of green grass at the bottom of a slope, sits “a beautiful jewel.” At least, that’s how co-owner Julio Gosdinski thinks of it.
Gosdinski has worked at the Griffith Park Carousel since he was in high school. But he never dreamed he’d eventually become one of its owners.
“We're one of the fastest merry-go-rounds,” he tells me proudly. “We go 14 miles an hour.”
Most carousels rotate at less than half that speed.
“It’s more of a thrill ride than anything,” he adds. Gosdinski is 45, but with his tiny frame, thick dark hair and luminous blue eyes, he doesn’t look much older than most of his customers.
The carousel was built by the Spillman Engineering Company, of North Tonawanda, New York, in 1926. It was brought to San Diego for the 1936 World’s Fair and from there to its permanent home in Griffith Park. Everything on it is authentic, from the belts and gears that drive it to the hand-painted panels that circle its crown -- lush images of tigers, elk, swans, mountains, lakes and other scenery.
And of course, there are the horses.
“We have 66 horses, all jumpers,” Gosdinski says, meaning no stationary horses. “We have a few horses that were carved back in 1895, so they’re actually older than the merry-go-round. Those are the jewels of the carousel.”
All the horses have real horse tails and real horse shoes, with lifelike expressions -- some spirited, some docile and friendly. All of them seem to be saying, “Pick me!” And they each have their own personality, as Gosdinski will attest.
“My favorite horse, we call him Diablo,” he laughs. “Cause he can kick you when you're not paying attention!”
He goes on to explain: “Most of the horses have their hind legs tucked in. His has one leg sticking out, and if you don't pay attention, he kind of kicks you, right? Well last year, he took a chunk of my skin off and I was bleeding. I'm like, 'damn you, Diablo!'”
Gosdinski moved to Los Angeles from Peru when he was 12 years old. A few years later, he found his first job helping out at the carousel on weekends. And he found something else he’d been looking for in its owner, Warren Deasy.
“I grew up without my dad,” Gosdinski tells me as we sit on a bench near the carousel. “My mom was my dad and mom. I mean, my mom did such a great job. But you still need that father, that relationship. And I think I developed that with him.”
Over the years, Deasy and his partner, Rosemary West, became the young man’s second family.
“Warren was such a caring person,” he remembers. “I mean, there's no words that can describe how much he meant to a lot of us. He walked one of the girls down the aisle when she got married. Every Father's Day I would give him a card. I looked up to him, you know?”
When Deasy passed away in 2011, he left his employee an incredible gift: half of the carousel. To say Gosdinski was surprised is an understatement.
“He had mentioned it before, but I was young, and like 'oh, you're gonna live forever,' you know? But when it happened I was like, wow, really! Wow!"
Now, Gosdinski and West are partners. She takes care of maintaining the horses and carousel and has beautifully restored the hand-painted scenes. Gosdinski handles the day-to-day tasks: selling tickets, operating the machinery and greeting the hundreds of children who visit each day. Many of them are regulars who have been coming back for years and return to ride even as adults. Gosdinski knows many of his customers by name, and they greet him like an old friend.
Each morning, before he opens up for the day, Gosdinski loads the paper rolls that play the music pumped out by the carousel’s Stinson 165 Military Band Organ. There are hundreds of rolls to choose from in boxes stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling.
Gosdinski loads two paper rolls into either side of the organ in the back and switches it on. The jets start to whir, the rolls turn and the air is filled with the grand sound of the "Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna Overture."
But it’s not all work and no play. After all, what’s the point of owning a carousel if you don’t ride it yourself once in a while?
"Anything that happens out there in the real world, you come to the park, you open up the merry-go-round, eleven o’clock you turn on the organ — it just changes your attitude completely,” Gosdinski smiles. “It's like you're in a different world.”