It’s a serene November morning in Upstate New York and Bob Yorburg is standing in front of a massive, unfinished wooden lion.
Yorburg, 61, is one of the last professional carousel carvers in the U.S. He puts down his chisel, picks up a remote control, and scans through a CD of carousel music, band organ arrangements and amusement park songs from the early 1900s, searching for the perfect track. The silent room suddenly erupts in a fantastic clamor as pipes, cymbals and bells trot out of the speakers. The lion seems to spring to life, and Yorburg – his rosy cheeks puffing out with a smile – tosses the remote on his workbench and throws up his hands. “If that doesn’t get you going, I don’t know what will,” he says, laughing. “You just gotta carve to that.”
During America’s carousel “golden age,” which lasted from the late nineteenth century until about 1930, there were more than four thousand handcrafted carousels made by famous carvers like Gustav Dentzel and Marcus Illions. In the last century, many of the period’s iconic horses, chariots and carriages have become more mechanized and technologically advanced. They’ve also drastically decreased in popularity. Yorburg says he knows of only about a half-dozen independent American carousel carvers like him. According to Patrick Wentzel, chairman of the National Carousel Association (NCA), there are just a couple dozen others employed by the few remaining companies that specialize in carousel carving and restoration. They all work to maintain the two hundred antique American carousels Wentzel monitors in an ongoing NCA census project.
In fixing and sometimes recreating old carousel horses, menagerie pieces and band organs, Yorburg aims to make sure this number doesn’t drop further, preserving a sliver of Americana for generations to come. His clients say what sets Yorburg apart is his unique understanding of design. “There are many cavers who are technically excellent,” says Bob Stuhmer, one of Yorburg’s clients and a band organ composer, “but most of them don’t know how to breathe life into the creatures they carve.”
A row of garishly colored puppets with black, beady eyes, patterned suits and pointy, Pinocchio noses lines a shelf in Yorburg’s home library. They belonged to a Coney Island magician and puppeteer who taught Yorburg, when he was a little boy, how to do magic. That skill ultimately led to Yorburg’s interest in the history of the amusement arts and carousel carving. “I became fascinated with the props and the goodies,” Yorburg says.
After graduating from Wesleyan University where he studied psychology, sociology, architecture and theater, Yorburg auditioned to be the Magic Burger King, representing the fast food chain, at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. “I stupidly had no clue it was the largest ad agency in the world,” Yorburg remembers. “My friend said, ‘Oh you should go. You’d be great at that.’ So I did it.” Yorburg landed the role, performed around the country and appeared on TV commercials. But he never lost his interest in carousels. While on tour, he sought out master carvers to teach him their craft.
On any given day, Yorburg is working on one of about ten projects. A hand-built train set winds around his backyard, where he has several woodshops and sheds. “There are people who do one thing at a time, but that’s not me,” he says. “If I’m carving and find that I reach a dead end, I’ll jump to a different project before I come back, and usually when I come back to it, I find, ‘Aha, here’s how to approach it.’”
One of Yorburg’s workshops, which he named Maplebrook, is filled with handmade train cars, cabooses and work supplies. A train whistle that Yorburg sometimes pulls before entering or leaving the space hangs outside the door. Several steps away from Maplebrook stands another shed where Yorburg is restoring a Dentzel carousel horse, made circa 1890, for a private collector. The horse has a wild expression and a flowing mane that shines with gold leaf paint, giving it the effect that it’s actually racing with the wind blowing through its hair, adrenaline gleaming in its eyes. Aside from the golden mane, the horse is stark white, having only been retouched and primed thus far. It’s not nearly finished, but Yorburg says it looks much better than when it first arrived.
Because he is most interested in carving, Yorburg doesn’t always do the painting himself. Sometimes he passes that duty along to a friend or to his wife, Laura, 64, who is also an artist. They met in 1978 while he prepared a magic act for a Pathmark annual sales meeting. “The gal who had been rehearsing with me, who was supposed to turn into a lion, got cold feet when she met the real lion,” Yorburg says. A friend suggested Laura to take the girl’s place. “In an hour or two, Laura learned everything she needed to know, which the other person was working on for a couple of weeks,” Yorburg says. “I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s incredible.’ So we got to know each other more and more, and we got married.”
Most of the work Yorburg does is for private collectors, which he says can be challenging because it requires a particular kind of approach. Carousel horses were designed to be captivating and creative – caricatures to attract riders to go for a spin. But with these pieces now sitting in individuals’ collections, with no fear of people knocking up against and ruining the carved horses, restorers are given leeway to add more sculptural, lifelike detail, rendering them more realistic but less fanciful. “The problem, though, is that you don’t want them to be too literal either, because then they’ll be too stiff and not as fun,” Yorburg says. “There’s a fine line between what’ll look the best and what’ll be alluring.”
Gary Taplin, 74, is a retired penny arcade game restorer based in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Yorburg’s closest friend. The two restorers met through a client of Taplin’s. “Bob was looking for some machines to buy, and we had some for sale,” says Taplin, who sports thick glasses and a white head of hair. Taplin delivered the order to Yorburg’s parents’ house, where Taplin fondly recalls Yorburg putting on a magic show for his son, who was eight at the time. “It’s been thirty years, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Yorburg and Taplin have collaborated on projects for decades, spending hours carving and restoring, not saying a word to each other until dinnertime, when they’ll go out to eat together. “Gary is the one who Bob spends all of his time with,” Taplin’s wife Susan, 68, says through a laugh.
One of Taplin’s favorite projects was the restoration of a fortuneteller arcade game that now sits in the corner of Yorburg’s bedroom. Inside the game’s dark wooden cabinets, which Yorburg carved himself, is the bust of a woman named Madame Neville. She has wine colored lips, a plump chest adorned with jewels and crystal clear eyes that Taplin bought from a specialist who imports them from Germany.
Even Yorburg, however, can’t predict the future of this niche craft. He says the best he can do is try to keep people interested in and appreciative of the history of it all. He often gives lectures at Coney Island, offers lessons to individuals intent on learning the carving and restoration craft, and even holds soap carving workshops for children.
In the Taplins’ living room a small side table is stacked with a colorful pile of children’s toys, puzzles and games: a barrel of monkeys, a can of worms and a Rubik’s cube. Susan says she has them there to keep Yorburg busy when he’s over. “He just can’t sit still,” she says. “Who knows what he’s thinking about when he’s playing with these things? He’s probably thinking about his next project.”
Yorburg’s mind is always spinning with fresh ideas. He doesn’t like to take on projects that are too easy or too straightforward, choosing instead to challenge himself. He says one of his most difficult but rewarding projects was a replica he did of a Wurlitzer 165 band organ from a carousel. “It’s something that I’ve wanted to do all my life – to build an organ from the ground up.”
The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, an American musical instrument company founded in the late 1800s, built only 25 Wurlitzer 165 model band organs. Fewer than a dozen still exist. Three of the surviving organs had been so neglected that they were missing their decorative facades. The organs’ three owners teamed up to find Yorburg and have him repair their collectibles. In visiting, measuring and photographing each of the organs, which Yorburg says were some of the most elaborate ones ever made, he found that they were all different. The carver – or carvers – had used distinctive details and dimensions for each. So rather than replicate each facade, he suggested something new. He proposed a “best-of” idea, taking the most ornate and robust aspects of each organ and fashioning everything together to make a better one. The collectors gave Yorburg the go-ahead.
“I had to deconstruct a sort of jigsaw puzzle from photographs to see how these organs were created,” Yorburg says. “Then I had to do the patterns and make models to copy all the other organs from. Then I had to glue the pieces together and make sure it all actually worked. Then I had to build it. So the idea that all these little pieces could become something so spectacular, for me, was almost a revelation.
“I did it, and it knocked everyone’s socks off,” he adds.
Not all of Yorburg’s projects are quite so obscure. Last fall, he completed a multimillion-dollar restoration at an Episcopal church in Greenwich, not far from where Taplin lives. “Bob was the best, so they called him in to do the carving work,” Taplin says. Such a project requires Yorburg to switch gears stylistically. While amusement art carving is generally a whimsical mix of Baroque and Rocco – architectural styles popular around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – church carving is often Gothic, a style that flourished and peaked during the Medieval era. “With carving, it’s never the same, ever, from day to day,” Yorburg asserts.
Although Yorburg is skilled in a wide range of techniques, his specialty is in acanthus carving – a design element that originated in the Mediterranean and is modeled after the acanthus plant, which has leaves that look like a scroll. Acanthus is a visual language, characterized by accelerated curves that resemble the shape of a fishing pole. The oldest known example was on Corinthian columns around 450 B.C. Since then, the motif has become a widely popular and stylized feature of design. Yet few people, Yorburg says, know where acanthus came from or how to execute the style. “Everything you see and touch has an element of that design,” Yorburg says. “The scrolls appear on furniture and buildings and on the dollar bill. But people don’t really identify it.’”
When Yorburg was performing magic at various festivals, he was quickly attracted to the spiral, acanthus curves that decorated the carousel horses and band organs he came across. He was drawn in by their tense and dramatic look and made it his quest to figure out how to imitate them. But there was no school he could attend or book he could read to teach him how to do it. He started taking photos of and studying everything he saw, as well as reaching out to people who had the knowledge he was looking for. Eventually, he became the expert. Five years ago, Yorburg published the book Acanthus Carving and Design, presenting his years of amassed photographs, research and step-by-step instructions.
Now, Yorburg travels the country providing presentations about magic, carousel carving and acanthus, making a living doing what he loves. “I never approached this saying, ‘This would be a great skill to have because everybody needs an acanthus carver,’” he says, “but it evolved into a passion that became practical.”
Yet traditional carousel carving is clearly a disappearing art. Last summer a $16 million carousel called SeaGlass opened in Downtown Manhattan’s Battery Park. It was designed by WXY Architecture and Urban Design and varies greatly from the Dentzels Yorburg is accustomed to working on. There are no hand-carved horses. Instead, there are iridescent, LED-lit fish – angelfish, beta fish and Siamese fighting fish, among other species. SeaGlass’s thirty fish were made from translucent fiberglass – not wood – by Show Canada, an architectural firm stationed in Quebec. Guests sit inside the carousel pieces, rather than on top of them, and the music doesn’t come from a band organ, but from twelve speakers and three high-powered subwoofers.
On a rainy day in April, Yorburg and I visit SeaGlass. It’s his first time. After parking his car, Yorburg asks an attendant at the information booth for directions to the carousel. The attendant looks at him with confusion. “You mean the kiddie carousel?” he says, indicating its location with his hand. “It’s over there.” Yorburg nods and walks toward the nautilus-shaped glass and steel pavilion housing the ride. When he arrives, Yorburg pauses to draw my attention to a name on a plaque listing the sponsors of SeaGlass: Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, who, Yorburg says, was involved in saving the historic B&B Carousell in Coney Island with him. “He must love carousels, too,” Yorburg says.
Yorburg steps onto the platform and climbs inside a yellow-green fish. Its color matches his polo shirt. Psychedelic sounds flood the room and the ride begins to move – up, down and around on multiple rotating disks. Flecks of light flicker on the fiberglass sea creatures, making them look like they have real fish scales.
“I’m thrilled with this,” he says when the ride is over, “even though it’s completely different from a historic carousel.”
Yorburg understands that today’s craftsmen are more likely to know how to design a carousel on a computer program than to carve one with a chisel. While the evolution doesn’t necessarily bode well for hand carvers, he says there’s room for both the old and the new. He hopes the experiential nature of modern rides will spark the public’s interest in the history of the amusement arts.
“There are new techniques for restoration; there are new techniques for replication; and there are certainly new techniques for creation,” Yorburg says, squinting as the sun finally peeks out from behind the clouds on the Hudson. “So it’s all good. I’m excited to see what could happen in the future.”