Is it true all good things must finally come to an end? It was certainly true for Playland at the Beach, the great amusement park that once promenaded along the western coast of San Francisco, out by the edge of Golden Gate Park. In its heyday in the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, even into the late Fifties, the place rocked with kids and young people and sailors and fun – and they measured their cost in nickels. San Franciscans didn’t need a car to get there because Playland was at the end of a couple of streetcar lines, as amusement parks usually were in the early twentieth century.
A traveler climbing aboard the B car heading downtown late on a weekend afternoon in the 1950s might find himself surrounded by packed-in black families from the Fillmore District. They were heading home tired, cranky and sandyfooted after a terrific cotton candy and enchiladas day. Latino families from the Mission, Irish and Italian families from the Richmond and Sunset districts, city teenagers mixed with teens from San Bruno all the way to San Mateo twenty miles down the brand new Bayshore Freeway, they were were hotfooting down the Midway, looking for fun, looking for thrills, looking for girls. On sunny days in September, Ocean Beach itself, across the Great Highway, was packed with families on blankets listening to big black portable radios or dabbling their toes in the ferociously cold surf. As Bugsy said to Shifty back in 1957, “I want to stick around while I get my kicks!”
I don’t know what happened, but parks like Playland were closing all over the country. Perhaps the opening of the original Disneyland in 1955 had something to do with it. Week after week Walt Disney used his television show, conveniently named Disneyland, to flog the wonders and delights of his new Magic Kingdom. Maybe the traditional family-oriented park at the edge of the big city was looking a little tawdry and old fashioned. Most young people had access to cars now. They could drive to big modern theme parks like Great America, the Bay Area’s first. It was (and is) just off the Bayshore Freeway, and, unlike Playland way out at the edge of a labyrinthine city, is easily accessible by millions of Bay Area families.
Besides, by the 1950s, the blue collar and middle-class families that formed Playland’s primary market were leaving the City in droves, off to their new martinis and togetherness playgrounds in the suburbs. But let’s not talk about that sorrowful day in 1954 when the moving van arrived at our beautiful San Francisco house on 47th Avenue two blocks from the vast, fogbound, eternal Pacific ocean and trucked the furniture to our new, open floor plan, wall to wall windows and a patio, subdivision miracle stranded on a mudflat on the San Francisco Bay. It’s too traumatic. I think I’ve been trying to get back home my whole life.
The young urban professionals who took their places, filling the swinging Tony Bennett bars on Union Street, were not likely to suggest a date night at Playland riding the Wild Mouse.
Photo of Playland, 1958 by my brother Gary.