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San Francisco's Playland at the Beach: the Early Years.


By James R. Smith (Fresno, CA: Linden Publishing, 2010, 152 pp., $21.95 paper)

SAN FRANCISCO, the Far West's first real city, pioneered in developing the region's earliest urban amusement parks, including Woodward Gardens in the Mission District. Along with popular forms of entertainment, Woodward had formal gardens and informative zoological and natural history exhibits. In contrast, Playland at the Beach had few cultural conceits and highbrow aspirations. As James Smith observes in this informative book, "Playland assaulted the senses" with a collection of rumbling rides, loud carnival games, strong cooking odors, and the raucous laughter of a bizarre mannequin known as Laffing Sal.

The park began in the late nineteenth century as a motley collection of attractions at Ocean Beach, south of the Cliff House and Sutro Baths. In 1913, the Hippodrome installed a carousel, and over the next decade Chutes at the Beach, as it was originally called, attracted ten additional rides. Growth continued during the twenties as the park gradually came under the control of the Whitney family and adopted the name Playland at the Beach. It proclaimed itself the Coney Island of the West and consisted of about one hundred concessions, including the Big Dipper roller coaster. Playland survived hard times during the Depression and prospered in the boom years of World War II and the immediate postwar era.

Smith's volume concentrates on the years between 1920 and 1945. While the book includes a brief chronological text, it mainly tells its story through historic photographs. Many show the construction of rides and buildings, but there are also images of the people who visited and worked at the park. Playland's patrons were primarily white middle- and working-class couples and families; there are few photos of the city's elite or Asian and African American residents. Ocean Beach was first served by a steam train and then electric trolleys, but the book particularly documents the growing influence of the automobile. By the twenties, traffic jams and parking problems were occasional parts of the Playland experience. There are also pictures of unionized park workers picketing during the 1934 general strike and uniformed servicemen swarming the midway in the 1940s.

Playland's fortunes declined after 1960. Smith blames inept management following the Whitney family's departure, but major social and cultural changes also took a toll. Families moved to the suburbs and new freeways provided access to recreation alternatives far removed from Playland's cold summer fogs. Disneyland initiated an age of meticulously planned, squeaky-clean theme parks for middle-class consumers. And Playland's crude commercialism seemed out of step with the values and lifestyles of the sixties counterculture. The park closed in 1972, eventually replaced by a condominium complex.

Bits and pieces of Playland survive--a Laffing Sal at the Santa Cruz boardwalk and various materials at the Playland-Not-at-the-Beach museum in El Cerrito. Remarkably, the original Hippodrome carousel still spins, now at Yerba Buena Center in downtown San Francisco. But for old-timers with fond memories of foggy Playland nights, scary rides, and raucous smells, sounds, and sights, this book is a prime source of well-informed nostalgia.

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Author:Wollenberg, Charles
Publication:California History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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