Before Now – The Gables bar was geared for grownups in midst of Playland
Despite the misty-eyed childhood memories you may hear, Playland-at-the-Beach was created for adults. The builders of the Ocean Beach amusement zone erected the Fun House, Laff in the Dark ride and Big Dipper roller coaster to attract the nickels and dimes of young men and women out for a little fun in the 1920s and 1930s. The focus on children’s attractions developed slowly, and even in the era of “Fun-tier Town” — a tiny western-themed train ride that sought to capture the nation’s 1950s fascination with cowboys — there were lots of places in Playland to get an adult beverage.
The Gables bar stood on the north side of La Playa Street, just off Balboa Street and across from the No. 5 and No. 7 streetcar-line terminus. Named for its cartooned façade of double front gables, the building would have passed a visual test for any amusement park. One can imagine it as a relief station or gift shop nestled next to Disneyland’s Matterhorn ride. When the Whitney Brothers later built the Fun-tier Town ride around the Gables they added Wild West touches to the rear of the building. The Bavarian front had an incongruent “Gunsmoke” back, with rustic signs identifying nonexistent “Gables stables” and warning, “No shootin iruns aloud.”
Cute misspellings or not, A peek inside the Gables would disabuse anyone of Disneyesque visions. My friend Patrick Cunneen remembers it from his drinking days as an out-of-the-way, somewhat seedy joint: “Maybe that was why many cops hung out there, because it was out of the way. The owner packed it in and his wife took it over. Out-of-the-way places also seemed not to look closely at your ID.”
The wife that Patrick recalls was probably Eva Connett, who ran the Gables for many years. Ms. Connett is remembered as a hard-nosed businesswoman who ran herd on a tough crowd of regulars. If the clientele didn’t convince a newcomer that Playland wasn’t all innocence, the bar’s mural of a 1920s swimmer leering at a redhead bombshell losing her swimsuit might.
Mural work in bars is probably a dead art, but decades ago there was no dearth of artists who worked in trade for drinks. I recommend a trip to Bernal Heights to see some outstanding examples on Cortland Street. Skip’s Tavern at 453 Cortland has a western mural from its days as the Cherokee bar, and Stray Bar up the street has a scene apparently by the same artist: a soothing pastoral tableau of ox, plow, maiden — and Nazi tank.
The Gables was demolished with Playland in 1972. Today, a large multi-unit building with ground-floor retail stands on the site. Before the Gables went down, its fixtures and furniture were auctioned off. If someone saved the bathing-beauty mural I have ready cash in my pocket and a spot picked out over my fireplace.
Trivia Answer: Last column I asked what business occupied the building at the northeast corner of Judah and La Playa before the popular Java Beach Café moved in. As a number of folks remembered, it was Dick’s Bar.
New trivia question: What was La Playa Street originally named?
Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”
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