Josh Morrisey

Painting the Ponies: Restoring Riverfront Park’s Looff Carrousel

Josh Morrisey, City of Spokane Parks & Recreation, Marketing Assistant, 509.625.6236

Monday, February 19, 2018 at 2:38 p.m.

Painting the Ponies: Restoring Riverfront Park’s Looff Carrousel

Riverfront Park’s iconic 1909 Looff Carrousel is in good hands. In fact, the woman currently leading restoration of the Spokane gem served as President of the National Carousel Association for 14 years and quite literally wrote the book on carousel restoration.

When asked how (or why) she ended up getting into carousels, Bette Largent credits her daughter (12 at the time), who convinced her to apply for a job restoring Riverfront Park’s Looff Carrousel in 1991.

Largent was already working at the gift shop in Riverfront Park at the time the restoration job came up, and a mixture of wanting to try something new with her artistic pursuits along with her daughter’s insistence led her to apply.

“She talked me into it,” Largent said. “I restored antiques, I painted wildlife, and I was ready to change careers and she talked me into applying. She knew I could do it.”

Six years after joining on as Riverfront Park’s carousel restorer, Largent joined the National Carousel Association (NCA), a group committed to keeping America’s classic carousels operational. Largent says the NCA has grown to branch out beyond America with their mission, and that the “classic” carousels they refer to are from a specific place in time.

“We have members all over the world that are dedicated to preserving classic carousels - classic being 1960 and before, because 1960 is when they started making fiberglass horses.”

In 1996 Largent released her book, Paint the Ponies, the how-to guide for carousel painting that has since become a key resource in preserving classic carousels around the world. The book title has a unique story as well, as Largent explains.

“Sean, a member of the Spokane Tribe who used to work at Riverfront Park told me one day that his tribe friends decided I needed an Indian name, and they picked ‘Bette Paint the Ponies’. It was an honor actually, and I stuck with it.”

Largent says a manual like it hadn’t existed before, partly because the handful of expert restorers liked to keep their trade secrets close to the chest.

“There wasn’t anything published. There were only about 5 or 6 people who knew how to do it and they weren’t sharing because they could charge, you know, the sky’s the limit! I thought this is ridiculous, because these carousels aren’t going to survive unless people know how to maintain them,” Largent said.

Largent’s book is truly a work of altruism, and not something she ever intends to get rich off of. Her main concern is getting the information into people’s hands so they can preserve their cherished carousels.

“I’ll never make any money at it,” Largent said. “I sell them for cost. I’ve shipped the book to Sweden, Germany, England, Canada, Australia...”

Largent says she’s excited about the new building for Riverfront Park’s iconic Looff Carrousel, and that it will be a real game changer not only in its ability to better preserve the carousel with proper climate-control, but that it will be on display better than it has ever been.

“You’ll see it the first day we open. It’s going to be blatantly apparent that it’s such a better facility,” Largent said. “The presentation is going to be outstanding. You can see the whole machine. You can take a picture of the whole machine. It’s all on one level - there are no steps, and it’s fully ADA accessible.”

When asked what her favorite thing about the new building is, Largent said it’s easily the climate control.

Largent points to a horse. “You see, Jerry here, he was created in 1880. He can’t take the seasonal climate changes of hot and cold.”

Largent and her small team have been restoring the Looff Carrousel for almost a year, taking an average of 80 hours per horse just for the painting steps, but she says she doesn’t play favorites when it comes to the carousel’s 54 horses.

“My favorite horse is the one I’m painting right now” Largent said. “I have to be that way. I have to be totally engrossed in the one I’m doing right now. A mother is never going to say which child is her favorite. They’re all unique I love them for what they are.”

Largent says she’s excited to see the Riverfront Park’s Looff Carrousel continue to play an integral part of the Spokane family experience for generations to come.

“That’s the story of the carousel,” Largent said, “it’s for all generations and it just keeps re-circling.”

The Looff Carrousel is scheduled to re-open this spring. Learn more about the new Looff Carrousel Building here.

Carousel Facts:

  • Riverfront Parks Looff Carrousel is spelled with two R’s in the traditional French fashion.
  • It takes 80 hours to paint one horse.
  • Looff preferred to use taxidermy elk eyes for his horses because they bear a close resemblance.
  • Riverfront Park’s Looff Carrousel weighs around 25 tons.
  • All the horses on Riverfront Park’s Looff Carrousel have names.
  • There is no difference between a carousel and a merry-go-round.
  • Most carousels in the US turn counterclockwise while most carousels in England turn clockwise.
  • Walt Disney wanted to purchase Riverfront Park’s Looff Carrousel for Disneyland but was turned down.
  • Carousel Horse Restoration Bette Largent
  • carousel-horse-closeup

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