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SAN FRANCISCO — Playland at the Beach is remembered with great nostalgia these days, but the longtime Ocean Beach amusement park closed with little fanfare on this date 46 years ago, Sept. 4, 1972.
The 10-acre site covering several blocks along the Great Highway had been in decline for years, suffering from neglected maintenance and declining attendance when Jeremy Ets-Hokin submitted plans to raze the site for a residential-retail development.
The proposal was approved by San Francisco supervisors in July 1972 and Playland was doomed, staying open just through Labor Day. The games, signs, rides and fixtures were auctioned off and the park was quickly razed, even as financing for the development to replace it was falling apart.
Not included in the auction was Laffing Sal, the mechanically moving figure that for 35 years gave a maniacal laugh as visitors entered the Fun House. Ets-Hokin said in October 1972 he had plans to display Sal at a market in his project, but that someone had stolen her head.
Along with neglect, the park had been beset by bad publicity in the late 1960s — including an incident of vandalism by teenagers — a far cry from its years as a low-cost entertainment destination that saw it through the Great Depression to the thriving times of World War II and the 1950s.
The park, which had origins dating back to the late 19th century, was officially known as Whitney’s Playland at the Beach, managed from 1926 to the early 1960s by George Whitney Sr. and his family.
Some blamed television for its decline, others pointed to the rise of clean and modern parks such as Disneyland. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote a month before the closing that Playland lost much of its allure with the removal of the Big Dipper in 1955, “for what fun is an amusement park without a roller coaster?”
Playland is celebrated today at the Musée Mécanique on Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which has many of the original arcade machines still in operation, as well as one of the Laffing Sal figures.
A second tribute, the Playland Not-at-the-Beach arcade and memorabilia museum in El Cerrito, has been popular for the past decade before meeting a fate similar to its namesake. Like its predecessor, the El Cerrito tribute was set to close on Labor Day this year, Sept. 3, 2018.
“(The original) Playland was torn down to build condos. This will be torn down to build apartments,” said Frank Biafore, the “Master of Fabulous Fun” at the El Cerrito attraction.
Main image: A streetcar outside the Fun House, where Laffing Sal made her home. (Image courtesy Chris Treadway)