Before Disneyland and Six Flags there was the regional or local amusement park, like Coney Island and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. For the people of San Francisco it was Playland.
Memories of Playland at Ocean Beach were alive and well as people gathered on August 30th to listen to historian and author James R. Smith talk about his new book, “San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach - The Early Years.”
The downstairs auditorium of St. Phillips Church on Diamond Street that Tuesday evening was filled almost to capacity as people from all parts of the City attended Smith’s presentation, sponsored by the SF History Association. Displaying old photographs of Playland from his book on a projector screen he pointed out the attractions like “The Big Dipper,” “Ship of Joy” “Dogem,” “The Chutes”, “Midway” “Topsy’s Roost” and of course “The Fun House” with old “Laughing Sal.”
“Trying to gather information was not too difficult,” said Smith. “Because everyone has so many memories of Playland," he said. Smith noted that when he was a kid, Playland was so much fun because it was a place for kids to roam and families could go there with no worries or suffer a setback financially from the cost of admission.
Smith explained that in the early years before Playland became that special place to San Franciscans, it was simply referred to as “the concessions.” Concessions emerged in the 1880’s as a series of beer stands and other attractions to draw in people on the weekends. The Cliff House and Sutro Baths were popular and so the concessions were a welcome addition that grew and evolved over time.
The Great Earthquake of 1906 delayed the arrival of a carousel build by Loof & Sons, when the devastation destroyed an amusement park called Steeple Chase Park at 8th and Market Streets. When Loof had a falling out with the owners of a park in Seattle because they served alcohol, Loof decided to remove their installation and replant it in San Francisco. By 1915 when the Panama-Pacific Exposition was celebrated a full amusement park with a special carousel – “The Hippodrome” just for the Expo had been built.
San Franciscans were enjoying updated incarnations of The Chutes and other rides and in 1922 “The Big Dipper” roller coaster was introduced with over 3,000 feet of tracks going up and down. Eventually Loof and partner John Friedle let the amusement park be taken over by an enterprising concessionaire from the Midwest by the name of George K. Whitney.
Loof and Friedle remained in the background, with Friedle making regular appearances at events. Some rumors claim that Freidle had been swindled as there are no records of a sale. Yet Smith mentions in the book that Friedle was upset by lawsuits. Smith noted that yes, accidents did happen back then. It is surmised that because of this fear of lawsuits that Friedle sought the help of Whitney and others. As the Great Depression hit, Whitney and his brother Leo purchased most of the land in the amusement park as individual concessions folded or were struggling.
By 1930 the amusement park had nearly 100 concessions and rides and was officially known as Whitney’s at The Beach. Yet it was advertised as what is known today as “Playland at The Beach.”
Many people had dozens of questions, all of them Smith happy to answer, such as “was there more than one “Laughing Sal?” “What happened to her?” Actually spelled as "Laffing Sal,” said Smith later, she had lots of sisters and a few brothers named Sam, all spelled with the name "Laffing,” he added. Playland was a familiar landmark and was in movies like the mirrors scene from the 1940's film classic "Lady from Shanghai" starring Orson Wells and Rita Hayworth.
Some in the audience were a bit disappointed like John Freeman, who noted, “this book is more about Playland before any of us here knew it. We all remember the Playland from the 1940’s until it closed in 1972,” Freeman said.
Many in the audience live or had lived in the Sunset and Richmond Districts and have happy memories. But the times changed. “While I have some good memories of Playland, said former Richmond Resident, John Martini, “I was strong-arm mugged for pocket change there when I was 12.”
Playland’s glory days were gone by the 1960’s. Larger venues such as “theme parks” like Disneyland lured people away from the local attractions and Playland fell into decay, noted Smith. “The park was sold to a developer and at that time, the City didn't care much about preserving its history,” he said.
Smith is preparing a follow up book “San Francisco's Playland at the Beach: The Golden Years” which is the Playland that most Baby-boom generation people remember. To obtain a copy contact Craven Street Books.