San Francisco has always generously spread the love when it came to the delightful discoveries developed within its boundaries; take sour dough bread, Mission style burritos, Rice-A-Roni (ok, that may be debated). But a few things its kept close to its chest. Things like oh, Playland at the Beach and It’s-Its. Never heard of them? Well, I am about to rememdy that situation with the help of a friend. First Playland, a mecca for everyone seeking a respite from work, school or just an opportunity to spend time with family and friends and enjoy a bit of fun. This place is part of the San Francisco lore of what made living here so special.
Playland at the Beach
Playland at the Beach, or Playland for short, was an amusement park that existed by Ocean Beach in San Francisco, intended to be the Coney Island of the West Coast. If you start at the beach near the windmeals and look up the hill towards the Cliff House, and amble up the hill, you can see some historical remnants that an archeologist might deem significant discoveries of a culture that thrived here, but has now been replaced by condominiums and a Safeway grocery store. I’d never been to Playland, it ceased operations back in the 1970s but I’ve heard stories from my father-in-law and others who were around during its hey day and you can tell it make an indelible impression on their childhood. Trips to Playland were eagerly anticipated, and greedily consumed.
By 1884, a steam railroad was in place to bring people to the first amusement ride at the City’s ocean side — a “Gravity Railroad” roller coaster, and to the Ocean Beach Pavilion for concerts and dancing. By the end of the 19th century, trolley lines took people to Ocean Beach. The various rides and attractions that had sprung up along the beach were separately owned by various concessionaires. For example, John Friedle owned a shooting gallery and baseball-throwing concession. Around 1913, Arthur Looff, leased a piece of land for a carousel and its house—the Looff Hippodrome, adjacent to John Friedle’s concessions. Friedle and Looff become partners in Looff’s Hippodrome and began buying other concessions to create “the grandest amusement park on the Pacific coast.” In 1923, the Whitney brothers arrived with a photographic concession in 1923, pioneering a fast photo-finishing process that allowed people to take pictures home rather than waiting for days for the film to be developed and images printed. A year later, the Whitney brothers owned four shooting galleries, a souvenir shop, and the quick-photo studio.
Playland was a 10 acre seaside amusement park located next to Ocean Beach along the Great Highway where Cabrillo and Balboa streets exist today. It began as a mishmash of amusement rides and concessions in the late 1800. By 1922 the attractions included “Bob Sled Dipper” (the Bobs) (1921), the Big Dipper (1922), the Shoot-the-Chutes, the carousel, Aeroplane Swing, The Whip, Dodg-Em, the Ship of Joy, the Ferris wheel, and Noah’s Ark. In 1926, George Whitney became general manager of the expanding complex of seaside attractions, and changed the name to Playland at the Beach. Although the attractions continued to be operated as independent concessionaires until the 1930, by then the brothers had purchased many of the attractions to consolidate their stake. By 1934, Playland consumed three city blocks, and the Midway had 14 rides, 25 concessions and 5 restaurants. In 1937, George Whitney, Sr. purchased the then-vacant Cliff House from the Sutro estate and reopened it as an upscale roadhouse that same year. He earned the moniker “The Barnum of the Golden Gate” as he acquired the concessions and even the Sutro Baths in 1952. At various times the rides at Playland included: Skyliner, Rocketship, Big Dipper, Big Slide, Dodg-Em (bumper cars) Limbo (dark house), Kookie Kube, Dark Mystery (which started as an African-themed dark ride but was redone in the 1950s with a Dali-esque surrealistic facade), the Mad Mine (a dark ride that literally covered Dark Mystery), Scrambler, Twister, Kiddie Bulgy. Another favorite was the Diving Bell, a metal chamber that took guests under water and then returned them to the surface with a big splash. This ride originated at the 1939-40 Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island. George Whitney commissioned the inventor to build another one at Playland on the southeast block of the park. After a decade the attraction was rebuilt on the northwest block where it remained until Playland’s closing in 1972.
What was the appeal?
Laughing Sal was a fixture that left a strong impression; either she was incredibly creepy or something more benevolent. She was an early animated figure that laughed – incessantly. People remember that her laugh could be heard throughout the park, and points beyond, so that when the fog was thick through the area, the only sound guiding you was Laughing Sal (that I think would freak me out). Some were put of that she never paused to take a breath, just a continuous chuckle could be heard. If you ask someone that grew up attending Playland, chances are that they first response to you will be something about Laughing Sal, who by the way has taken up residence at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.
The diving bell, that lowered you into the ocean’s murkey depths and then sent its occupants shooting to the surface and dousing any bystanders in close proximity. For many it was an exciting adventure to explore the “depths” of the sea.
The roller coaster, the Big Dipper, that like many of the other rides, I suspect would not be in use today for litigious and safety reasons. It opened in 1922 and closed in 1955. One gentleman on a radio program about Playland fondly recounted how his father took him and his buddy to the park for his birthday and they got to sit at the front of the roller coaster. On the way down a particularly steep drop, they were standing, and he felt himself starting to levitate over the front of his car. His farther, thankfully in the car behind him, grabbed hold of his belt and held on for dear life until the roller coaster rolled to a stop. That experience only whetted his appetite for more rides on the roller coaster rides not less, or any of the other options in the park for that matter.
The carousel for the youngsters. Arthur Looff actually commissioned the carousel in 1906 for a small amusement park originally on Market and Van Ness in San Francisco, but because of the earthquake in 1906 the carousel was shipped to Luna Park, Seattle, Washington. It was not until 1913, that Arthur Looff leased land for the carousel and its house-—the Looff Hippodrome—that the carousel came to Playland as the first permanently installed concession in 1914. The carousel was an elegant 68-horse merry-go-round with a $5,000 organ, a exhorbinant amount at that time. This was one of the original wooden carousels that were really works of art. Amazingly, it was sold off to a private collector and passed around for a bit. One owner wanted to dismantle it and sell it off in pieces. Thankfully the City of San Francisco purchased this beauty and donated it to the children’s museum – Zeum in downtown San Francisco, where it still runs today.
The Fun House, where for $0.75 you could spend as long as you like, and from what I can tell both parents and kids thought this was the perfect way to know where they were – I can see the baby sitting industry probably suffered during this time. One feature, that seems to be remembered the most was the not politically correct feature of having hot air shoot up through holes in the floor upon entrance to this space – and given the girls fashion of wearing skirts at the time, it was very a la Marilyn Monroe. Patrons first passed through a mirror maze upon entry, and than ran the gauntlet of being squeezed through the spin-dryers and and finally entered the main area of the Fun House which contained a Joy Wheel (flat wooden disc that spun quickly and the resulting gravitational pull forced kids to slide off), the Barrel of Laughs (rotating walk-through wooden barrel), the Moving Bridges (connected gang planks that went up and down), and the Rocking Horses (attached by strong strings to a moving platform creating quite a galloping sensation). The Fun House also contained rickety catwalks, steep, moving and rocking staircases, the topsy-turvy barrel and the three-story climb up to the top of “the longest, bumpiest indoor slide in the world” at 200 feet.
The Haunted House ride where one operator fully admits to placing his hand on the shoulders of riders in the pitch dark to scare the living daylights out of them.
The Giant Camera Obscura, which was built in Playland in 1948-1949, and today resides at the Cliff House.
Playland has played lead in a few movies, case in point this scene from The Lady from Shanghai filmed at Playland (Orson Wells) – for the movie, the Fun House was renamed the “Crazy House”.
Back in 1928, this ice cream sandwich was invented by George Whitney, one of the original business owners when San Francisco’s Playland. For nearly forty years, the only place to find these tasty treats was at… Playland, and named “The official food of San Francisco”. For almost forty five years, until Playland was demolished in 1972, It’s-Its were only available at Whitney’s shop.
After Playland closed, the It’s-It name was passed to George Mavros, who continued the tradition of hand-dipping the cookie-sandwiched ice cream in chocolate at another location near Ocean Beach. When Playland was demolished in the early 1970’s, the It’s It ceased to exist. Times were grim. San Franciscans united in their grief of the missing It’s-It. Then, in 1974, It’s-Its were reborn, in a small shop in San Francisco and were sold mainly to mom and pop stores. When the shop became too small to accommodate San Francisco’s voracious appetite for the It’s-It, the company relocated into its present facility, just south of the San Francisco Airport. In the 1980’s, the demand for It’s It spread beyond the Bay Area to other parts of California, and it was just a matter of time before they were distributed farther afield, but distribution remains extremely limited.
OysterCulture and I have a shared obsession with the wonders of San Francisco so when she asked if I could come up with a homemade It’s-It recipe I jumped at the challenge. It’s It are quite San Franciscan. It’s easy to get them in the San Francisco Bay Area, but as you venture further afield they are difficult to come across and usually only the true San Franciscans know about them. The first step is the make or purchase one or all of the following ice cream flavors: Vanilla, Chocolate, Mint, or Coffee. Each It’s-It is one of the four aforementioned flavors. No exceptions. If you need an ice cream recipe you can use my mint chip recipe. Remove chocolate chips and mint for vanilla, or make it just mint. The second step is to make the Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cookies. It’s almost a shame this cookie recipe makes its debut as part of an It’s It post. The entire It’s-It package trumps anything else, but these oatmeal cookies are perfection. I’m usually quite humble, but this oatmeal cookie is damn good.
Old Fashioned Oatmeal Cookies
These cookies don’t need to be muddled with chocolate chips or raisins. Though, if you want, it will happily accept the addition of such things. Oh, by the way, Whitney never made an Its-It with an oatmeal raisin cookie.
4 ½ oz unsalted butter, room temp
½ c light brown sugar
¼ c granulated sugar
1 egg, room temp
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ c whole-wheat flour
½ c all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
1 c old-fashioned oats
Preheat oven to 350°F. Sift together all dry ingredients. Cream together butter and sugars. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Add the dries and mix until just combined. Mix in the oats. Scoop onto a cookie sheet lined with waxed parchment. Use a small ice cream scoop to make uniform cookies. I used a cookie scoop that is 1 Tbs by volume. This makes 32 cookies and or 16 It’s Its. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Do not over-bake, if anything, gently under-bake. It’s important that all the cookies are the same size and perfectly round. The moment they come out of the oven, gently shape into a perfect round with a biscuit cutter. Use one that is a little bigger than the cookie. Set aside to cool. Once the cookies have cooled take the ice cream out of the freezer for 10 minutes to soften. Put ice cream in a piping bag with a large tip. Pipe ice cream on each under side of the cookie. You might have to do this in groups if the ice cream is melting, or place ice cream in freezer for a few minutes if too soft to pipe.
Press two ice cream piped sides together to create the perfect height. Use a small offset spatula to make sure ice cream is flush with the cookies. Freeze the sandwiches till hard. Melt dark chocolate in a double boiler. Use good quality chocolate or couverture (has a higher cocoa butter content and will make the final It’s It look and taste better). Dip the ice cream sandwiches in the chocolate. I usually dip each side and then roll on its side to coat the sides. Immediately place on a silpat lined sheet and place in freezer. When its set, eat!
Now, aren’t you glad I asked Adrienne, AKA Gastro to help!