Playland at the Beach

Playland at the Beach

A visit to Playland at the Beach was always the most exciting thing a kid could do.  There was a rough and slightly seedy quality to that place but it gave children a licence to run wild in a special kind of way.  Located across the road from the beach where San Francisco met the Pacific, Playland had a history that stretched back beyond the turn of the twentieth century.  By the time I encountered it, however, it had lost much of its lustre.  Up close the rides, the signs and the furniture all had a grubby look.  The paint work was chipped, faded and old and the men operating the rides certainly seemed professionally unfriendly.  A day at Playland was, however, an overwhelmingly enjoyable experience for young children. 

   The first visit my brother Jim and I made was in 1954.  We went with the Hallinan boys and their mother Vivian.  This would have been at the time their father Vin was in federal prison.  Danny Hallinan is of the opinion that our mother Beth was also there along with my sisters Nell and Kate.

   The first stop at Playland was to purchase a line of tickets.  Each ride cost 25 cents.  Now the Hallinans were extremely wealthy unlike the Myers family so Vivian generously purchased several strips of these red tickets and gave them out to all of us.  Then it would be off through the open plan lot on which all of these rides existed.

   One sound which seemed audible all over Playland was the laughter of this giant female puppet with a shock of red hair under a straw hat.  Laughin’ Sal was her name and she had a big gap between her front teeth and stood inside a large glass case near to the ticket booth with her arms out stretched.  Her laughter was non-stop as the top half of her body rocked back and forth.  The unnatural sound of her cackle seemed to set the tone of the place: bizarre.  At age 7, if I had ever found myself alone at Playland it would have scared the hell out of me.

   Our first stop was the Fun House which was weird and exciting.  Disorientation was the theme of this joint and it didn’t take long to get into the swing of things.  First you passed through a hall of mirrors which warped your image dramatically.  Faces swelled to grotesque proportions and foreheads shrunk and expanded dramatically.  Next you passed through an enormous rotating tube to get to the other side but nobody got through it without falling over a few times.  The next challenge was to walk across this wooden bridge with sections which folded up and down making it impossible to remain standing.  Finally you passed through large rotating drums which spit you out into an enormous wooden space where peculiar giant heads grinned down at you from high up on the ceiling.  For women wearing skirts ferocious jets of air would shoot up from below.  Danny remembers these upsetting Vivian and Beth though they must also have bothered Nell and Kate.

   A huge wooden turntable stood motionless within a gated area.  A man opened the gate surrounding it and Jimmy, Danny and I, along with a huge crowd of other kids, scrambled for a place on its surface.  The walls of the fenced in area were well padded with foam cushions.  Once the gate was shut the turntable began to spin like a record player.  It started slowly and got faster and faster.  Since there was nothing for anyone to hang onto, every single child was eventually propelled off and into the cushioned wall. 

   The spinning turntable was terrific fun but the real star attraction of the Fun House was the slide which snaked up farther than the eye could see.  The slide was fantastic.  You had to pick up a burlap sack from a bin at the bottom and remove your shoes then begin the long climb up to the top which actually took you up higher than the giant grinning heads which adorned the ceiling as the top of the slide was really the uppermost place in the Fun House.  There were three or four lanes on the slide.  Once you’d made the long climb to the top and it was your turn you’d lay your burlap sack down on the flat section in your lane.  Then you pushed away and picked up speed immediately, dipping over the bumps as you hurtled down at higher and higher speeds.  My goodness it was fun and as soon as you got to the bottom you were laughing hysterically and without a moment of hesitation began marching back up the stairs to do it all over again.  As there was no limit to the number of times you could do it you’d just keep going back for more. 

   Beth and Vivian must have found some observation post where they could talk.  I’m pretty sure that Danny, Jimmy and I were together but the older Hallinan boys were nowhere to be seen.  The Hallinan boys all played rough unlike gentle Jim and I.  A pillow fight with them was a terrifying experience.  I remember one such incident at our house when Danny held a pillow over my face so long that I flew into a physical panic, convinced I was going to die.  A visit to their place was always exciting but the adventure was inevitably tinged with danger. 

   Eventually we left the Fun House and back out on the fairground there were plenty of conventional rides like a merry-go-round, dodge-em cars and a big ferris wheel.  Apparently there had once been a big roller coaster but it wasn’t there anymore in 1954.  One of my favourite rides was the ghost train.  A huge sculpture of a giant white skull with its two bony hands coming together sat behind a railroad track with a row of cars between two sets of double doors, one for the entrance and the other for the exit.  You’d give the unfriendly man one of your tickets, sit down in the car and he would push a bar over your lap. Then the car would begin moving, jerkily, towards the double doors, adorned with a spooky colour painting of a ghost across both sides.  Bang!  The car would violently push the two doors open, then jerk around to the right into what was now total darkness.  A sharp corner would be turned to the left then the right and the first of many scary images with equally scary noises would illuminate in the pitch blackness to confront your disoriented senses.  It was genuinely frightening and I loved this ride.

   Another exciting experience was the diving bell which certainly looked as though it was the genuine thing.  It hung from what seemed to be a huge water tower surrounded by artificial rocks.  The diving bell itself had portholes all around it and as you’d give your ticket and go on board you would scramble to the nearest available circular window.  You’d then wait for the door to be sealed and the slow descent into the water.  There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to see down under the water.  The walls were painted with underwater art and I think there were a few fish which must have been traumatised by this thing plunging in and out of the tank.  The highlight of the experience after about five minutes of gazing out the porthole was the sudden propulsion up at the end then bouncing up and down until stationary at which point the dizzy occupants could make their exit.

   I went to Playland many times over the years and always had a terrific experience.  My father Blackie used to take each of us four Myers kids on a special outing to the city on our birthdays and a trip to Playland was always on the agenda.  There were three locations in that vicinity which held a great allure for me: Playland, The Cliff House and Sutro’s.  If you crossed the Great Highway from Playland facing the beach then looked to your right you’d see the Cliff House perched on the huge rocks over the sea with a splendid majesty.  Not visible from this position but just around the corner was Sutro’s Baths, a glorious old place with ancient gaming machines and a big ice skating rink down at the bottom.  The Great Highway became Port Lobos Avenue as it climbed to the Cliff House and around to Sutro’s.  

   Sutro’s was built on the cliffs which faced the Marin side of the Golden Gate.  The entrance was a series of steps descending down to different levels before you finally reached the ice skating rink at the bottom.  Along the way down were several long corridors lined with old fashioned penny arcade gaming machines, photo booths and sights like Tom Thumb’s Wardrobe, a Tucker automobile and a model of the Eiffel Tower made from toothpicks.  When you got to the lowest level above the rink there were display cases with model ships and telescopes to view the choppy waters through the many windows.

   Built in 1896 by Adolph Sutro, the place was originally popular for its swimming pools using both sea and fresh water.  However by the time we were going it was only the ice skating rink which was in use.  Like Playland, it had a faded glory about it.  Sutro’s as it was then would be featured in the 1958 movie The Lineup directed by Don Siegel.  A brisk and entertaining low-budget crime thriller featuring the young Eli Wallach as the heavy, its scenes in Sutro’s are a reminder of what a fabulous place it was.  It also had lots of location work on the Embarcadero as it was then.

A scene from The Lineup in which the villains arrive at Sutro’s.
The dramatic scene above the ice skating rink with actors Vaughan Taylor and Eli Wallach.
Having committed murder, Eli Wallach’s character leaves Sutro’s in a hurry.

   Sutro’s was sold to property developer Robert Frazer in 1964.  Frazer had plans to build luxury apartments on the cliffs.  Then on a Sunday late in June, 1966, Sutro’s burned to the ground.  Arson was immediately suspected by SF Fire Chief William Murray as many witnesses had seen a man dressed in khaki fleeing the building moments before the blaze was spotted.

   George Whitney and his brother Leo arrived in San Francisco in 1923 and opened a photographic concession in the amusement park which was then called Chutes at the Beach.  They pioneered a fast photo-finishing process that allowed folks to take pictures home rather than having to wait days for the film to be developed and images printed.  By 1924 the Whitney brothers owned several shooting galleries as well as the quick-photo studio.  In 1926 George Whitney became the general manager of the growing complex of seaside attractions and changed the name to Playland at the Beach.  George and Leo gradually bought up bits of it during the depression when certain concessions began to fail and ultimately purchased the previously leased land which the amusement park occupied.  But their expansion didn’t stop there.  In 1937 George Whitney purchased the then vacant Cliff House from the Sutro estate and reopened it as an upscale roadhouse.  He became known as the ‘Barnum of the Golden Gate’ as he went on to buy Sutro’s Bath House as well.  In 1952 he bought out his brother Leo and continued to run things until his death in 1958.    

   After George Whitney’s death Playland was never quite the same.  For awhile it was operated by his son George Jr who then sold it to Robert Frazer who in turn sold it to Jeremy Ets-Hokin in 1971 and by 4th September, 1972, Playland was torn down and condominiums were built on the property.

   Playland’s demise did not make the news pages of the Chronicle that day but prominent columnist Herb Caen devoted his entire  essay on that Monday to the passing of this cultural phenomenon.  In a column headlined We’ll Never Go There Anymore, Caen rhapsodised about riding the Big Dipper, as the roller coaster I never saw was called and also wrote about concessions he’d enjoyed in his younger days:  “The fading midway, barely alive with yesterday’s laughter.  The Diving Bell, a ride I never did like, stood suspended in rust over a pool of fetid water and beer cans.  At the old rifle range, George Whitney’s first concession 50 years ago, I emptied a load of .22 shells at moving targets so grimy you could barely see them.  In the corner of the Fun House, hideous Laughin’ Sal bobbed up and down, cackling.  Inside I began the long three-story climb to the top of the finest, longest, humpiest wooden slide in the world.  Slide, bump, slide, bump, crash into the wall at the bottom.”

   Herb Caen’s column, which stood on the first page of the want-ads section, was one of the most popular features of the San Francisco Chronicle and a plug in it was highly valued by those seekers of publicity who were lucky enough to be mentioned.  In our house the Chronicle was identified by the sections: News, Herb Caen, Peanuts and Sports.  I guess you’d say his was a gossip column but it always seemed a bit more than that.  He had a passionate love of his adopted city and his columns always championed that fact.  And as Playland, whose faded glory had descended into gruesome decay, prepared to meet the same fate as the magnificent FOX Theatre, Caen’s words, on that day, expressed what many felt: “Goodbye to all that, to part of our youth, and like that youth, we expected Playland to last forever.  It is an odd, sad feeling to have outlived it.”

For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: nsnoyman@cityofmillvalley.org

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Author: milleravenuemusings

I am a semi-retired actor, singer and graphic designer who once designed posters for Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in the late 1960s.

3 thoughts on “Playland at the Beach”

  1. Great memories, observations and insights John, as always. Growing up, as I did, some 6,000 + miles away in an English seaside resort called Blackpool, many of the rides you describe are familiar to me, at least in broad terms…the ghost train, the hall of mirrors, the disorientating rotating tubes through which it was nigh-on impossible to pass without falling, or at least stumbling embarrassingly!! Great, evocative stuff…Thanks!

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