Playtime at the Beach

By Lana Alattera

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With the bonfires at the beach being threatened to be banned and all the hundreds of San Franciscans up in arms about defending their designated spots for enjoyment and celebration, I decided to point out this is not as great a tragedy as modern day beach lovers think it is. The fact is the bonfires will be delegated to a more restricted area where damages from these bonfire gatherings may be controlled better. I see nothing wrong with that, actually I’m all in favor of it. Most all government owned public parks and recreational facilities are regulated and generally it’s a first come first served basis observed by maximum capacity regulations or required reservations. Ocean Beach especially has become a free for all, anything-goes location and it’s out of control. The beach is now a dangerous place to be, between the hazardous waste and various seedy exchanges that occur like fighting (some preplanned and bet on), weekend prostitution and drug dealing. It makes time spent in the Tenderloin look like ‘a day at the beach’. People need to remember the point of bonfires is they function to keep you warm when the beach drops to ungodly temperatures so you may enjoy the greatness and grandeur in awe and reverence of its splendor, either in solace or in fellowship. But the simplicity of this appreciation has become corrupted. Today’s beach experience, particularly at Ocean Beach, is unpleasant. Along with the previously mentioned libidinousness, it also consists of mistaking dog poop for driftwood, broken beer bottles for ocean glass, candy wrappers for small crustaceans and discarded condoms for seaweed or gelatinous ocean life. And it’s not fun getting cigarette butts stuck between your toes. To top it all off, San Francisco visitors blatantly abuse the beach and ocean itself unconsciously and habitually, with a unique interpretation for ‘cleaning up’ after themselves or disposing of their waste. You know where most people usually throw their trash at the beach? Into the ocean. We’re not just talking about disrespect for the beach anymore. This is a far reaching detrimental problem for the environment in general.

And for those who have no conception of genuine delectation, the ones who are fighting to keep the beach free for anything and everything, in an almost parody and mock heroic attempt, are the very people giving it a bad name, like the SF State students and various other youths who are desperate to keep hold of their few remaining spots to drink without constraint yet still haven’t learned to clean up after themselves. No, mommy and daddy will not be beachcombing Sunday morning and would they really want mom and dad seeing what their kids were up to that weekend? Also, the Neo Pagan groups are claiming that their Constitutional right (Freedom of Religion) to hold bonfires at the beach for their sacred holidays, like Summer Solstice and Beltane, is being threatened. What irks me with this is that all other religious groups who meet outdoors do not generally do this on public property. If Pagans still feel their holidays are that sacred they really should invest in some private land. This is not the age of Feudalism where they are forced to worship on another’s property, and as many were peasants and serfs who couldn’t afford their own land back then, this shouldn’t be the case today. At least not in this part of the country, where Pagans and non-Christian groups abound and are in the majority. I’ve attended a few out of curiosity and courtesy of invite and these sacred rituals result in an excuse to hook up rather than a time of worship of the elements, earth and universe. And I’ve seen them blatantly disregard their litter. I wonder why they’ve never taken the Native Americans and their beliefs that hold the earth most sacred into consideration while claiming discrimination against their own group. The Native American religious ceremonies, rites and rituals were reduced by the government to the reservation, which is so ridiculously desolate and miniscule it mocks the very core of their spirituality. Yet they still endure and continue devoted worship and at the same time do this without harm to the land, unlike these Pagan groups. And believe me, no one agrees with the Native American more than I do that no one has the right to own land. How can one actually put a monetary value on the earth and its land? Could one just as easily sanction off the ocean and purchase it by the foot? But here in America they did put a value on the land and that’s the harsh, absurd reality we live in. As adults we need to accept this and act responsibly regardless.

Then, to (ahem) add more fuel to the fire, there are the Men’s groups who need to ironically ‘reclaim’ their masculinity in a city known for its queer culture. Oh and to top it off, let’s not forget the full moon black metal beach parties at Ocean Beach. Where one could curse the very beach they stood on and raise their studded arm cuffs and plastic battle axes in a true Nordic battle cry while listening to bands like Immortal, Mayhem, and the Brown Widows. With that kind of enthusiasm, how could the Golden Gate National Recreation Area resist their pleas? Convincing arguments, by the whole lot of them.

So while various groups and citizens from around the city battle it out once again with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, I’ve decided to dedicate the remainder of this article to a time when the beach was truly fun and an integral part of San Francisco’s culture and experience; the era of Playland. As a native of San Francisco, I feel if one is truly going to mourn for lost historical sites and traditions, it should be for a real tragedy, the closing of San Francsico’s long time amusement park at Ocean Beach and the original Cliff House. In 1996, Mayor Willie Brown finally gave the park its due and dedicated February 26th Playland at the Beach in San Francisco Day. It was a sentimental and magical place for young and old. Playland at the Beach was considered the West Coast’s Coney Island after Neptune City (or Neptune Beach) of Alameda closed in 1940 to make room for a military school in preparation for the war. One of Playland’s most cherished merry-go-rounds originated from there. The most infamous was Charles Looff Carousel of Playland. After Playland closed in 1972, the Carousel had been bought and moved to a Long Beach mall, where it remained the last few decades until Zeum bought it for a whopping 1 million dollars so that San Francisco may once again enjoy it at the Yerba Buena Gardens. It seems the Carousel has a long history of surviving much like its home. Now once again the city is in the top two cities in the nation with the most carousels. It seems anything that existed in this city before 1970 is what I consider real San Francisco. I have had this fascination with films that depict San Francisco circa 1920 to 1960, the last decades to remain true to old San Francisco’s best, especially landmarks like Playland. Though many films that were shot at Playland are film noir, like Woman on the Run, The LineUp, and Lady from Shanghai. I’ve watched The Streets of San Francisco religiously and even though it was shot in the 1970s, it captured old San Francisco. They not only filmed everything on location but took you inside many buildings, parks and sites not generally open to the public.

I feel if you really want to know what it’s like to be a San Franciscan, you’ve got to talk to someone over the age of 50. They know what it was like and have plenty of stories to tell. Like Phyllis Nabhan of Gaslight and Shadows Antiques. She founded the store in 1976 and is proudly celebrating its 30th anniversary with a huge blow out sale. And most impressive is the store will not be closing. Unlike all the other antique shops in the city which have folded, most likely because of Ebay, like the cherished Beaver Brothers. What better place to discuss and see artifacts and historical remnants of old San Francisco than an antique shop. Phyllis is a native of San Francisco and what makes a visit to her store even more of a delight than the contents itself is talking with her. She’s extremely friendly and loves to talk, sometimes for hours, about the city and all her memories of its rich past. People love talking with her so much; she gets offers from admirers of all ages to volunteer working in the store just to be around her and the ambiance. She’s been featured on Evening Magazine and won City Search’s Best Antique Shop for three years now. She probably has the largest collection of Limoges boxes and vintage Bakelite jewelry in the world. I was there in the store talking with her one day when researchers for a book on the history of the amusement park came in for contributions of Playland memorabilia. I have yet to see it, but there was an amazing book on the photographic history of Playland already created in 1989 by Marilyn Blaisdell entitled San Francisciana Photographs of Playland. Ms Blaisdell is the owner of the Cliff House Gift Shop and has the largest collection of Playland photos in existence. Phyllis grew up in the Sunset District and remembers the many trips to Playland by taking the trolley to the Taraval Tunnel. Walking through it was like a journey unto itself where you emerged to see the beach and all the carnival rides. She said every time she’d see the front of Playland her heart would start racing from sheer excitement no matter how many times she’d been there. It was the same for almost everyone. She said her favorite place to go in Playland was the Funhouse, where you could spend literally hours, sometimes all day there for only a quarter. Upon entering the Funhouse blasts of air shot through holes in the floor would lift up the girl’s skirts and made all the boys blush and giggle. She said she’s pretty sure there was a guy who pressed a button at all the opportune moments and that he must have really loved his job! Once past this somewhat embarrassing experience you’d enter the giant rolling barrel, where the point was to try and keep stable until you emerged from the other side. Next came the giant rotating disk that children and teenagers loved to ride on. It was like a giant record on a turntable; everyone sat and attempted to defy gravity by staying on the longest without getting thrown off by sheer force. She said the trick was to sit in the middle and she prided herself on being the only person left on this ride frequently. But most fun, she said, was the giant slide that took forever to climb to the top of, and a matter of seconds to end up at the bottom of. You slid down on a burlap sack sitting upright. She said people would go on it over and over, the sheer rush of the few seconds was worth all the time and struggle just to get back up to the top again. Phyllis said she had gone throughout the 1950s and 60s, making it a huge part of her fondest childhood and teenage memories. She, like many San Franciscans, grew up there.

Playland was located at Ocean Beach that stretched for two blocks and about a quarter mile down from the Cliff House. You were greeted by Laughing Sal as you entered and whether it frightened you or delighted you, she was the guardian of Fun. Playland stayed true to the original old time amusement parks. Though it originally began in the 1890s when it resembled more of a boardwalk carnival along the Great Highway with independently owned concessions. The first being the carousel run by Arthur Looff, within the Hippodrome with ten ‘thrilling’ rides and Shoot the Chutes as the most popular. The amusement park later became known as Chutes at the Beach. George Whitney became manager in 1926 and it was renamed Playland at the Beach two years later. When first entering Playland there was the Funhouse, once called the Crazy House, and you were greeted by Laughing Sals and a bevy of walking Charlies, passing through a mirrored maze and walking the thin boardwalks, then stumbling across moving floors until you came to the great wooden slide three stories high; the tallest in the world. The numerous attractions were the Rock-o-Plane, the Diving Bell, the Dodgem bumper cars, the Alpine Racer and the Kooky Kube, Tilt a Whirl, an arcade, the Big Dipper (which was closed in the 1950s), Topsy’s Roost dancehall, the rollerskating rink, and a bowling alley. Also Playland still had what some considered the greatest Midway of them all with hundreds of concession stands, countless carnival games and prizes, and let’s not forget the food like the It’s It ice cream bar, with its own stand and made by hand on the spot then dipped in chocolate. This treat was created just for Playland itself! Then there were the unforgettable dark rides like Limbo, with a giant skull at the entrance so sinister it was used in various Twilight Zone episodes and movies. It had skeleton hands reaching from graves, a Tor Johnson ghoul, and a gorilla among numerous other scary assemblages. The Dark Mystery and the extensive Laff in the Dark rides were also huge attractions that had predated Limbo there. The final dark ride at Playland was the Mad Mine. And unforgettable, was the Camera Obscura, an important experience, found at the Cliff House.

Now we are honored to have a savior of not only Playland at the Beach’s artifacts and memories but of nationwide carnivals and amusement parks alike by Richard Tuck. He founded and created the unbelievable, phenomenal Playland-Not-At-The-Beach in El Cerrito, a free museum and interactive play center for all ages. It should be noted that the Musee Mechanique and one of Playland’s laughing Sals were moved to Pier 45 and will be there for the next few years. Though I was told by Richard himself (who is a veritable encyclopedia of circus and carnival history) that there are 278 Laughing Sals in existence! Playland-Not-At-The-Beach is a tribute to the vintage amusement park, specifically Playland, and its goal is to restore and celebrate their glorious past. His own home is referred to as ‘It must be Magic’, which is full of mazes and collectables of carnivals, amusement parks, and just plain oddities. He also owns Circus Chimera, a modern day traveling circus dedicated to keeping the spirit of the old art of magical entertainment alive.

While at Playland-Not-At-The-Beach, see the recreated Dark Mystery, a creepy and fun showcase dedicated to the spook houses and scary rides of Playland, with its own personal host; Mort the Spook. It shouldn’t be missed this Halloween! Have your picture taken in a restored Dodger car from Playland at the Beach, play in the arcade with old pinball games and riffle games from Playland for free! The Penny Arcade has many turn of the century machines that the Musee Mechanique has to offer. In the Carousel Arcade you’ll find golden age games, like the coin toss, Skeeball and Pokerino. Bygone San Francisco section is where you’ll find the Emperor Norton room exhibiting the 1939 Worlds Fair, a Chinese New Years parade and many of San Francisco’s most famous attractions all depicted in miniature tableaus. The Playland Playhouse, The Fun House is where you’ll meet with two Laughing Sals and a Walking Charlie from the old Playland’s Funhouse. The Big Dipper is a tribute to Playland’s old wooden roller coaster but you’ll also find more carnival games from the 1930s to the 1960s. The Midway is where you’ll see murals of recreated scenes of Whitney’s Playland-at-the-Beach, like the Chutes at the Beach, the Big Dipper, Fun House, Rock-o-Planes, Laughing Sal, and the Diving Bell. Don’t miss the Circus Sideshow where you’ll see some of the most infamous Side Show attractions in history like John Edward Merrick the Elephant Man and Lucy the Fiji Mermaid, the Headless Woman, Spidora, the Disembodied Princess and the Atomic Fish. They even have a 4,000 year old mummy and its child! And one of the greatest achievements in folk art history, the infamous Mark’s Family Miniature Circus is there. A representation of Sells-Floto Circus created from two generations, that’s almost 50 years of extensive work creating an elaborate world of thousands of hand made miniatures. There’s also Santa’s Village full of electric and animatronic miniature displays like 200 trained Elves in their natural habitat like Candy Land, Toy Land, the Woodland Palace, Christmas Tree Land, and the Arctic Amusement Park. Enter the world of Charles Dickens’ Victorian England in The Dickens Parlor. There are so many attractions at Playland-Not-At-The-Beach I couldn’t possibly list them all. Richard Tuck himself stated: “There are an amazing number of attractions at Playland-Not-At-the-Beach, but the most astounding thing of all is the fact that nearly all of this was created by volunteers, everyone from children, teenagers, families, and senior citizens from all over Northern California pulling together to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience for future generations of visitors.” However when you go, don’t miss the Hall of Memories which is a vast collection of memorabilia from Whitney’s Playland, most of which is cherished treasures from those who worked and lived at Playland itself. Anyone can volunteer to keep the place running and become a part of the history and fun. Please contact Richard Tuck if you’re interested. Richard told me that they plan to open the museum by fall of this year but they have no definite date yet; it would depend on how many volunteers can help out. So watch for the announcement by visiting their website They are also currently making a documentary called I Remember Playland!###

All contents © 2006 by Gene Mahoney