Almanac

Community - January 2, 2013

Memories: Remembering Playland at the Beach

by Marie Wagner Krenz

In years past, a rare and wonderful treat for every Bay Area child was a visit to Playland at the Beach. Once or twice a year our Uncle Bill took my brothers and me for a drive to the ocean. We could hardly wait to get there and to our favorite rides.

The best fun was the Red Bug that lay against the cliffs of Sutro Gardens at the north end of Playland. The attendant fastened us into little red convertibles, and off we drove down the track. I remember grasping the steering wheel and resting my elbow on the window like a grown-up as I pretended to drive down the highway.

The "Chutes" scared us, but we wouldn't dream of missing that pleasure. We all piled into a car, then descended into darkness, where we shrieked in fearful delight. Attached to a cable, the car moved high up to a kind of tower, where it paused a moment before plunging down the track to a pond of water that splashed all over the bow of our "boat." Uncle Bill said we could try the Big Dipper roller coaster when we were older.

In those days, every amusement park had a fun house and San Francisco's was no exception. We always saved that for last, because there were so many things to do. We peered into strangely shaped mirrors to become short and fat or tall and thin. A revolving wooden platform fascinated us. We climbed as close to the center as possible and braced our hands behind us as the platform began to spin faster and faster. Ultimately we all slid off to be thrown against padded walls.

Next, a walk through the revolving barrel became simple once we learned to look out the open end instead of the turning wall before us. But the greatest joy of all was the slide. We mounted the towering staircase time and time again to grab a piece of sacking and careen to the bottom.

The only thing I didn't like about the Fun House was Laughing Sal, the figure that stood outside an upper floor to beckon us in. I thought she was raucous and ugly.

Playland had other attractions including a great restaurant called Topsy's Roost that specialized in fried chicken and had two slides from the second floor dining area down to the dance floor. My very first date was to Topsy's with a boy named Jimmy, and I think we had a good time. All I remember was ordering coffee, which I detested, but I thought it would make me appear more grown up.

A little south of Golden Gate Park in a grove of trees across from the water was Tates at the Beach, a restaurant-road house of some notoriety. It burned before I was old enough to venture inside.

Farther along in the direction of Fleishhacker Zoo lay a restaurant called Roberts at the Beach. The original proprietor, Shorty Roberts, once had a horse called Blackie that swam the Golden Gate and was the owner's principal claim to fame. Roberts' was a great place for a date. They had good food, a dance band and a shooting gallery. (I suppose the guns were there in case the date didn't work out). At some point in the evening the Emcee brought out wooden horses for guests to rock and race down the center of the room. The competition was fierce, but after a cocktail or two some of the older patrons won easily.

As it has for all time, the Pacific Ocean still sends giant combers crashing toward shore, there to lose their might and recede seaward leaving lacy foam on the sand. On a pleasant day, people stroll the beach, and sometimes rest against the sea wall. Few of them know that not too many years ago on the other side of the Great Highway, visitors thronged a marvelous amusement park. It is not too difficult to imagine the music of the Merry-Go-Round calliope, the wafting aroma of caramel popcorn and candied apples, and even the cackle of Laughing Sal. They may still be there if you stop for a moment and allow your thoughts to travel back to those wonderful days of Playland.

About the author: Marie Krenz is a freelance writer from Orinda who spends weekends at her family home in Woodside.

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