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‘We were hell-bent to keep the carousel open’

Jennifer Dohahue with her daughter, Peyton, 8 months, waving at family while riding the Paragon Park Carousel, which reopened for the season on weekends starting on Mother's Day.
Jennifer Dohahue with her daughter, Peyton, 8 months, waving at family while riding the Paragon Park Carousel, which reopened for the season on weekends starting on Mother's Day.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

The Paragon Carousel across from Nantasket Beach in Hull has survived hurricanes, blizzards, fires, economic downturns, and the closing of the surrounding amusement park with the spectacular Giant Coaster. Now the 93-year-old landmark has beaten the odds again, surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.

The carousel came perilously close to closing for good — revenue dropped 70 percent — but is spinning again thanks to record contributions from donors and infusions of cash from the federal COVID relief program, according to Maria Schleiff, president of the Friends of the Paragon Carousel.

“We just decided we were not going to give up,” Schleiff said. “The history is once vintage carousels are shuttered, they never open again. We were hell-bent to keep the carousel open.”

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Jeannine Damon, 83, with her daughter, Heather McAdoo, from Boonville, N.Y., enjoy the ride.
Jeannine Damon, 83, with her daughter, Heather McAdoo, from Boonville, N.Y., enjoy the ride. Matthew J Lee/Globe staff


The Paragon Carousel, she explained, is more than a merry-go-round. It’s a community treasure that “enriches the soul by providing moments of joy to children of all ages [that] sustain us all through difficult times.”

Keeping the carousel alive wasn’t easy, though.

In a normal year, the carousel runs spring through fall and draws up to 100,000 visitors, Schleiff said. During the pandemic, the carousel didn’t open until July and then operated for only 10 weeks. To allow social distancing, the middle row of wooden horses went into storage. And staff disinfected every hour.

“But nobody came,” Schleiff said. “It was pretty dismal.”

The pandemic restrictions and fears also kept people from buying ice cream from the Carousel Creamery — which usually raises thousands of dollars in revenue, Schleiff said. Regular visits from daycares in Boston, Brockton, and Quincy ended. And nobody rented the carousel for birthday parties — compared to more than 100 revenue-producing rentals in a normal season.

“It was devastating,” she said.

By September 2020, the carousel’s bank balance was down to just $4,000 — a frightening situation considering $90,000 is needed to pay the bills over the winter, she said.

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The money goes mostly toward insurance and mortgage payments, she said. She said the Friends organization took out a loan from Hingham Institution for Savings to buy the carousel in 1996 for $1 million.

“We thought about shutting down seriously for the first time, but we knew we wouldn’t be able to reopen,” Schleiff said.

The Friends group also wondered whether to hold its annual fund-raising campaign, worried that many people were hurt financially by the pandemic. But experts advised the group to hold the annual appeal.

“They said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t go silent. Keep your brand out there,” Schleiff said. “To our surprise, we had a robust response, a record amount.”

Every one of the 66 carousel horses was “adopted” — four of them forever at $10,000 each, Schleiff said. Two anonymous donors gave $50,000 and $25,000 respectively, she said, and friends of a longtime carousel advocate donated $10,000 in her name.

In addition, the Friends received federal Paycheck Protection Program checks, first for $50,000 and then for more than $100,000, Schleiff said. That allowed the Friends to keep the carousel’s restoration expert, James Hardison, working all winter, and for director of operations James Callahan to return in March in time to plan for the new season.

“We went from nothing, to I think we can open; it was a dramatic change of events,” Schleiff said.

She added that with money from Hull’s Community Preservation fund paying for repairs on the carousel building, “it’s in better shape than ever” with new paint and resurfaced floors.

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The Paragon Carousel — with all 66 wooden horses in place — opened on Mother’s Day and Schleiff said the turnout was about the same as Mother’s Day in 2019.

“So everyone came back,” she said.

The carousel is operating weekends from noon to 5 p.m. Starting June 21 through Labor Day, it will be open Sunday through Thursday from noon to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from noon to 10 p.m. Masks are required for non-vaccinated people, according to Callahan, and sanitation measures will continue.

“We are getting back to normal,” Callahan said. “It’s terrific.”

The price is $3 a ride, or a 10-ride pass for $25. For more information, visit www.paragoncarousel.com.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.