Carousel may be coming back to Walnut Beach

For many years there was a carousel at Walnut Beach, and some people are working to bring that part of the city’s history back.

The Walnut Beach Arts & Business Association spurred the idea, and while it isn’t a done deal, the Park, Beach and Recreation Commission OK’d the concept, pending an acceptable contract between the city and the carousel vendor.

During a February Park, Beach and Recreation meeting, director Paul Piscitelli said the vendor, George Marenna, is in the process of working out lease details with the city attorney.

Piscitelli said he hopes a deal will be in place by Memorial Day. The hours of operation are still up for discussion, but Piscitelli said the carousel might be a “weekend-only operation with earlier closing times in consideration of the nearby residents.”

Marenna, who owns an amusement company and provides carnival rides at the annual Oyster Festival, is cautiously optimistic, saying he really wants to bring one of his vintage carousels to the beach but the deal still has to be approved.

He, Walnut Beach business representative Susan Patrick, and members of the Park, Beach and Recreation Commission think the merry-go-round is a great idea, one that harkens back to days gone by.

Amusement rides at the beach date back to the 1900s, according to the city history book “Sand in Our Shoes.”

A merry-go-round was located in a large building called the Barn, at the end of Naugatuck Avenue on the beach; there may have been a roller coaster not far from it, the book states.

The first actual amusement park at Myrtle Beach/Walnut Beach was built in 1923 by the Whitham brothers on land they leased from the Stowe family.

“The park, the dance hall and the boxing arena drew thousands of visitors each summer,” the book states.

The hurricane of 1938 devastated the area, and many of the rides were destroyed. But people still went to the amusement park until the 1940s. That’s when attendance started to dwindle.

“A merry-go-round fire seemed to be the death knell for our little park,” the book states.

But in the 1950s, beach residents Frank and Les Smith leased the property from the Stowe family, installed a new merry-go-round, and refurbished some of the rides, the skating rink and some stands. The beach was once again home to amusement rides, until redevelopment brought an end to the park.

George Whitham, whose family owned the original amusement park, recalled in “Sand in Our Shoes” that his two favorite features were the penny arcade and the merry-go-round.

A horse from one of the Walnut Beach carousels was restored and put on display at the New Haven Colony Historical Society Museum in New Haven in more recent years, another writer, Shirley Walker Hufcut, recalled in “Sand in Our Shoes.”

Park, Beach and Recreation Commission Chairman Dan Worroll said if the plan goes through, Marenna will lease an area in the Walnut Beach parking lot from the city, and he will provide the electricity, insurance and ticket collectors to run the carousel.

Worroll said there had been talk of the city buying a carousel from Marenna outright and then building a structure to house it at the beach. The city would then own the carousel and the building in which it stood. But with the economy, that wasn’t really feasible, Worroll said.

So all involved thought it best to try the carousel for a season or two and see how it goes over.

Susan Patrick envisions the carousel being at the beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day on a trial basis.

She hopes the city attorney and Marenna can come up with a deal that works for both, and she worries the plan may turn out to not be economically feasible for Marenna.

“We really thought this would be something nice,” Patrick said, “especially after Hurricane Sandy. People are still struggling in the area, and this would be something to say that the area is bouncing back.”

Marenna said he’s been working with the beachside business community for two years to come up with a viable plan, but he said he’s gotten mixed reactions from beach area residents.

Some, he said, don’t like the idea of amusement rides so close to their homes.

“I put something on the table,” Marenna said, “but I want this to be something that the community welcomes.”

If the carousel is approved and people like it, he said, he could bring more kiddie rides in future years, making the beach a place where families could go for some relatively inexpensive fun.