In The Times Archives, Finding a Mystery

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There it was, right in the headline, my last name: “Mike Saltzstein, 60, Coney Island’s Carousel Man, Dies.”

It was the early 2000s, and I was only a few years into my tenure at The Times. I was searching its digital archives for “Saltzstein,” hoping for modest but revealing results; it’s an unusual, and unusually spelled, last name. I found only a handful: My father, a psychologist, was mentioned once in 1979 for research; there were a few mid-’60s-era stories about my great-uncle Henry “Harry” Saltzstein, who co-owned a “labor-relations firm” with the crime boss Carlo Gambino and was, apparently, “a convicted burglar and bookmaker.”

But Mike Saltzstein, a Coney Island fixture for over a quarter-century, was a name I had not heard before.

Were we related? As a journalist who stumbled on such a discovery, I couldn’t let it go. His name haunted me for years until I finally had to delve into research, about 15 years after my initial discovery.

My father had never heard of Mike Saltzstein, though my research showed that they were born about a decade apart and grew up about 10 miles from each other in Brooklyn. Mike’s obituary notes: “At first no survivors were identified, but it now appears that there may be a living aunt.” I was unable to locate her. And though ancestry sites and interviews with Coney Island historians yielded some information about Mike, no definitive links between his family and mine emerged.

I knew my next step: “the morgue” — not the kind filled with dead bodies, but rather the nickname for The Times’s physical archive, located in a basement of a building down the block from the Times Building in Manhattan. I contacted Jeff Roth, the keeper of the morgue, who invited me to do some sleuthing. I asked to see every photograph he had of Coney Island.

You know that cinematic moment when a journalist asks for information and a giant pile of folders is dropped in front of him with a resounding thud? That’s what happened: I was presented with thousands of photos of Coney Island over the decades, from its heyday in the first half of the 20th century; through its decline in the 1960s and ’70s, when the big amusement parks were demolished; to its modest revival over the last 20 or so years.

An image of Coney Island from The Times’s morgue. Credit…Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York TimesThe author poured over thousands of archival photos during his research. Credit…Barton Silverman/The New York Times

I looked through the entire collection, which included a photo of an unharnessed worker atop the Cyclone roller coaster, fixing a loose slat; a dense crowd packing the beach, shot from atop the still-existent (but now defunct) parachute jump; and teenagers sifting through the rubble of the Steeplechase, the grand park that closed in 1964.

Then, to my shock, I came upon a contact sheet of images of a man posing on a carousel. There was no question: It was Mike Saltzstein. Even if he hadn’t been identified on the verso — the back of the image, where all pertinent information is logged — his expression fit the description I had read in the obituary: “Those who knew Mr. Saltzstein suspect he was happy, although his gruff manner and well-advertised sore feet might have argued against it.”

He was also wearing a worker’s jumpsuit, just as Charles Denson, the author of “Coney Island: Lost and Found” and the executive director of the Coney Island History Project, told me in an interview. “This is a guy who wore two outfits for the decades I knew him,” Mr. Denson said. “Either wore a blue kind of jumpsuit, a worker’s jumpsuit, or jeans and a dirty undershirt.”

And, indeed, the black-and-white portraits, taken in 1981 by William E. Sauro, a Times staff photographer, pictured Mike with barely a hint of a smile, dressed in a jumpsuit. In 1973, Mike bought the ride, known as the B&B Carousell, with his business partner, Jimmy McCullough, and maintained and operated it until his death in 2001. (Mr. McCullough died in 2013, and his family had no further information on Mike.)

Mike was, as Mr. Denson put it, “very reserved.” In the photos, he looks guarded, even surly. And yet he would apparently work around the clock andopen up the carousel at any time of year — even in the dead of winter — to children who wanted a ride.

He cared deeply about the carousel and for good reason: It was a work of art. Charles Carmel, M.C. Illions and Charles I. D. Looff, all master carousel craftsmen, contributed to the B&B, which was created around the turn of the 20th century by ​​William F. Mangels, an amusement manufacturer and inventor. (The odd spelling of “carousell” dates back to the ride’s founding.) It features 36 fanciful, colorful jumping horses, as well as 14 “standers” and two chariots. The lead horse has embedded in it a carving of Abraham Lincoln, an odd detail — until you find out that it was carved in 1909, the centennial of the president’s birth.

Years after Mr. McCullough sold the carousel to the city, it was moved from its original location on Surf Avenue and West 12th Street down to the Riegelmann Boardwalk, a short walk from the revived Luna Park. It was also “restored,” though not everyone thought it was improved: The original signage was redone and, because of liability issues, the carousel’s beloved brass handles were removed. “It was great that it was saved,” Mr. Denson said of the carousel, “but it’s definitely not the same.”

As I examined the photos, another mystery emerged: They had never been published. Apparently intended for a column by Anna Quindlen, then a Times Metro columnist (and later a Pulitzer Prize winner), the photos had never been printed. Neither Ms. Quindlen nor Douglas Martin, the author of Mike’s obituary, had any further information. My investigation had come to a dead end.

I still have yet to establish if Mike and I are related, or even exactly why the portraits were taken. Yet a connection remains. I now have an image of him in my head, have heard stories about him, gotten a sense of his personality, the stuff of memories. It is possible — probable, even — that I met Mike. I visited Coney Island at least a few times as a child, during the late ’70s and ’80s, when he was running the ride — which, given my love of carousels, I surely rode.

But even if we never met, he lives in my imagination. And maybe that’s enough.

Explore The Times’s archives.