Rediscovering Carnival

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Fête Paradiso comes to New York

Touring the acre or so of Governor's Island dedicated to Fête Paradiso is like traveling back in time to a simpler past, to the sunlit French countryside on a summer's Sunday in the early 19th century, where villagers have gathered to eat, drink, and enjoy handcrafted carnival rides and carousels. We may be a ten-minute ferry ride from today's NYC boroughs, but the Fête, the first worldwide to feature museum?quality antique carnival attractions in working order, reconstructs our notion of a bucolic utopian past so convincingly that it takes on the poetic cohesiveness of a fairytale.

"I worked in the circus for years and I love spectacle but today's festivals are often mass-produced," said Chris Wango, Fête's USA producer. "Here, everything is the work of artisans, unique and charming, with a personality that contemporary entertainment lacks. It's like hand-drawn versus anime'."

Assembled from the collections of Francis Staub, scion of the famous cookware family business, and Regis Masclet, perhaps the sole person alive capable of restoring these rare pieces, the Fête's provisional world could be viewed as a snub of our outside "real" world in its apparent advocacy of more intimate social ways of being than we're accustomed to these days. "It's miraculous," Staub exulted on the Fête's opening Saturday last Bastille Day weekend, as he surveyed the scene from a central platform where visitors dined on crepes washed down with craft beer. "It's a living museum of a past way of life, like seeing a Da Vinci in person. But here we have human beings interacting with the art, and the only thing truly interesting in life is human beings. We have forgotten about emotional values today, forgotten that life is short but it's a long way. The Internet has created a new world, but are we sure that it's good for humans?"

Dissembling these dozen or so treasures in France, shipping it all here in 20 containers and reassembling everything on this patch of ground that was formerly a military installation would normally take a year to a year and a half. But the teams of artisans communicating in pidgin French and English and aided by Google Translate accomplished their task in only three months. Not surprisingly, a few rides weren't yet operative in time for opening. But screams of pleasure rang out from children and adults strapped into their seats on the proto-roller coaster that is the Chinese Dragon Carousel, one of several "green" attractions pre-dating the invention of electricity and requiring human muscle power to get going until centrifugal force handily takes over.

Other features ($3 per ticket) include the Asiatic beauty of the Flying Chairs, an even more gorgeous bicycle carousel, one of only two in the world (the other was featured in Woody Allen's film Midnight in Paris) created to promote a new mode of transportation, the bicycle. And there was something magical about watching the artisans still at work-Monsieur Masclet cranking up the Orchestrophone for the first time on American soil, ducking behind the humongous, flamboyantly painted pipe organ to make adjustments as it began pumping out classic French ditties, and then returning to stand proudly by its side, beaming and nodding at the appreciative crowd.

As a child, he toured the carnivals of northern France with his grandfather, President of Festivals for the area, and was inspired to construct a miniature carnival for his little sister. Masclet grew up to work in public relations until his first son was born. "I rediscovered my childhood and restored my first carousel," he recalls. "At the time, it was rare and many people asked me to continue. So my passion became my work. Coming here to New York City is another return to childhood. I have come here to play."

"Fete Paradiso" is open on Governor's Island every weekend through Sept. 29.

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