Last Days of Playland-at-the-Beach

Note: This is Part 3 of the Playland Story. It’s full of occult hippies and glamorous pop stars and stuff you’ll want to read about — but if you came in late, you might want to start with What Happened to Playland at the Beach? just below.

By the mid-Sixties, Playland at the Beach had lost it’s magic, even for me, and certainly for the Whitney family who owned the park. After George Whitney Sr., its entrepreneurial genius and founder, died in 1958, the family business slowly disintegrated in law suits and ill will, with the children — able people in their own right — battling their mother who still controlled the park and who finally forced them out of management roles.

If I ever went to Playland, it was late at night, probably with a carload of hippies who had the munchies. The Pie Shop still sold fourteen kinds of pie, and the Hot House next door still sold enchiladas we could eat sitting on the seawall across the highway. Skateland, the roller skating rink across Balboa Street from the Midway held on, and George Whitney’s collection of Victorian fortune telling mechanical gypsies, peep shows, steam pianos, and a working toy carnival made entirely out of toothpicks were still on exhibit, but somehow they weren’t trippy any more.

Yet, in 1969, as the old world of Playland ebbed, across the street the brave new plant of San Francisco pop culture was sending out a hot tendril.

The Family Dog, the rock dance commune centered around original hippie Chet Helms, lost its lease on their Avalon Ballroom headquarters and moved west, out to the beach, out to a rickety wooden building where generations of San Franciscans had come to eat fried chicken, roller skate, play with their slot cars and now…dance to the Grateful Dead.

Soon longhaired freakos, velvet swathed teen heart throbs, spotty faced boys and undercover narcs were converging on the fog-shrouded building across the street from the kiddie sailboats dripping in the foggy night dew. The guys running the ski-ball concession looked at each other incredulously as Pigpen’s blues organ drew the few lingering drunks across the street.

Monday nights acid guru Steven Gaskin was filling the same hall with a kind of revival meeting for hippies called the Monday Night Class. I can’t beat Albert Bates description: “Monday Night Class became a weekly pilgrimage of throngs of hippies from up and down the coast, from high schools and university campuses, from army bases and police academies, from mountain communes and Haight Street crash pads. Thousands of people, in various states of consciousness, came with tamborines and diaphanous gowns, love beads and bangles, Dr. Strange cloaks and top hats with feathers. The open-ended discussions ventured into Hermeneutic geometry, Masonic-Rosicrucian mysticism, Ekenkar and the Rolling Stones, but opened with a long, silent meditation and closed with a sense of purpose.”

Gaskin was teaching the kids the original Huxley-Alpert-Leary hippie vision of LSD as a life-changing sacrament, not a thrill ride or a Friday night high. Challenging them to change their lives, not just trip. And the continued success of The Farm after nearly forty years implies he was to some degree successful at it.

I could never take him seriously though. Not his fault – but to me he was just good old Steve Gaskin, my hip grad student acquaintance at SF State who had a teaching assistantship in creative writing, I think. I remember when he came back from Mexico absolutely charged with psychedelic adrenalin. The guy had had a life-changing experience down there and he was telling everybody who would listen. But I wouldn’t. Like Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor, except to his old pals.” Or something like that. But basically I thought Steven was okay.

But there were all those other guys climbing onstage at the Avalon. OK, I’m not a big swami fan, and my prejudice colors the rest of this picture. I was at the Avalon the night Allen Ginsberg introduced Swami Bhaktivedanta on stage. He was the guy who introduced the Hara Khrisna movement to the West. The two of them chanted Hare Krishna together for a while, and clicked their little bells and Om-ed it. I thought “Hmmmm… is there something in this?”. It was interesting. I’ve still got the poster for that night in a box under my bed along with a lot of other remnants of that life.

Well, it turned out there was something in it. There was macrobiotic food and colon cleansing and kundalini force for the masses and Esalen Human Potential Seminars, Khrisna Consciousness with extra child abuse for no charge, The Children of God, Werner Erhard, transcendental levitation and the whole soggy descent into dopey earnest astrological unreason that has plagued the rest of the twentieth century. Thanks a lot, Allen. Thanks a lot, Chet, for letting that fakir onstage.

Hmm, I seem to be wandering off here. Just to wrap up the obvious, the hard beat Sixties I had entered as a seventeen year old kid were over. Playland would be closed and ripped down in 1972. The Family Dog was going broke. And the soft and goushy, it’s-all-about-me Seventies were on us. Help! Run!

Photo 1: Playland’s End. September 24, 1972. Photo by Patrushka.
Photo 2: Site of Playland today. Photo by Patrushka.


What Happened To Playland-at-the-Beach?

1958 00 Susana at Playland San Francisco copy

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.

More tomorrow.
Photo of Playland, 1958 by my brother Gary.