Fellow Book Benders
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May, 2017                                                            Vol. 2, No. 5


     More fun in the sun (or fog) as we revisit Playland at the Beach in San Francisco. This is the thirteenth edition of Fellow Book Benders, a free monthly online newsletter about the ridiculous truth and historical tidbits of San Francisco, the Russian River and beyond.  Can you spy a glimmer of your yesteryear from these tales? 
Ocean Beach, San Francisco: Part Deux
Slippery When Wet:

       In addition to the pools at Sutro Baths (last month’s newsletter), stage shows and extravaganzas were held in the structure. Three restaurants could accommodate 1,000 people at a sitting. A museum displayed oddities such as mummies, a miniature motorized amusement park made entirely of toothpicks, dozens of stuffed animals, and Tom Thumb's clothing.   Let us not forget the pinball and penny arcade.
        An ice skating rink was installed in the southern-most section of the building in 1937. The many steps (entrance shown in upper right photo) down to the rink had windows overlooking the baths, showcasing ghostly images below. The stairs proved quite a challenge at the conclusion of an intense skating lesson, a climb of five flights back up to street level.
        The revenue from skating was not enough to maintain the structure, and it was slated for demolition when it went up in flames in 1966. The entire area is now a park, and the ruins of the concrete pools can still be seen today adjacent to the newly renovated Cliff House.

      Another ice skating venue along Ocean Beach was the San Francisco Ice Arena at 48th Ave. and Kirkham in the outer Sunset District.  It was built in 1926 near the end of the N Judah streetcar line.  The arena played host to Ladies Coffee Club, birthday parties, graduation celebrations while Wednesdays were reserved for the Brownie and Girl Scout troops. 
             At times there would be too much water on the ice, causing many a patron to slip and fall.  You were especially vulnerable if you were short on funds and could only afford the bulky hockey skates. Veterans would wear multiple pairs of pants to cushion themselves. Tim Cole writes: “I cut off the tips of a kid’s fingers trying to help him stand up on the ice during a birthday party…He slipped and pulled me down and my skate went over his fingers. It really bummed everyone out that the party had to end.”
           Perhaps you remember Charlotte Bird and Mary McDermott, instructors during the seventies.  Another teacher by the name of Tony would spout British salutations, tipping his hat to everyone while performing tricks.  Many would try to copy the maneuvers but few would stay upright to brag about the feat later.
            In need of a break, you would go to the log cabin snack shack with an alpine village feel. The smell of damp, rubber floors greeted you.  A cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows went down easy while stargazing at the giant poster of Brooke Shields.   Before leaving to reenter the rink, a game of Pac-Man would test your arcade skills.  Anyone for the hokey pokey?
               The San Francisco Ice Arena was demolished in 1992.
One Site-Too Much Fun
              Topsy’s Dance Hall (1927-1946) was down the hill from the Cliff House near Fulton Street.  “Topsy” was a character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  He was a sad and sympathetic figure, an example of life as a slave.  Today, we would consider the whole theme to be rather tasteless. 
         The interior was decorated with whimsical Topsy-like characters and “Chicken Coop” seating areas.  Once you finished with your fried chicken and apple pie, you would be transported by slides to the dance floor below, which was said to be “floating”.  The flooring was inset with rockers, making it feel as though you were floating while dancing to some of the best jazz along the West Coast.  At Topsy’s the rooster didn’t wait till dawn to crow.
              Later at this same site (Topsy's Dance Hall), Skateland opened to be followed by Playland Modelcar Raceways in 1965.  It became the new home for the legendary Sovereign 220, the largest slot-car layout ever built.  The 220-foot-long surface was a doozy, featuring several S-curves and a long straightaway where cars tried to build up enough speed to make it through the banked turn. 
             Millennials might scratch their heads at the notion of crowds going gaga over miniature cars traveling along a model track. But for kids of the 1960s, slot cars were king.  You would boost the voltage on your homemade model, but as Randy Sthymmel discovered—gas powered engines didn’t work.  Fire in the hole!
          The cost was 10 cents, which entitled you to a half-hour plus a driver’s license.  The Blue Track was the best but the Red Track was less expensive.  If you didn’t have any money, you could always watch for free.  The best of all deals was to secure a job at the raceway.  This granted you not only free access to the tracks but also to the “lost and found” where perhaps a pink Stingray with a Russkit 22 engine was waiting for a new home. 
            The center of each lane featured a groove surrounded by two metal strips, which conducted electricity. A pin on the bottom of each car would fit into the groove, and brushes beneath the car transmitted electricity. Operators sent them flying with the pull of a trigger.  You could burn many cars on the drag strip.  Experienced racers always brought two or three remote controls as they had a tendency to get hot. 
            But the days of slot cars were numbered with the advent of video arcades.  By 1969 the track closed, after American Model Car Raceways itself went out of business. The Sovereign 220, along with the other tracks, was sold and is rumored to still be running in Ashland, Massachusetts at the Modelville Raceway.  Anyone up for a road trip?
             The Family Dog, the rock dance commune centered around hippie Chet Helms, lost its lease at the Avalon Ballroom and moved west in 1969 to Ocean Beach.  Generations of San Franciscans had traveled to the rickety wooden building in prior years to eat fried chicken, roller skate, play with their slot cars and to The Grateful Dead and others.  
               Chet had put in a bandstand at each end so there would be no set-up waiting time. The loges were the primo people-watching roosts from which to enjoy the gyrations below.  In the back was a flagstone patio with a well and a 'refreshment' stand for mind & body. Stoners would light up a doobie and feel the coolness of the stones beneath their feet, letting the music deliver them to that special place beneath the stars. No wonder Chet Helms briefly advertised the site as "Magic at the Edge of the Western World."    Is it 4:20 yet?
Serve It Up

         Russian River Rat and longtime San Francisco resident, Pete Batanides, has deep roots with Ocean Beach.  His grandparents, Pete and Antonia Eliopolous, were immigrants from Keporeise, Greece and operated the Splendid Inn from 1921 until 1967.  It stood on the corner of Fulton Street and the Great Highway, serving waffles, hot dogs, ice cream, and peanuts to the hoards of Playland visitors.  
       Pete and his brother Steve spent many hours peeling 100 lb. sacks of potatoes to make the French fries. They were rewarded with ride tickets, which made them very popular with the girls.  Pete’s uncle, George Peters (upper right photo), was the cook at the Splendid Inn as well as at the De Luxe Coffee Shop.  It was ironic that he cooked hamburgers for a living since he was a vegetarian.  His philosophy was less is best. The De Luxe was at the end of Cabrillo St, where the B street car turned around, and across the midway from the penny arcade.   Uncle George came down with cancer in the early 1960's, left a note and one stormy night jumped into the ocean near the Cliff House.  His body was never recovered.

             As a kid, I can remember my favorite family dining experience.  We would all hop into the station wagon and drive out to Ocean Beach for Bull-pup enchiladas.  The Hot House served the Mexican treat for nearly 40 years until the closure of Playland on Labor Day weekend of 1972. Originally operated by Barney Gavello, the restaurant would sell upwards of 12,000 tamales on any given weekend.   In a uniquely San Francisco twist, it served baskets of dark-baked sourdough French bread rather than the more authentic stack of tortillas. In addition, spaghetti was a featured menu item.  
                New owners Juan Faranda and Jose Robleto took over with enthusiasm in 1969, continuing to work with the time-tested recipes that had been pleasing the crowds for decades.   Once Playland closed, Juan Faranda moved the restaurant a few blocks away to 4052 Balboa Street, where it continued as a family business for nearly a quarter of a century. 

Sidebar: Juan Faranda, of Sicilian-Peruvian background, was also the manager of an adjacent Playland eatery, The Pie Shop.
             As a trained chef with a culinary degree, Eric Faranda (son of Juan) has now resurrected The Hot House menu, delivering food orders throughout the Bay Area from his home in San Mateo County for a reasonable price, plus a delivery fee.   Ordering!

            If we behaved ourselves at The Hot House, the folks would take me and my sisters next door for a special treat.  As legend has it, one day in 1928 George Whitney decided to sandwich a scoop of ice cream between two oatmeal cookies at his hot dog and ice cream stand at Playland. He dipped the sandwich in dark chocolate and began selling them.  The delicious combination of savory sweetness was declared by all to be “IT!" thus giving the ice cream sandwich its quirky name.  
            Demand has surged in recent years with Google producing their own version for their cafeterias with no trans fats — something that would prompt IT'S-IT to remove trans fats from all their products. Facebook, Twitter, and Uber all regularly place big orders for their cafeterias now as well, and the facility reportedly produces and hand-packs over 100,000 sandwiches per day. 
             IT'S-IT has added a seventh ice cream flavor to their roster, "green tea", the first such addition since 2014 when the company unveiled the pumpkin flavor, leading to immediate sell-out situations across the Bay. These join the classic flavors of vanilla, chocolate, mint, strawberry, and cappuccino, which are sold in eight states.  Die-hard fans should consider a tour at the IT'S-IT Factory, located in Burlingame.
          On the nostalgia scale, these old-time treats are right up there with Herman’s Potato Salad, Blum’s Candies, Larraburu French Bread, and Herb’s Meatball Sandwiches.  Anyone hungry yet?

Sidebar: George Whitney (1922-2002) at one time owned the Cliff House, Sutro Baths and Playland at the Beach.  His career also included a four-year stint as director of ride operations at Disneyland in Anaheim as well as a consultant for four different World's Fairs and the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw.
             If you have enjoyed reading one of my novels, a short review with Amazon would be appreciated. 

Next Time:
     In June, we will revisit San Francisco's Ocean Beach for the final chapter before heading back north to the Russian River.  If you have a story regarding Beach Chalet Restaurant, Fleishhaker Pool or the rides at Playland, I would love to publish it in next month's newsletter.  You can reach me through my website or email me directly at  Thanks and stay tuned.  For more information on my novels  as well as Don't Stop the Music (to be released this summer),  you can go to    As Red Skelton used to say, "Good night and may God bless."

Attributions & Asides:
       A special thank you is due to anonymous subscribers for sharing their memories of Playland at the Beach,   Also, a note of appreciation goes to the following individuals and organizations: Pete Batanides, Randy Sthymmel, Tim Cole, Marsee Henon, Friends of Rio Nido ( Card Cow Vintage Postcards (, Russian River Historical Society, San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, and Wikipedia.
                To subscribe a friend to this newsletter (Fellow Book Benders) or to discover more information regarding John McCarty's novels, go to
                 Your privacy is important to me.  Be assured that I am not sharing your email or any other personal information.  JMc
Copyright © 2017 John McCarty, All rights reserved.

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