Pee Wee Golf
Much of the surreal landscape of post-World War II miniature golf courses burst from the minds of members of the Koplin family.
Welder Bill Koplin Sr. built the Pee Wee Golf in Guerneville, California, which opened in 1948. His brother, Lee Koplin, managed the business for three years (1953-55), and apparently caught the miniature golf sculpture bug. Lee (said by his son Randy to also be a welder, who worked on the Hoover Dam) headed east, fashioning his own golf challenges -- culminating in his greatest (and much copied) work during his Goofy Golf period (1957-59), in Florida and Mississippi. Meanwhile, Bill and his son Bill Jr. continued creating their own distinct style of courses, chiefly in California -- in Alameda, Bakersfield, South Lake Tahoe, Lake Berryessa...
But Guerneville's 36-hole Pee Wee Golf is where it all started.
A bridge constructed across the Russian River into Guerneville in the last decade had a detrimental effect on a cluster of south bank amusements, siphoning tourist traffic into town. Most quickly went out of business. Play Land Amusement Park, across the street, kicked sometime after the Millennium; what remains today is Pee Wee Golf.
Pee Wee seemed destined for obliteration as well, after the old owners retired out of the area. In stepped current owner Tom Glover, who's been diligently running the historic (and fun) site with his wife, Vanessa.
We experienced the Guerneville-siphoning effect during an off-season foray, speeding north up an elevated curve onto the bridge and only peripherally noticing a dinosaur statue down in the shallows. Guerneville has been pummeled by successive waves of new residents bent on remaking the town. We don't know the story, really, but as we drove along its one main street, we noticed local businesses displaying cheery signs -- such as "Dissolve the Chamber of Commerce."
We headed back across the bridge. Pee Wee Golf was closed until after Easter, but Tom stepped out of the entrance with a greeting, and agreed to a whirlwind photo tour of Pee Wee's statues and hazards.
There is a comic depiction of two cannibals cooking a man in a large pot (recently relabeled "vegetarian stew," but we know what's really going on), right next to a Yogi Bear head. While we stroll, Tom points out that as the river swells from Spring floods nearly every year, all 36 holes and statues go underwater. "That's the high water mark," he says, pointing to a spot halfway up the second floor of the main building. A major cresting of the Russian River on Feb. 18, 1986, put Pee Wee Golf under about 16 feet of water.
One bright spot is the media attention the deluge garners -- TV weather reporters always use Pee Wee Golf's garish purple dinosaur, Lily, as the region's visual measurement stick for high water. After the Spring waters recede, Pee Wee Golf is thoroughly scraped of mud, hosed down and cleaned. Tom invites friends to a barbecue and gets plenty of help repainting the statues. "They never paint with these colors on their own homes."
Hole No. #1 features the largest dinosaur, built in 1962, well after the original sculptures by Lee Koplin. A classic, dagger-toothed flesh-eater, Tom referred to it as a T-Rex for a long time before a visiting 5-year old child corrected him, based on the statue's number of fingers. Laughing, Tom said now he properly refers to it as an Allosaurus Rex.
Pee Wee Golf has solid family appeal, but even on the off-season we see hints of a broader clientele. Grateful Dead bears and a G.D. skull logo are painted around one hole. Tom mentions quite a bit of "evening activity," and has to chase out after-hours teenagers cavorting in the castle, or under the monkey.
"That monkey has more sex than anyone," he said, as we examined the narrow putting chute between its legs. The monkey has become the popular choice for suggestive souvenir photographs. Management doesn't discourage the practice, though Tom finally had to plug up the hole in the monkey's butt to stop little kids from inserting their golf putters. "Hey Ma! Look at this!"
Tom has added a couple of new statues to the park -- the first in years -- a giant cactus and a rocket ship. The silver cylinder and nose cone of the moon rocket are composed of raw materials donated by locals.
Thanks to Tim Hollis, Debra Jane Selzer, and Karen Franceschi (Koplin) for some of the details on the Koplin connection.