I think you kind of have to be kind of old to remember slot cars from the 60’s and 70’s, but our own Playland at the Beach had a famous track built into the original location of Topsy’s Roost that many of us old guys who were kids back then remember.
The Sovereign 220 [The Purple Mile was it’s nickname] was to slot car racers what Mavericks is to surfers. Slot cars were sort of like hot wheels on steroids. They were bigger and had a little pin that stuck down into a slot that received electricity from a hand grip that you squeezed. The tighter you squeezed the more electricity would go to car making it go faster. There were several tracks you could buy for home, but it was never the same as the Sovereign 220. I remember going in their with a friend of mine somewhere between 1965-1969 which was probably towards the end since I would have been about seven when it closed. I remember the smell to this day. Now I know it to be the smell of ozone as the electrons were splitting the oxygen in the air and making it recombine into a not very safe gas.
The track was big. It was the largest slot car track ever built and being a small kid I could barely see the end of it so you’d sort of lose track of where your car was on the track. I can’t remember how much it cost to run your slot cars on the track, but being seven I didn’t really care about money back then. I was still having adults pay for the penny candy I was eating all day long to fuel me up to run around like a madman.
Unfortunately slot cars were starting to be old news by the late 60’s just like Whitney’s Playland at the Beach. It was closed down and the track was sold to someone in Texas and it was sold again and probably again until it wound up being bought by a hobbyist in Ashland, Massachusetts who restored it to it’s former glory. I managed to find a video of the track as it looks and operates today which isn’t much different than it was back in the 60’s now go grab some electrical wire and a 9-volt battery to click the wires together to make sparks so you can get that same smell in your room just like the old days at the slot car track.
I got a surprise the other day when someone told me that the documentary Remembering Playland At The Beach was available on DVD and at the library. I thought I really didn’t have much to remember about Playland because the only time I got to go was the day it closed, September 7, 1972, which means it was a probably my parents giving in to me wanting to go that they finally agreed that I could go as a birthday present since my birthday was the day before.
Well, it turns out there was a lot to remember that I had forgotten. While I only got to go on the last day and most of the rides were closed by then, I did remember the Funhouse the most, but seeing actual video footage of it made it even more memorable. I loved the slide in there, but never realized that it was actually five stories high. Running through the spinning barrel was a piece of cake and the turntable my Dad and I did a few times just because the idea of sitting on a well polished spinning wooden disc and being flung at the padded wall at high speed just sounded like a lot of fun to a 10 year old kid. One of the people they interview mentioned that OSHA would even let a place like that be built today which is probably true when you see the footage. The trick on the turntable was for everyone to lock arms so it would spin faster before you got thrown.
There were the dodger cars which would give you whiplash when the large metal cars would smash into each other while sparks from the pole leading up to the ceiling to power the car dropped down on your head. Yep, another OSHA cringe moment. It was so large that they could have 80 cars running at once.
I didn’t get to go on the Diving Bell which is what I had always wanted to do, but after seeing the footage and some pictures it probably was a good thing I didn’t. One of the people said that when the bell was yanked back up out of the water everyone felt like they were going to die and from the looks of it, I’m surprised no one did.
The Big Dipper was gone by then, but replaced by the Alpine Racer which was closed down by then. The urban legend that a sailor stood up on the Big Dipper to show off to the girl he was with and got hit by a cross beam getting his head torn off is actually kind of true. He did get hit in the head, but landed in the lap of his girlfriend dead with a crushed skull. Oh and there were no seat belts of any kind back then. Not on most of the rides. I can kind of see why my Mom never wanted me to go there.
Dark Mystery was the only other ride I got to go on that day and I jumped a few times with things popped up and the screams played. I do remember there was one box we passed where cheap aluminum figures of a boy and naked girl popped up which didn’t make me jump, but point and yell to my Dad, Did you see that! I told my Mother all about that when we got home and I can remember a glaring eye shot in my Dad’s direction.
What I had forgotten about were all the concession stands out front. As a kid I always remember stopping for It’s-its, but I had forgotten about the Hot House that sold enchiladas and tamales. I remembered that my Mom would send me and Dad out there on the weekends for enchiladas so she didn’t have to cook for one day.
The history of the place was what I found to be amazing. When you think of amusement parks you think of kids, but Playland at the Beach was different. It was mostly adults going on the rides then and there were plenty of pictures and footage of men in suits and fedoras with their women in dresses and white gloves. Something I never expected to see. There was also a place next to it called Fun Tier Town which was for the kids which had some pretty timid rides. It was a big spot for kids to have birthday parties, but I believe it closed down earlier because there was one birthday party I was supposed to go to there and they were already closed and that was before Playland shut down.
It was the Whitney Bros who made the place the most popular, but after George Whitney died and his son George Whitney, Jr. took his place that there started to be family troubles and Playland was sold to it’s final owner in 1970. This person unfortunately didn’t really know how to run an amusement park, especially one that was fogged in with salt air constantly so the whole place fell apart quickly leading to it’s closure in 1972.
What amazed me in the footage was that they had footage from the early 60’s before the civil rights era started and yet you saw white kids, asian kids and black kids all playing together without a care. It really was just a little bizarre to see.
During it’s heyday Walt Disney was traveling around to all the amusement parks and talking to the owners to see what worked and what didn’t. Walt really liked a lot of what Playland was doing. So much so that Walt hired George Whitney, Jr. to help him build Disneyland. Several of the attractions at Playland were the inspiration for Disneyland rides.
Today, Playland at the Beach is no more, but luckily there were some fools who went in after the closure and stole as much as they could and put together Playland not at the Beach Museum in El Cerrito. Several of the people interviewed run the museum and from what I’ve seen they’ve saved a lot of the old arcade games and maybe added to them as well. I’ll have to put that on my list of places to visit now. The Carousel has been refurbished and is now at Zeum at Yerba Buena Gardens. One Laffing Sal is at the Musee Mecanique at Pier 41, the other is at Playland not at the Beach in El Cerrito.
If you remember Playland, you definitely need to see this video. If you have a love of amusement parks you should see this as well. It wasn’t like Disneyland, but it was definitely a San Francisco landmark.
Last night I was thinking about things that truly stand out as a San Francisco tradition and one thing came to mind, the It’s It. If you grew up in San Francisco you know this lovely treat of vanilla ice cream smashed between two oatmeal cookies and dipped in dark chocolate. It gave you everything when you had a craving for sweets.The It’s It has changed a bit over the years adding mint, cappucino and chocolate ice cream to replace the original vanilla as well as adding new products to riff on the original, but if you want the original you have get it with vanilla ice cream.
While the product was started by George Whitney, it finally has passed to Shamieh brothers who moved the factory to Burlingame, so while it is still very closely associated with San Francisco, it unfortunately, ain’t made here anymore, but at least it’s made about 20 minutes away from San Francisco so that’s better than finding out that they’re made in China now.
I went to their web site to find out more about the creation of this wonderful little tidbit that was a part of every San Franciscan child’s heart:
In 1928, George Whitney began what is now a San Francisco tradition. He placed a scoop of vanilla ice cream between two large old-fashioned oatmeal cookies and then dipped the sandwich into dark chocolate. On that very day, the It’s It Ice Cream Sandwich was born. George Whitney sold the It’s It exclusively in San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach for over four decades.
Many generations have savored the It’s It. Throughout the years, the company has gone through many changes yet the product remains the same as it did in 1928. Maybe that’s why It’s It was named “The official food of San Francisco.”
When Playland was demolished in the early 1970’s, the It’s It ceased to exist. Times were grim. San Franciscans had one thing in common; they all missed their It’s It. Then, in 1974, It’s It was reborn. This time It’s It were hand made in a small shop in San Francisco and were sold mainly to mom and pop stores. When the shop became too small to quench San Francisco’s appetite for the It’s It, the company relocated into a larger facility in 1978, relocation just minutes away from the San Francisco Airport.
In the 1980’s, the demand for It’s It spread outside of the Bay Area and throughout California. Soon after, It’s It were distributed and were available in over 15 states. In the early 1990’s, It’s It Ice Cream Co. expanded nearly two-fold when it moved into a new office and dry goods warehouse across the street from its manufacturing facility.
I remember the trips my Mom and I would make down to Playland at the beach for It’s Its, but that was as close to Playland I ever got to go because according to her the place was filled with nothing but hoodlums. I did miss it a bit when Playland closed, but that was only a couple of years after it’s closing day which was Labor Day weekend 1972, the only time I actually got to go to Playland. Just a little side note, George Whitney who started the It’s It was the general manager of Playland from 1926 until his death in 1958.
While they are no longer hand dipped because that would be ridiculous for a company that now has to turn out about a million of these things a week to all the places outside of San Francisco, they still pretty much taste the same as they did. Their web site has a video tour of their factory. I think George Whitney would be proud to see he’s left something behind that’s only gotten bigger over the years.