Buster Keaton in “The High Sign.”
I’ve been going through a Buster Keaton phase on Netflix and in watching “The High Sign,” I noticed this merry-go-round in the opening of the film. I got to wondering where it was – and whether it was the one used in “The Sting.”
The short answer is no. The carousel used in “The Sting” was Philadelphia Toboggan Co. No. 62, built in 1922, The Times says. It was moved from Venice Pier to Santa Monica about 1949.
Then what carousel was used in the Keaton movie? The Times clips say nothing about filming of “The High Sign.” Internet sources – which must always be double-checked – say the scenes were shot in Ocean Park. So I dug into the clips a bit further to see what I could learn.
The first challenge was to determine the precise location of Ocean Park, and even this is a bit nebulous. As The Times said July 3, 1921: “Although Ocean Park has no independent municipal identity, being partly within the corporate limits of Venice and partly within Santa Monica, it is declared to have a strong individuality as a place of pleasure and happiness.”
According to this 1921 story, Ocean Park extended from south of Marine Street to the municipal auditorium under construction between Raymond and Kinney avenues—streets that have been wiped out by development.
July 3, 1902: A carousel is set up inside a tent “on the beach near Kinney Street” and, after complaints, moved to Pier Avenue.
Oct. 8, 1911: What was called the largest roller-coaster west of New York is proposed for Ocean Park.
Sept. 4, 1912: Everything at Ocean Park was destroyed in a spectacular fire, including a ride called the Dragon’s Gorge and a $45,000 merry-go-round, The Times says.
Notice the trolley tracks at the top of the map of the burned area, which fit with the train in the opening sequence of “The High Sign.”
Buster Keaton jumps off a train at the beginning of “The High Sign,” in a screen grab that shows the ocean in the background.
May 25, 1913: The Times published this drawing of Ocean Park when it reopened after the devastating fire of 1912. If “The High Sign” used the carousel at Ocean Park, it should be the one in this sketch. But is it?
And here’s a detail of what appears to be a merry-go-round. I realize it’s a little difficult to tell from a drawing, but based on the windows in the background of the screen grab, I’m not sure this merry-go-round is the one used in “The High Sign,” even though it was in Ocean Park.
April 9, 1916: Wait a minute, what’s this? “The Great American Derby,” planned for Ocean Park, will be the largest “carrousel” ever constructed. But was it ever built? The Times’ clips are inconclusive. Could “The High Sign” have used one of these carousels (assuming they were built)?
Dec. 22, 1920: Meanwhile, down on Windward Avenue, the Venice Pier burns, including the merry-go-round.
Jan. 7, 1924: The Ocean Park “amusement zone,” rebuilt in 1913, is destroyed by another fire. The stories don’t mention the merry-go-round, but presumably the blaze burned whatever carousel was used in “The High Sign.”
Jan. 8, 1924: Rebuilding starts immediately. But the story continues ….
May 28, 1970: Lawrence Welk visits the charred remains of the Aragon Ballroom after Ocean Park’s Lick Pier burned in 1970. The fire also destroyed an adjoining two-story house of mirrors and an abandoned merry-go-round building, The Times said. It’s unclear whether there was a carousel inside.
Which leaves us without a definitive answer. Apparently “The High Sign” used a carousel at Ocean Park that was destroyed in the 1924 fire. Maybe further research will turn up more information.