I often hear people say that life runs at a million miles a minute. We have no time for sleep, romance or a leisurely meal. At some time or another, all of us wish for a much simpler time. At Fête Paradiso, New Yorkers can enjoy that experience, at least for a few hours.
Just a short ferry ride to Governor’s Island will take you back in time to turn of the century Paris, where visitors can ride such extravagant attractions as the Chinese Dragon Carousel, the Large Boat Swings and, my favorite, the Bicycle Carousel. The rides, called “art forains” or “fairground art,” are beautiful attractions from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries formerly owned by Francois and Fabienne Marchal. The Marchals began collecting these magnificent works of art in the 1970s, buying them from families who were all too eager to unload them. The Marchals then began to restore the carnival rides and document their histories. In 2011, the Marchals sold their collection at auction; almost half of it was purchased by Francis Staub. Joining forces with Regis Masclet, another collector, who had been restoring old carousels with his two sons for 20 years, Masclet and Staub came up with the idea of a traveling festival. It is because of these two visionaries that Fête Paradiso came to fruition. They had the idea; they had pieces. But how to put everything together to make their vision come to life? That’s where Chris Wangro and his team came in.
When I spoke to Mr. Wangro, a veteran of large-scale projects and events in New York for the past 30 years (Earth Day, Pavarotti in the Park, The Imagine Festival), he explained that putting this event together “was much harder.” When I asked how so, he answered, “the biggest issue was making sure these rides were shipped, put together and ready for visitors to ride without destroying any of the pieces. Most of the rides are more than 100 years old, so to have the added pressure of keeping them intact was a bit daunting.”
Mr. Wangro stated that once the pieces arrived from France, it took about two to three months to get everything set up. The employees running each ride or game attraction were trained by actual carnival performers, which was instrumental in giving the event a more authentic feel. The employees are dressed in old-fashioned attire to complete the look. And it definitely shows. The Music Hall Ball Guzzler, which dates back to 1934 and features carved caricatures of Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker and other famous entertainers of that time, draws a good crowd thanks to the showmanship, enthusiasm and funny demeanor of the employee running the attraction.
But just because this carnival houses beautiful carousels doesn’t mean it’s just for children. Adults can have as big a blast as the kiddies by taking a spin or three on the Chinese Dragon and Bicycle carousels, and the other rides. The Chinese Dragon is a fast, fun ride that feels more like a roller coaster than a carousel, turning usually serious adults into screaming, laughing children. The Bicycle carousel, which was my favorite, is a wonder and only the second of its kind, the other on display at the Musée des Arts Forains in Paris and also featured in the film Midnight in Paris.
The Bicycle carousel dates back to 1897 and was used back then to help people to overcome their fear of riding bicycles and promote riding in Paris. When I saw this carousel, I made an extra effort to get on it, along with scores of other adults. It truly is a fantastic attraction, one I could ride over and over again. Feeling hungry or thirsty? Le Gamin, the popular French bistro, serves food and beverages ranging from hamburgers and croquet monsieur to soda, wine and champagne. The service was a bit slow when I visited the festival, but I hear it’s much better.
Fête Paradiso is open every weekend from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and runs until September 29. The festival is free but rides and games are $3 each. For more information, visit http://www.feteparadiso.com/.
Photos courtesy of Patricia Morales.