In San Francisco’s roaring 1920′s the city had a theme park. Some of you may of visited San Francisco’s Playland, but many of you have also driven past its former site and never even knew it existed. In 1926, George Whitney became general manager of the growing complex of seaside attractions. and changed the name to Playland-at-the-Beach. (sometimes known as Whitney’s At the Beach). Although the attractions continued to be operated as independent concessionaires, during the late 1920s and ’30, especially during the Depression when concessions began to fail, George and Leo began to purchase the attractions outright. The Whitneys bought the Roller Coaster in 1936 and the Merry-Go-Round in 1942. Playland took up three city blocks and in 1934, the Midway had 14 rides, 25 concessions and 4 restaurants besides Topsy’s Roost.
Although Playland’s attractions originally sat upon leased land, the Whitneys eventually purchased the land beneath Playland as well as several adjacent lots for future expansion. In 1937, George Whitney, Sr. purchased the then-vacant Cliff House from the Sutro estate and reopened it as an upscale roadhouse that same year. George Whitney was called “The Barnum of the Golden Gate” as he went on to buy up the concessions and even bought the Sutro Baths in 1952. He bought out his brother in 1952 and continued to run the area on his own until his death in 1958.
The Sutro Baths were really a neat place and I am really surprised that they did not keep it open. They had a huge building that really would have been neat to see today. Above is some where in the mid 1930′s. The photo below is in the 1950′s:
(Below) What the Sutro Baths Site looks like now.
Despite this expansion, the post-war years saw the tearing down of the Shoot the Chutes in 1950, and the Big Dipper in 1955, and after George Whitney died in 1958, Playland was never quite the same. For a while after George Whitney’s death, Playland was operated by his son, George K. Whitney, Jr. and then by Bob Frazier. It was eventually sold to Jeremy Ets-Hokin (a millionaire developer) in 1971 and it was torn down in September 4, 1972. Condominiums were built on the Playland property and a permanent art project commemorating Playland was installed in 1996.
Below is the former site of Playland at the beach.
By 1922 the attractions included Arthur Looff’s “Bob Sled Dipper” (the Bobs) (1921), the Looff-designed Big Dipper (1922), the Shoot-the-chutes, the carousel, Aeroplane Swing, The Whip (ride), Dodg-Em, the Ship of Joy, the Ferris wheel, Noah’s Ark, and almost a hundred concessionaires.
At various times the rides at Playland included: Skyliner, Rocketship, Big Dipper, Big Slide, Dodgem (bumper cars) Limbo (dark house), Kookie Kube, Dark Mystery (which started as an African-themed dark ride but was redone in the 1950s with a Dali-esque surrealistic facade), the Mad Mine (a dark ride that literally covered over Dark Mystery), Scrambler, Twister, Kiddie Bulgy. Another favorite was the Diving Bell, a metal chamber that took guests under water and then returned them to the surface with a big splash. This ride originated at the 1939-40 Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island. George Whitney commissioned the inventor to build another one at Playland on the southeast block of the park. After a decade the attraction was rebuilt on the northwest block where it remained until Playland’s closing in 1972.
Arthur Looff actually commissioned the carousel in 1906 for a little amusement park that was originally on Market and Van Ness in San Francisco, but because of the earthquake in 1906 the carousel was shipped to Luna Park, Seattle, Washington. It was not until 1913, that Arthur Looff leased land for the carousel and its house-—the Looff Hippodrome—that the carousel came to Playland. Looff’s Hippodrome at Chutes-at-the-Beach was the first permanently installed concession in 1914. The carousel was an elegant 68-horse merry-go-round with a $5,000 organ, a staggering amount at that time.
The carousel was sold at auction in 1972, and went to Long Beach, California. San Francisco bought the carousel and it is now located off Fourth Street downtown in Yerba Buena Gardens.
Among the more popular concessions was the Fun House originally called the Bug House, erected in 1923-24. Laffing Sal was the laughing automated character whose cackle echoed throughout the park. After Playland was closed, one of the original animatrons was relocated to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and another Sal is located in the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco.The last remaining Walking Charley figure is located at Playland-Not-At-The-Beach.
Patrons entered by first passing through a mirror maze which had originally been a separate attraction on the opposite side of the midway. Next patrons squeezed through the spin-dryers and entered the main area of the Fun House which contained a Joy Wheel (flat wooden disc that spun quickly and forced kids to slide off), the Barrel of Laughs (rotating walk-through wooden barrel), the Moving Bridges (connected gang planks that went up and down), and the Rocking Horses (attached by strong strings to a moving platform creating quite a galloping sensation).The Fun House had air jets, rickety catwalks, steep, moving and rocking staircases, the topsy-turvy barrel and the three-story climb up to the top of “the longest, bumpiest indoor slide in the world” — and a 200-foot (61 m) indoor slide.
The famous funhouse mirror sequence at the end of Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948) was filmed in Hollywood, but the last moments of the movie, the exterior shot of Welles walking past the Funhouse, was filmed at Playland at the Beach. Laughing Sal is nowhere to be seen because curtains hide her on the second floor bay window above Orson Welles’ head. In the background as Welles crosses the street, the Laff in the Dark is clearly visible. The name on the Funhouse was changed to “Crazy House” during the filming of this sequence.
Playland also included a “Fun-tier” Town for “little western gals and little cowboys” which was an area with ten rides geared for children with western motif and a place for birthday parties. “Fun-Tier” Town sat on the land where the Laff in the Dark attraction had previously been for decades.
The Giant Camera obscura was built in 1948-49 as part of the Playland at the Beach amusement area. It was moved to a location next to the Cliff House when Playland closed and is still present in the Cliff House area.
Playland is now long gone. But we still have a few relics around to physically remind us of its past. I am sure that you have had an It’s It Pie. Well it was at one time the only place to get one. It was created by the original owner of Playland.
There is a museum with arcade games of which are like or are the original games people could play in Playland. It is located behind Fishermans Warf. It is called Musee Mechanique. I have been there several times and each time there is something new. This is the location of one of the laughing Sals. If you make a trip out to San Francisco you must make a stop at the Musee Mechanique. Plan to spend atleast $10 in quarters playing the vintage arcade games. Below are photos of the Musee Mechanique.
Here is a video of Playland in 1960 Thanks to Bradford Block for this great video
I hope you enjoyed reading about Playland at the beach and its history in San Francisco. Some of you may of never even known it was there if it wasn’t for blogs like this or places like Musee Mechanique. It is those blogs, establishments that have displays of Playland and other theme parks around the world that keep the fun and magic alive. Just imagine if Disneyland closed and became vacant and maybe even paved over and housing replaced it. That’s how the people of the Playland era felt. All they have left is Santa Cruz boardwalk. My grand father used to frequent Playland and to hear all the neat stories about what Playland had to offer is just so neat to listen to. For those who like history, retro vintage things, and or have actually been to Playland, San Francisco’s best theme park will forever live on in our hearts and memories.
Picture Credits: Via Google Images search under “Playland SF”:
Thanks for reading,