Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A Carousel of Love

Once upon a time in 1950 – the very year that Children’s Fairyland first opened its fairy gates – a young man named Ken Vetterli, freshly discharged from military service, had a job operating a carousel in Capitola, California. It was a lucky job in many ways. For starters, on one spin of the wheel he met the woman he would later marry. And, as it happens, carousels would turn out to play a very large role in his life – and in ours.

Ken’s uncle was the founder of the Flecto Paint Company, an Oakland manufacturing firm with worldwide distribution, and Ken eventually joined his uncle at the company. By 1974 Ken – by now Flecto’s vice president purchased a child-size carousel to promote the company’s innovative varnish, Varathane, one coat of which was as effective as one and a half coats of ordinary varnish. The little carousel had been built in 1950 (are you sensing a theme?) by the Arrow Development Company in Mountain View, which also created amusement devices for parks, including Disneyland.

After a six-month restoration, Flecto used the carousel for promotional purposes, to show off the company’s brilliant paint colors and long-lasting luster. It made its Flecto debut at a Chicago trade show in November 1975. It was used off and on for another decade or so before finally being dismantled, its parts stored in crates.

Move ahead to 2002 and to Children’s Fairyland, where an old set of ours – the Walrus and the Carpenter seal pond, built in 1952 – had to be removed. We loved our rescued sea lions, but neighbors complained about their barking. Farewell, sea lions! But what would take their place?

At just the right moment, Flecto Paint Company came to our rescue. Ken Vetterli had retired, but a Flecto representative called to see whether Fairyland would be interested in the little carousel. There were no instructions for re-assembling it, and no concrete slab for its base. Enter the talented and enterprising members of the Lake Merritt Breakfast Club, the organization that had created the park. The club’s members, with funding from a lovely group of other community-minded people, figured out how to reassemble the ride and to create the infrastructure for its successful operation.\

Flecto carousel horses stripped and awaiting repainting.

From the moment it opened, the Flecto Carousel was a hit with our young audience, and the little merry-go-round that could was given a whole new life in the public eye. It was the perfect size for very young children between 38 and 54 inches tall. Adults had to stand on the sidelines and wave.

By 2015, however, the Flecto Carousel was showing its age. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit, it had been worn down by years of kids’ love and attention. Fairyland sought out the Flecto Paint Company, hoping the firm might help us restore it. But Flecto was no more: It had been acquired by RPM International, whose portfolio includes Rust-Oleum, which in turn is markets Flecto’s vaunted Varathane. The company is based in Illinois.

This didn’t discourage Fairyland’s enterprising director of development, Cindy Sandoval, who contacted Rust-Oleum through the company’s general email address. What happened next was a bit of magic: the firm not only agreed to help us with the expertise and product we needed to bring back our beloved carousel, but also promised to “adopt” and restore one of our sets each year.

Flecto Carousel, repainted and ready to roll!

While the carousel renovation was under way, I wrote a column about the project. To our surprise, we received a letter in response from none other than Ken Vetterli, the ride’s original purchaser. Now in his mid-eighties, he lives in Southern California, but his 5-year-old great-granddaughter lives with her family in Walnut Creek – and she has ridden the very same carousel that Ken had lost track of. In his letter, Ken told us that he always wondered what happened to the carousel he’d bought 42 years ago.

Here at Fairyland, we experience many such “coincidences” – or, as we call them, fairy facilitations. Of course we invited Ken and his family to join us at the carousel’s re-opening this Saturday, and we intend to show them the love.

Ken told us that Flecto had always been very committed to the community, underwriting a high-school sports awards program and donating paint to maintain Berkeley’s Tuolumne Family Camp. Ken himself was a founding board member and president of the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, which obtained the Tao House in Danville, now a National Historic Site.

We’d never bothered to change the name of the Flecto Carousel, and now that we know so much more about the company’s history through Ken, we’re glad we didn’t. We’ve learned that the name comes from the Greek word for flexible, which resonates with all of us at our nonprofit park.

Joining us on Saturday, March 26, at 10:30 a.m. for our carousel re-opening will be Ken and his wife Carol, who will celebrate their 65th anniversary this summer,  along with six of their family members. And of course 5-year-old great-granddaughter Jaynie will be among the first group of riders.

Please join us as well as we honor the many generous members of our village who came together to ensure that a sweet little ride will continue to be here for the next generation of Vetterlis ... and many other children as well.

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