New Playland at the Beach book covers early years

by Jonathan Farrell

Memories of Playland at Ocean Beach were alive and well as people gathered to listen to historian and author James R. Smith talk about his new book, "San Francisco's Playland at the Beach - The Early Years."

The downstairs auditorium of St. Phillips Church on Diamond Street was filled almost to capacity in August as people from all parts of the City attended Smith's presentation, sponsored by the SF History Association. Displaying old photographs of Playland from his book on a projector screen he pointed out the attractions, like "The Big Dipper," "Ship of Joy," "Dogem," "The Chutes," "Midway,"  "Topsy's  Roost" and "The Fun House," with old "Laughing Sal."

"Trying to gathering information was not too difficult because everyone has so many memories of Playland," Smith said.

When he was a kid, Playland was so much fun because it was a place for youth to roam and families could afford to go there with no worries financially because of the low cost of admission.

Smith explained that in the early years, before Playland became that special place to San Franciscans, it was simply referred to as "the concessions." Concessions emerged in the 1880s as a series of beer stands and other attractions to draw people out to the beach on the weekends. The Cliff House and Sutro Baths were popular so the concessions were a welcome addition that grew and evolved over time.

The Great Earthquake of 1906 delayed the arrival of a carousel build by Loof & Sons. When Loof had a falling out with the owners of an amusement park in Seattle because they served alcohol, so he decided to remove their installation and replant it in San Francisco. By 1915, when the Panama-Pacific Exposition was celebrated, a full amusement park with a special carousel - "The Hippo­drome" - was constructed.

San Fran­ciscans were enjoying updated incarnations of The Chutes and other rides and in 1922 when "The Big Dipper" roller coaster was introduced with more than 3,000 feet of track. Eventually Loof and partner John Friedle let the amusement park be taken over by an enterprising concessionaire from the Midwest by the name of George K. Whitney.

Loof and Friedle remained in the background, with Friedle making regular appearances at events. Some rumors claim that Friedle had been swindled as there are no records of a sale. Yet, Smith mentions in the book that Friedle was upset by lawsuits because many accidents did happen back then. It is surmised that because of this fear of lawsuits, Friedle sought the help of Whitney and others. As the Great Depression hit, Whitney and his brother Leo purchased most of the land in the amusement park as individual concessions folded or were struggling.

By 1930, the amusement park had nearly 100 concessions and rides and was officially known as Whitney's at The Beach. Yet it was advertised as "Playland at the Beach."

People at the lecture had dozens of questions, all of which Smith was happy to answer, including: "Was there more than one "Laughing Sal? What happened to her?"

Actually spelled as "Laffing Sal," Smith said she had lots of sisters and even a few brothers, named Sam, all spelled with the name "laffing."

Many in the audience live or had lived in the Richmond and Sunset districts and have happy memories of the amusement park. 

"While I have some good memories of Playland, I was strong-arm mugged for pocket change there when I was 12," said former Richmond resident John Martini.

Playland's glory days were gone by the 1960s. Larger venues, such as "theme parks" like Disneyland, lured people away from the local attractions and Playland fell into decay.

"The park was sold to a developer. At that time, the City didn't care much about preserving its history," Smith said.

Smith is preparing a follow-up book entitled "San Francisco's Playland at the Beach: The Golden Years," which is the Playland that most Baby Boomers remember.

For more information about "San Francisco's Playland at the Beach - The Early Years," go to