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Friends of the Palace Carousel

Collectible buttons sold during the Friends of the Palace Carousel fundraising campaign. Photo courtesy of Suzanna Harris Libbin. view larger image
On Monday, Dec. 5, 1988, the Associated Press sent a photographer to the Palace to shoot a photo of artist Suzanna Harris and one of the many carousel horses she had repainted over the last two years. The caption for the photo read: "The horse may have no children to ride it. The Palace closed last month and there's no word on the fate of the historic carousel."

When Arlene Bluestone of Monmouth Beach saw the photo in her newspaper the next morning, she was distraught. "My family had spent every summer at the Jersey Shore when I was a kid and I grew up riding that carousel. I couldn't believe it!" Mrs. Bluestone phoned the Palace and learned that owners Henry and Sam Vaccaro were planning to sell the carousel at auction. "I was given many reasons why, but the bottom line was, of course, money. Sam Vaccaro had been told that carousels were bringing upwards of $1 million at auction. At that point, I realized I was going to need help to mount some kind of save-the-carousel effort."

In Ocean Grove, Donna D'Amico was deciding that she, too, would try to save the carousel, and when the women learned of one another's interest, the Friends of the Palace Carousel campaign was born.

From the very beginning, time was their number one enemy. Vaccaro had arranged a Feb. 25 auction at Sotheby's in New York City, which left the Friends just six weeks to find some way to get the carousel off the auction block.

It became a classic struggle of passion and commitment against avarice and a rapidly ticking clock.

Courtesy of Billy Smith.
The nucleus of the Friends totaled a dozen people; to Mrs. Bluestone, "there couldn't have been 12 more impassioned, dedicated, hard-working individuals anywhere. We worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day it seemed, to try and get a significant amount of money pledged."

Passion showed itself in many ways. Day after day, envelopes arrived at the campaign containing handwritten notes and contributions. Amy Codella of Holmdel, N.J., sent her donation along with a note of hope "that our children may enjoy it the way we did." From Salinas, CA., Joel Panzer wrote that the "downfall of Asbury Park is a shame, but to dismantle the carousel is a crime!" Mrs. G. White of West Belmar, N.J., seemed to speak for everyone when she wrote: "How could they even think of taking it apart?"

Fifth-grade students in Jean Toher's class at Gables School in Neptune, wrote letters to Sam Vaccaro on behalf of both the carousel and the Palace. "You may make more money selling the Palace Amusements carousel," wrote Matthew Edelhauser, "but you are also selling a landmark. Everybody in my family thinks you should keep the carousel." Heather Balom called the carousel a part of local history, adding "we don't have much left." Matthew Mulvey told Vaccaro: "Nobody wants that place to become more condos, so please accept my advice: don't sell."

At a Friends press conference, organizers urged everyone in Monmouth County to give $1; afterwards, people went from office to office, collecting dollars. A fundraiser at the Stone Pony reunited many of the musicians who first met at the Upstage Club in Asbury Park during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The sale of buttons and shirts brought in significant revenue. Politicians, from Senator Bill Bradley to Congressman James Florio to Governor Thomas Kean wrote letters of support. State Senator John D'Amico released a statement in which he likened the carousel fight to "a battle in a bigger war. A war in which the beautiful things in life, like clean oceans and wide open spaces and delicate handmade objects, all have to fight to survive."

Time, however, was flying, and the Friends were nowhere near what they needed in order to make a direct bid for the carousel when Mrs. Bluestone received a phone call from an entertainment lawyer in New York, Ron Taft, who said he was originally from the Asbury Park area. One week before the auction, Taft offered to loan the Friends $700,000. "I don't have to tell you what this did for us," Mrs.Bluestone said. "We felt that we actually had a chance to pull this off." The Friends took the offer to Sam Vaccaro, who not only turned it down but he also refused to put a figure on what it would take to remove the carousel from auction. When the refusal hit the media, resulting in adverse publicity for the owner, Vaccaro agreed to another meeting at which he put a $1.1 million price tag on the carousel and refused to take a note for the remaining $400,000. The Friends made repeated efforts to reach Asbury Park's biggest celebrities, including Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito and Bruce Springsteen, but couldn't get past their gate keepers.

What transpired at Sotheby's, and in the days following the auction, is a tangled tale wonderfully told by the New Jersey Monthly's Claire Whiteside [to read the entire story, click here.] For a time, all seemed lost, until fate switched suddenly in favor of the Friends, only to turn again into shattering disappointment. In the end, the carousel was broken up, some parts sold at Sotheby's, some parts later sold at Guernsey's, and the operating mechanism sold to an amusement park in Biloxi, Mississippi.

In retrospect, says Mrs. Bluestone, "we were battling insurmountable odds from day one. But I also think that the duplicity and greed of the Vaccaros prevented a successful conclusion. They could have profited in many ways; not only financially (if they had accepted our original offer) but philanthropically, by saving the carousel and keeping it in Asbury Park.

"We received significant citizen support, and we know that many people felt the same way about the carousel as we did. But nothing can alter the fact that a 100-year-old Shore landmark is gone forever."