There is an expanse of land facing the mighty Pacific Ocean that reveals itself as you journey past the Cliff House Restaurant along the Great Highway in San Francisco. Observing the area directly across from Ocean Beach that surrounds the rusty old Safeway and soulless condominiums, one gets the impression that there must be more of a history to this curious segment of the city.
Playland at the Beach, which had been dubbed the “Coney Island of the West Coast,” certainly didn’t start out that way. In 1884, a steam railroad was constructed to make Ocean Beach easily accessible as a recreation spot. In 1913, Arthur Looff and John Friedle established Concessions on the Beach, with shooting galleries and carnival games. This was an expansion of the existing Hippodrome, which was a building that contained a carousel that was built by Looff and his family. Looff and Friedle became partners, and by 1921 they had acquired several rides and attractions. They renamed the area Chutes at the Beach after one of the rides, the Shoot-The-Chutes. They were open from noon to midnight, every day.
The wives of Friedle and Looff never got along, and by 1923 they were quarreling more than ever. Due to the open hostility between their families, John Friedle decided the only remedy to the situation was to buy Looff out of his share of Chutes at the Beach. In order to avoid infighting within his own family, Friedle saw the need to hire an outside party to oversee operations at Chutes. Enter George Whitney.
In 1926, George Whitney was made general manager of Playland. Along with his brother Leo, George started to see a bright future for the seaside location, and when the opportunity arose they decided to go in as partners in hopes of owning it all. The Great Depression came at the right time for the Whitneys. Property values waned and America was hesitant to spend money on recreation, creating the perfect opportunity to buy the property on the cheap as it became available. In 1929, George and Leo Whitney purchased many of the attractions and renamed it Playland at the Beach.
Playland was initially looked at as a diversion for adults, but the Whitneys wanted to make it a fun place for families. The golden age of Playland followed, boasting 14 rides, 25 concessions, and 4 restaurants. A large wooden roller coaster named the Big Dipper was built, and families from all over the world flocked to San Francisco to see Playland.
However, the park had its share of quirks. Like many coasters of the day, The Big Dipper roller coaster had no restraints, and riders were urged to hold on tight as it whirled around creaky turns in the thick ocean air. In 1945, a sailor on shore leave stood up at the wrong time, hit his head on a beam, and died later that afternoon. An urban legend grew around the incident, with the sailor’s head coming completely off and landing in a car full of park revelers who happened to be eating lunch.
Laffing Sal was a large, matronly, animatronic woman that was placed in front of the Fun House in an effort to lure folks in. True to her name, she guffawed incessantly at visitors as they entered. Sal’s gaping mouth and continuous cackling unintentionally scared children. Coupled with screams from the roller coaster, she could be heard from several blocks away.
The Fun House was described as an amusement park within an amusement park. Fifteen cents would get you in. Once through the mirror maze, the fun- seeker would have to contend with the likes of the precarious Joy Wheel, moving bridges, shaky staircases and crazy catwalks. Throw in a 200-foot indoor slide, and the funhouse became the template for carnival horror flicks for the remainder of the 20th Century. Young boys would often line up near the air jets hoping for a salacious peek as unsuspecting women would walk through and have their skirts blown up around their head.
The marine layer on Great Highway is usually thick with a gray, noir fog most of the year, creating a forbidding atmosphere that was perfect for popular spook rides that stayed open until midnight every day of the year. Attractions like Limbo and Dark Mystery thrilled park goers, who were swept away in carts through surrealistic facades around twisting, nightmarish turns as creepy plywood characters did what they could to scare them. Dark Mystery originally had an African theme, but was changed to a more surreal theme in the 1950s. Spook rides became a staple of 1940s-50s carny America.
By 1955, the luster of Playland at the Beach began to tarnish. Despite its rigid construction, some were now viewing the Big Dipper as a wooden death trap, but most locals still loved it. Sadly, for reasons known only to George Whitney, the Big Dipper was torn down. The ride was replaced with a smaller coaster called the Alpine Racer, but it failed to recapture the magic of the Dipper. The people who worked on the midway during this time thought that the removal of the Big Dipper was the first nail in the coffin for Playland.
In 1958, George Whitney died. George Jr. ran Playland for a while, but eventually sold it. The cost of keeping the park open was high, and the magic was gone.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a shift in the zeitgeist of the San Francisco youth movement, as hippie idealism and peace and love gave way to speed, heroin, and violence. Two teens were killed in a fight at nearby Skateland, which resulted in Playland being viewed by many as dangerous and uncool. The hip kids had better things to do, and adults got tired of looking over their shoulders and fearing for the safety of their children. The end was near.
On September 4, 1972, Playland at the Beach was officially closed. It was demolished the following month. The land that Playland occupied became a sandpit, owned by millionaire developers to make way for the condominiums that remain there today. Where the Diving Bell once stood is now a crusty Safeway. Laffing Sal was shipped to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The city of San Francisco wanted people to forget about Playland.
The only attraction from the days of Playland at the Beach that remains on Great Highway is the Camera Obscura, which is located next to the Cliff House Restaurant. The Camera Obscura is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings, in this case the Pacific Ocean, onto a large, flat surface using only sunlight. The Camera Obscura was placed next to the Cliff House in 1946, and has remained in continuous operation to this day.
A couple of other interesting tidbits related to Playland at the Beach:
- Down the Peninsula in Burlingame sits the It’s-It ice-cream factory. The yummy ice cream cookie sandwich was created by George Whitney, and was first served at Playland. They don’t do tours, but Its-It cookie sandwiches are easy to find in grocery stores all over California.
- The original Looff carousel can be found beautifully restored south of Market at Yerba Buena Gardens.
I recommend learning a little more about Playland, then head on up to the top of Sutro Heights Park, preferably at night, and look out over the plot of land that Playland once occupied. As corny as it may seem, use your imagination, and with the ocean wind blowing in your face, listen for Laffing Sal, the Fun House, and the screams and smells of Playland at the Beach.