In May 2018, the nonprofit Berkshire Carousel’s board, controlled by members and friends of the Shulman family, granted James and Jackie Shulman a $1.22 million mortgage on the site of the carousel, which James Shulman spearheaded. He says the couple sought the financial benefit to protect their personal investment in the attraction, and may give proceeds to a different public cause.
PITTSFIELD — Last fall, driving along Center Street in Pittsfield, Judy Condron of Dalton felt a familiar pain when she passed the shuttered Berkshire Carousel. Her heart sank.
“I drive by and see sadness,” she wrote in a letter to the editor of The Eagle. “Is there nothing that can be done to get this project open and running again?”
The pain goes deeper for the 400 people who volunteered, over more than a decade, to create the 50 Center St. attraction. They’d pushed through years of uncertainty about its location and funding.
“I’ve got a lot of skin in the game there,” said Frank Ringwood, a longtime Berkshire Carousel volunteer and carver. “We all want it open. I’ve had people come to visit and we left our nose prints on the window.”
“We worked so hard on those,” said Jean O’Hearn, a carver and painter for the past decade, speaking of their creations. “It’s awful for them to be locked up.”
Though the carousel opened with fanfare in 2016, attracting 5,000 riders its debut weekend and 27,000 its first summer, something then went awry.
Interviews by The Eagle with James Shulman, the project’s founder, and with more than a dozen people involved suggest that once a 10-year drive to build and open the carousel was achieved, the essential next step — how to finance, staff and operate it — was missing.
Having invested all its resources in getting to that debut weekend, the nonprofit, lacking ongoing fundraising efforts or significant savings, had scant cushion. The carousel failed, in 2019, to open for a fourth season. Shulman says he was close, in the following months, to transferring control of the carousel to a new operator, but saw that put on ice by the pandemic. In the meantime, the Shulman family has continued to cover up to $15,000 a year in expenses such as utilities, insurance and loan interest.
Today, two nonprofits Shulman declined to name are in the running to take over operation of the carousel, one of which would move it from Pittsfield. Shulman says the carousel’s board may decide on a transfer by April, with a reopening then possible for this year or 2023. Shulman says now is the time for people who want to keep it in Pittsfield to act.
“How can we keep this treasure here and make it work?” he asked. “How do we get it on the right track?”
Shulman acknowledges missteps that resulted in the shutdown, including the difficulty of guiding the project from afar — his home in Ohio. He says he regrets not pressing harder to secure financial support from the city of Pittsfield.
“It was probably a big error not getting the city to really fund the carousel,” he said. “I turned it over more to local people, let them get involved and do it and really left it hands-off. There were some regrets in retrospect. It’s always been in my mind not to operate it. It was to get it done.”
Volunteers say they saw management problems emerge over several years, but were not given a chance to help shape solutions.
Locally, the project was managed by the late Maria Caccaviello, the carousel’s executive director for a decade. She said in a 2019 interview she became unable, after a few seasons, to keep everything on track due to a health problem, but was not replaced as hands-on manager.
“It was hugely successful and then I became sick,” she said. Caccaviello died in late 2020.
Before she fell ill, Caccaviello saw the sprawling effort — a “pie in the sky dream,” she said — cross the finish line in Pittsfield. She expressed awe for the volunteer commitment, including artists and carvers who studied under carousel experts and shaped the attraction’s horses and other features, each of those horses taking as long as a year to craft.
“They stayed for 10 years,” she said of volunteers in the 2019 interview at her home, which was not previously reported. “It was amazing. People of all ages. People who didn’t know how to carve.”
Even locked up and inaccessible today, the 65 works of art that make up the carousel, including 40 carved figures, stand as testament to the labors of more than 400 volunteers who, together, donated the equivalent of 96 years of 40-hour work weeks.
Despite all that effort, not enough planning went into what comes next, interviews reveal: Paying bills, seeking continued public support, hiring a small staff and overcoming daily operations problems.
Shulman says he saw the creation of a carousel as a “gift” to the city, and hoped the city and its business community would want to embrace it, and take over its management. “We had a lot of people that talked a good line, but really didn’t do too much about it,” he said of that goal. “And we rushed to get it open.”
“I think my biggest regret was not saying very clearly that once we get this done, you’ve got to help maintain the operation,” he said. “Because operating a carousel at age 77 is not something I can do for very long, especially since I live 630 miles away.”
In the “rush” to open, volunteers were growing concerned, including Stephanie Talanian.
“The building got cut back at the last minute,” she said, resulting in the loss of function space that would have helped generate revenue. “Then things started falling apart for the carousel.”
Plans called for future expansion, but Talanian says even the first phase was clipped in size.
Talanian, who has a finance background, said the carousel’s challenges were obvious, but not addressed. “It wasn’t that all of a sudden you have a carousel that supports itself,” she said. “They needed fundraising and that didn’t happen.”
In getting to the construction finish line in 2016, the carousel took in at least $1.4 million in public donations, as well as in-kind donations by dozens of businesses. Even so, Shulman says, he and his wife needed to contribute. While he declined to provide a precise dollar figure, Shulman said this week the couple, on its own, paid half of the cost of creating the carousel (not including the value of volunteer labor) and three-quarters of the cost of erecting the octagonal building that encloses it.
Some of the people who gave the most of their time — an estimated 200,000 volunteer hours — believe their cause of resurrecting a bygone form of entertainment was undercut by poor management decisions by a board controlled by Shulman, his wife, Jackie, and their friends and family. A request by volunteers that they have a voice on the board of Berkshire Carousel Inc. was rebuffed.
“We were never privy to financial information,” said Phil O’Rourke, a retired teacher who spent 10 years as part of the carving team that created carousel animals.
“The bottom fell out when Maria couldn’t perform her duties,” O’Rourke said. “You can’t have an organization without a leader. It was ridiculous. I don’t think they had a clear plan for running the carousel once it was done.”
Like other volunteers, he’s hopeful the carousel can start a new chapter. In the meantime, as an expert on wood, he’s worried about what the cold is doing to carousel horses. “Wood expands and contracts through the years, even through good conditions.”
“I really would like to see what it would take to get the carousel operating,” O’Rourke said.
Ringwood, another volunteer carver, agrees with O’Rourke the project lost focus when Caccaviello fell sick.
“I have no idea why he didn’t jump in and figure something out,” he said of Shulman. “The ball seemed to be dropped. It was kept behind closed doors. You never got a straight story about what’s going on.”
“It’s very personal for me that it’s not available to my grandkids,” Ringwood said.
Asked in 2019 about the management issue, Caccaviello said she wasn’t sure why she and Shulman didn’t discuss at least interim leadership. “I don’t know. I really don’t know,” she said.
Shulman says he didn’t understand until later that volunteers felt locked out of the nonprofit’s management.
“There were a lot of problems,” he said. A chief one, he concedes, was daily oversight, given Caccaviello’s health struggle.
“Frankly, she was pretty seriously ill and wanted to stick it out, and then in 2018 she could hardly make it to the carousel,” he said. “There were probably some issues around management that could have had much more oversight and local support. As great as Maria was in our getting the carousel built and done, we really needed someone else to do the fundraising to pay some bills. That did not happen.”
Instead of creating his own nonprofit, as he did with the Berkshire Carousel, Shulman thinks it would have been smarter to do what he’s attempting now: enlist an existing nonprofit to be the project’s steward.
“I would have put the entire carousel project under another nonprofit, and let them take it over and do it from scratch and contribute to them getting it done,” he said.
Gary Gnat was one of two people, along with Bruce Goguen, certified by the state to oversee the carousel’s operations. Before riders hop on each day, under state regulations, technicians must review a checklist of safety procedures. He renewed his certification after the carousel closed, but has let it lapse.
Gnat said Caccaviello was deeply invested in the carousel’s success.
“It was her baby. That was a hard thing for her,” he said, speaking of her illness. “That threw a wrench in the gears when she got sick. It couldn’t be run from far away. Then it fell apart. It’s a shame that it’s just sitting there.”
A longtime volunteer, Katy Levesque, says people were puzzled by a decision to raise ticket prices from $2 to $3, and believes that contributed to a slower 2017 season. Volunteers also point to a disruptive construction project at the nearby West Housatonic Street junction, which may have led drivers to avoid the area.
“We wanted to have an understanding of why they were making the decisions they were making,” said Levesque, who created the carousel’s initial social media campaign — until she says she was abruptly relieved of that duty without explanation.
“I’ve spent thousands of hours repairing the horses as a volunteer. You get attached to them and have a lot of pride in it,” she said. “We’re just a little attached to the project.”
“We just want it open,” said Ilene Bump, a veteran carver.
A timeline of the rise and fall — for now at least — of the Berkshire Carousel.