Before Now – Playland, the Early Years
I love history, love the Ocean Beach area, and love a good roller coaster ride, but I was suffering from too much Playland-at-the-Beach.
In late 2008, Richard Tuck opened up his Playland-Not-At-the-Beach, an El Cerrito tribute to the amusement park that operated on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach from the 1920s to 1972. The San Pablo Avenue building is full of pinball machines, carnival attractions and lots of Playland memorabilia.
Then last year Bob Lesoine debuted parts of his 20-years-in-the-making (and still not done) musical “Last Night at Playland.” (Keep up the good work, Bob. I still have that “Laffin Lady” song stuck in my head.) Finally, this past March, filmmaker Tom Wyrsch unveiled an hour-long documentary homage to Playland. I attended the premiere and had a great time, so I was happy “Remembering Playland at the Beach” had an extended run at the Balboa Theater and received lots of publicity. Still, I was sure I had Playland burnout.
Part of my weariness was that my experiences at Playland were not as joyful as those conveyed in all the recent tribute projects. Those older than I am say I missed the glory days of the 1940s and 1950s, when a child could safely spend all day with his friends in the Fun House for a dime. In the late 1960s and 1970s the roller coaster was gone, the paint was peeling, and rough teens might mug you for your It’s-It money.
Perhaps only the charmless condominiums and utilitarian Safeway that took over the site could make me pine for the decayed amusement park I knew.
Now comes James R. Smith’s new book, San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach: The Early Years. Rev up the Alpine Racer, refill the Diving Bell tank, and heat me an enchilada at the Hot House, because I’m ready to play in Playland again.
Smith, who appears in Wyrsch’s film, already had a lot of knowledge and a personal collection of Playland material when he acquired an archive of more than 400 photographs from the estate of Laurence “Laurie” Hollings. Hollings was an artist, illustrator and creator of amusement park rides, and evidently gathered these amazing views as reference material for his work.
Playland began in the 1880s as a zone of food concessions and amusements around the end of an early steam-train line that ran from Haight and Stanyan streets to Balboa and LaPlaya streets. Hoards of weekend beach visitors would disembark into a maze of beer stands and waffle booths. By the 1910s, independent operators had added shooting galleries, carnival games and a carousel. When George and Leo Whitney began buying up the concessions in the late 1920s, larger rides, including the Big Dipper wooden roller coaster, were on the scene. The Whitneys improved and expanded the park, and under their management came the name Playland-at-the-Beach.
Smith’s book shows some of the best-known Playland rides in their earliest incarnations: the Aeroplane Swing; the Dodg-Em bumper cars; construction of the Shoot the Chutes water ride that was the first big attraction to the area (excluding the carousel and perhaps the Pacific Ocean). Check out the 1920s kids waiting in line wearing paperboy caps, ties and knickers. View the extravagant nuttiness and racist iconography of Topsy’s Roost, a dining and dancing venue with slides from elevated “chicken coop” booths to the dance floor below. Topsy, a ragamuffin character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” smiles in pickaninny glory on the restaurant façade. San Francisco was no island of racial sensitivity when it came to selling chicken dinners in the 1920s.
Paging through these views of a Playland beyond living memory, the different world of men in hats and ladies in furs also felt strangely familiar to me. Most of the patrons are adults or teenagers. The amusements are a bit unsanitary and seem a little dangerous — that Big Dipper coaster looks mighty rickety. This is a Playland with the whiff of rigged milk-bottle games, whiskey surreptitiously served in coffee cups to the “sports,” and carnies trying to tempt your nickels away. This looks a lot like the sketchy place where I played Skee-Ball in 1970. Maybe James Smith has shared the real Playland with us and I didn’t miss a thing.
James Smith has several presentations and book signings coming up. To see his schedule and purchase books, see his site: http://www.historysmith.com/index.html
Trivia answer: Last column, we asked, “Every few years remnants of a 19th-century shipwreck emerge on the dunes of Ocean Beach. What’s the name of the ship?” As readers of the Ocean Beach Bulletin have recently read, it’s the King Philip, which foundered on Ocean Beach in 1878.
New trivia question: What was Playland called in the early 1920s before the Whitneys took over?
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