El Cerrito, California
Many of the 20th century's great amusement parks are gone forever. Childhood memories and a couple of fading family photographs are all that remain to remind us of pre-safety-inspection roller coasters, sexist/racist rides and exhibits, freak shows, and good clean kid fun. A group of volunteers are determined that Playland at the Beach -- an amusement park vanished from the San Francisco cityscape for almost 40 years -- won't suffer the same fate.
Marvin Gold pointed to the large gap-toothed dummy of a woman at the entrance of Playland Not at the Beach, a museum about Bay Area amusement parks that opened in 2008. "When I was a kid I lived down the street from Playland. I could see Laughing Sal from my front window." His parents bought a house in 1952; Marvin was born in 1953; Playland was a block away. He could hear Laughing Sal's mad chortling all day, every day, for years.
Marvin didn't go mad; instead he became a historian and authority on every aspect of the amusement park. By day he works at a huge telecom, but his weekends are spent volunteering at Playland Not at the Beach, and helping the public remember.
Playland opened in 1928, a 10-acre amusement park along the Pacific Ocean. It closed Sept. 4, 1972. Marvin was there when the dream ended. "I didn't really believe it until they brought in the crane with the heavy ball to knock down the building with the safe."
Laughing Sal enjoys a special reverence in the Bay Area -- the original from Playland is at the Santa Cruz boardwalk, there's one at the Musee Mechanique in San Francisco, and one at Playland Not at the Beach. "There were 287 Laughing Sals made since the first in 1923," Marvin said. The guffawing gal was a fixture at amusement parks nationwide.
There are plenty of images displayed of Playland. Marvin points out photos of a ride called "The Lost Continent of Deepest Darkest Africa," and the Big Dipper, a popular wooden roller coaster. The carousel from Playland survived and was moved to Yerba Buena Gardens in downtown S.F., where it still operates.
In a small theater-like room, Marvin opens the stage curtains to reveal an elaborate scale model of the original Playland. Artifacts and artwork hang on the walls.
At this point, Playland Not at the Beach becomes, for the most part, Playland Not at Playland. The next several rooms are filled with a gigantic circus miniature -- 300,000 hand-carved pieces created over a 70 year period (1939-2004).
Playland NatB has a nice section on the side show to augment the miniature circus display. By sliding back low wooden doors, visitors glimpse a Feejee mermaid, an Atomic Fish, and a Devil Boy. There's a large Cabinet of Curiosities -- not always opened, because small children sometimes can't handle it.
A couple of sections of the museum seem to be more of a tribute to manic miniature collectibles than specific amusement park history. There's a Charles Dickens' village, a claustrophobic Victorian town made of those little houses and buildings sold by Department 56.
The museum maintains about 30 vintage pinball machines, along with other arcade games. Admission price covers unlimited play on any of them.
The arcade games, and pinball machines in Pinball Alley and the Pinball Museum attracted the most interest from others during our wandering. Some kids park in front of a bank of machines for hours. One room, the "Laff in the Dark," is lit only by black light. When visiting, remember to wear your most fluorescent duds.
Playland NatB (also home of the Eartha Kitt Fan Club) is only open to the public on weekends; the harsh arcade noises are incompatible with the business that operates in the other half of the building on weekdays.