Fellow Book Benders
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April, 2017                                                            Vol. 2, No. 4


     Ready for some fun?  Let's ride those lingering memories at Playland in San Francisco. This is the twelfth 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
Midway at Playland:

       The area that was Playland at the Beach in San Francisco was once a squatter’s settlement known as “Moneysville-by-the-Sea”.  A steam railroad and a trolley line reached Ocean Beach at the western edge of the Richmond District, delivering you to the Cliff House restaurant, Sutro Baths and a roller coaster (built in 1880’s).  By the 1930’s, the Midway had 14 rides, 25 concessions, and 5 diners including Topsy’s Roost.
           I can remember my folks during the fifties taking me on the mini-dipper (also known as The Bob’s), the carousel, the Ferris wheel, Noah’s Ark, the Aeroplane Swing and the Whip, which was a 2-seater car that ran on a track.   When you sped around a turn, the car would whip to one side, sliding you across your seat.  If you dared to ride the Big Dipper, you had to hold both hands above your head as you dropped eighty feet, the sound of whooshing wheels chasing after you. 
          If you wanted to cool off on a scorching day at Playland, you could ride Shoot-the-chutes.  You’d board a flat bottom boat and sail down a steep, watery ramp.  A towering splash awaited you in the lagoon.  Do you remember the Skyliner where you could float across the entire area from a cable above?  Another favorite was the Diving Bell where you would enter a metal chamber, which took you underwater before returning you to the surface with a resounding thud.  Exhausted from so much fun, you'd take a lunch break and indulge in a Bull Pup enchilada.  I can still taste that one-of-a-kind sauce.  To top off the meal, an It’s It ice cream sandwich was just the thing.

            It’s It was invented in 1928 and sold only at Playland for the next forty years.
         When Topsy's Roost closed, the space became Skateland and later, the Slotcar Raceway.
          A man was thrown from the Big Dipper and killed during the 1950's.  It was torn down in 1955 while Shoot-the-chutes ended its run five years earlier.
         By the late sixties, Playland was in shabby condition.  When Family Dog arrived for a concert, many parents didn't want their kids being exposed to the hippie element.  The end was near.

Fun House
              The Fun House at S.F.’s Playland At the Beach was a must for any City kid looking for some innocent fun, especially since “Laffing Sal” was always obliging.  Her demonic cackle greeted you as you entered.  After passing a mirror maze, you squeezed through the spin-dryers.  The main arena featured the Joy Wheel.  The challenge was to be the last one sitting on the spinning disc, smirking at all those other kids who had slid off.  Nearby was the Barrel of Laughs where most would rush through the rotating structure as fast as possible.  Not infrequently there would be a fleshy roadblock as others tumbled over each other unable to get to their feet and exit.
              If you escaped the barrel unscathed, the Moving Bridges awaited.  This was another balancing act as you tried to negotiate connecting gang planks that went up and down.  The Fun House also spotlighted rocking horses, moving staircases, rickety catwalks and air jets (where hopefully your date would do a Marilyn-Monroe-flying-skirt number).  Upstairs were the "funny mirrors" where odd alterations of yourself appeared for everyone's amusement. My favorite was the polished wooden slide where you would position a burlap bag under your tush and off you went to race all comers.

               The slide was three stories tall and 200 feet in length.
         Disneyland was built in 1955 and changed the way people viewed amusement parks.  In 1961 Frontier Village and Marine World came into popularity.  The last opening day for Playland was September 4, 1972.  It was sold for $6.6 million as bulldozers paved the way for a massive condo development.
Cliff House
    The Cliff House restaurant in San Francisco has been reincarnated five different times on the same site near Lands End.  Originally it was built in 1858 from the remains of a ship that crashed on the rocks below.  Three Presidents and such local luminaries as Crocker, Hearst and Stanford would drive their carriages through the dunes of the Richmond District to watch the horse races on Ocean Beach and have a bite to eat at the diner.  But its reputation spread to the unsavory types from the Barbary Coast region of the City and the area soon became overwhelmed with scandalous behavior. Oh, dear!
          Adloph Sutro, entrepreneur and later mayor, had built his estate on Sutro Heights nearby and would have none of the shenanigans.  Money can solve any problem, right? He bought the Cliff House and chased out the riffraff.  But good karma was not on his side.  For the second time, a ship ran aground.  This time, however, the schooner was loaded with TNT and exploded, damaging the Cliff House above.  The explosion was heard throughout the City.  Sutro repaired the restaurant only to see it burn down soon thereafter.     
            The self-made millionaire would not be deterred and rebuilt it in grandiose style, fashioned after a French Chateau, boasting eight stories, four spires, and a two hundred foot observation tower. It survived the 1906 earthquake only to burn down once again the next year.  More bad luck was still to come.  The President of the U.S. shut down the Cliff House as it was too close to a military base.  It remained shuttered during Prohibition as well, but would reopen in the thirties under new ownership.  George and Leo Whitney, owners of Playland-at-the-Beach, bought the Cliff House in 1937 and remodeled it. True to their carnival roots, the Whitneys put in a tram to watch the scenery below.
             The latest renovation was a joint effort of the present owners, Mary and Dan Hountalas, and the National Park Service.  Today the Cliff House is considered the crown jewel of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  The remodeling restored the building to its neo-classical architecture.  The effort also unearthed the old carriage road from 1914, which has been preserved as a walkway around the property. 

            If you venture out for a meal, make reservations for a window seat in the two-story dining room where you can enjoy the panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and Seal Rocks. 
Sutro Baths

         Sutro Baths of San Francisco was built by Adolf Sutro, former mayor (1894-1896), near Lands End and the Cliff House at the western most edge of the Richmond District. In the 1890’s it was hailed as the world’s largest indoor swimming facility with seven pools. During high tide, water would flow directly into the six saltwater pools from the ocean,recycling 2 million gallons in an hour. A powerful turbine pump, which was built inside a cave at sea level, could fill the tanks during low tide at the rate of six thousand gallons per minute.
              In the early fifties I can remember zooming down one of the seven slides.  The thirty swinging-ring-trapezes, the many springboards and the high dive offered additional thrills while the whole time being protected from the biting summer fog.  The facilities at Sutro Baths also included a 2,700-seat amphitheater, club rooms for 1100, 517 private dressing rooms, a museum and later an ice skating rink.  For a small fee, you could rent one of the available 20,000 swim suits and a towel.
             Besides the three and half million board feet of lumber, 100,000 sq. ft. of glass and 600 tons of iron were also used in the making of the baths.  Everyone thought the structure was invincible.  But time would prove them wrong.  Due mainly to high maintenance costs, Sutro Baths was closed in 1964.  Soon thereafter, an arson fire finished the job. 

            The City never did follow up on the proposed high rise apartments for the site, leaving concrete blocks as the only evidence of a once grand dame.

             If you have enjoyed reading one of my novels, a short review with Amazon would be appreciated.  As Red Skelton used to say, "Good night and may God bless."

Next Time:
     In May, we will revisit San Francisco's Ocean Beach for part deux.  If you have a story regarding Beach Chalet Restaurant, Fleishhaker Pool or Golden Gate Park, 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 in May, 2017),  you can go to   

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: 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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