On the Job: Meet Balboa Park's Carousel Operator
Bill Brown has been running a well-oiled machine—for the last 45 years
Photo by Robert Benson
Job: Operator of the Balboa Park Carousel
Organization: Friends of Balboa Park
Fill the grease cups. Open the doors. Ring the bell. Pull the clutch. Flip the hourglass timer. Watch all the merry faces go around and around.
Bill Brown can attest that the job of a carousel operator is as cyclic as it gets. For 45 years, he has blissfully worked at the Balboa Park Carousel—and he’s been riding it for even longer.
“You’re never too old for a carousel,” Brown says. “I used to ride when I was a child. I noticed people working here were having fun and thought, ‘That’s a cool job.’”
So, at the age of 16, he strolled up to the ticket booth to ask for a job. He’s been there part-time ever since, working his way up from a wage of $1.65/hour as a ticket taker and brass ring game master.
Brown is only the third person ever to operate the 107-year-old Herschell-Spillman carousel.
The transfer of power from operator to operator, he explains, is much like an apprenticeship. Brown uses the exact same maintenance methods and routine as the operator before him, who was trained by the machine’s first operator, down to manually pulling the clutch and brake and flipping a 90-second hourglass to time the ride’s run at top speed. The “greatest hits of 1910” churn out of an affixed band organ while the menagerie flies by at 13 mph.
Interacting with riders—roughly 110,500 per year—is Brown’s favorite part of the job. The multiton antique amusement ride’s maintenance, on the other hand, is the most stressful part.
“When something goes wrong, you have to be like Sherlock Holmes to track down the problem,” he says.
But in Brown’s almost five decades, only once has he had to call for serious outside help. That was when the center bearing, from which the entire rotating assembly hangs, had to be replaced.
“It should now last at least another hundred years,” he says, slyly advertising that the carousel is in fine shape to be passed on to the next operator. “I hope to retire in around 10 years, so I am on the lookout for someone to take my place.”