Episode 4: Amusement at Ocean Beach

[Editor’s note: Recognizing now that I pronounced Adolph Sutro’s name ADOLPHO and I am so sorry]

Welcome back to the podcast! Thanks to everyone who has left me a review on iTunes so far, they mean a lot to me. I’m going to be setting up a Facebook page for the podcast soon, so hopefully that will pull in some more listeners and more feedback (which is what I need!).

Once again, this episode definitely grew and evolved while I was researching the topic. I know the title might be a little deceiving, but this is definitely still the summery episode I promised!

Photo by igorothighlander on Flickr. CC BY-ND.

Today’s episode was originally going to be about the history of San Francisco’s famous ice cream treat, the Its-It. I remember the first time I had one, thinking “surely this will be just like all other ice cream cookie sandwiches” — nope, definitely was wrong about that! Man even writing this script is making me want one, I might end up having one for lunch.

How did this episode evolve, you might ask? How could the history of an ice cream sando bloom into something much bigger? My friends, that is the magic of history. EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED.


Our story starts back in 1884, when the Ocean Beach Pavilion opened along the Great Highway in San Francisco. The pavilion was a great spot to escape the bustle of the city and come to the seaside for dancing, concerts, and general revelry. By the 1890s there were three streetcar lines carrying city dwellers out to Ocean Beach, where people could enjoy not only the pavilion, but now the Cliff House and Sutro’s Baths and Museum.

Originally opening in 1863, the first Cliff House was built by real estate mogul Charles Butler, a clapboard building that was meant for a more wealthy clientele (apparently the toll road alone was enough to keep many folks at home, and the menu prices were high). This first Cliff House expanded in 1868, but eventually the improvements in public transportation meant that a more diverse class of folks (y’know, the 99%) could visit. Eventually, the Cliff House became known less for its world-class visitors, and more for its gambling and prostitutes.

Between 1881 and 1883, Adolph Sutro purchased the Cliff House, and renovated the space. He added educational displays similar to what would eventually on view at his bathhouse and museum. In 1887, the ship Parallel exploded on the rocks nearby, damaging part of the house but otherwise leaving the building unscathed. It was in 1894 that the first Cliff House burned to the ground, destroyed by a kitchen fire (insert sad trombone music here).

This did not stop Sutro. His second Cliff House was much more outrageous in architecture, ornate, Victorian, with a hint of gingerbread house thrown in for good measure. His Cliff House featured restaurants, art galleries, and lunch parlours. It even survived the 1906 earthquake!

It did not, however, survive the kitchen fire in 1907.

Adolph Sutro had died by this point, but his daughter Emma Merritt took up the cause to bring back the Cliff House once again, though not without some thoughtful architectural redesign. Built in 1909, the third Cliff House (the one that remains standing today) is Neoclassical in design, and very very understated when compared to its predecessor.

The Sutro Baths were developed by Adolph Sutro, a German immigrant, in 1894 (the same year the first Cliff House burned to the ground). Sutro was interested in natural history and marine studies, so what better than to create an ocean aquarium and natural history museum right on the water? As a philanthropist, Sutro’s goal was to provide inexpensive educational and recreational opportunities to the larger San Francisco population; the space even included sculpture galleries and artifacts from around the world.

Soon after the opening of the aquarium, Sutro added the public bath houses. Each pool was a different temperature, and the water was pumped in directly from the Pacific Ocean. He included slides, trapeze, and diving boards for the enjoyment of his visitors. Eventually Sutro added an ice rink to the building. The baths popularity began to decline during the Great Depression.

In 1912, Arthur Looff and John Friedle came to Ocean Beach and created Looff’s hippodrome, which housed a beautifully constructed carousel designed by Looff’s father. At this point, the Ocean Beach Pavilion was growing and evolving into something much bigger, and by 1922, Looff and Friedle had added the Big Dipper roller coaster (whose sister coaster, the Giant Dipper, still runs daily at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk) and the Chutes at the Beach water ride.

This name seems to eventually become the name of the amusement park, Chutes at the Beach, though the timeline on when the names change from one to the next is a little murky. It also would appear according to some accounts, that while Looff and Friedle added the carousel, Sutro brought the ferris wheel, an indoor maze, and a “haunted swing” ride to the park.

While Looff and Friedle are creating their thrill rides, brothers George and Leo Whitney begin developing a photofinishing service that would allow park-goers to take their park photos home with them the same day. Once the photofinishing was perfected in 1922, the Whitney’s opened up shop at Chutes at the Beach, their first concessionary at the park.

Image by rocor on Flickr. CC BY-NC.

As the amusement park gained popularity, so did George and Leo gain in real estate holdings along the Midway; the brothers bought up failing concessionaires and adding more rides. By 1926, George Whitney was the general manager of the park, which he renamed Whitney’s Playland at the Beach.

It’s around this time, in 1928, that George Whitney opened a concession stand selling ice cream sandwiched between two oatmeal cookies, dipped in chocolate. Those that live in the San Francisco Bay Area already know what I’m talking about; for the rest of you, this was the birth of the It’s-It. For decades, Playland at the Beach was the only place one could indulge in the frozen treat.

In 1929, the Whitney’s opened Topsy’s Roost Restaurant, which operated at the base of Sutro Heights. Topsy’s was a popular chicken dinner house and….nightclub? I found a scan of one of the souvenir menus from 1930 (makes sense to have a souvenir menu, right? Keeps it in everyone’s mind!), which stated that the restaurant was open from 11am to 1am every day except Monday’s (crazy!), there was no booze (this was the middle of the prohibition era, mind you), but you could get a boxed lunch if you were planning on picnicking nearby.

By 1934, even though it was the middle of the Great Depression, Playland extended for 3 blocks along the Great Highway, and George Whitney owned everything from Point Lobos to Fulton Street. The Midway consisted of 14 rides, 25 concessions, and 4 restaurants other than Topsy’s.

Y’know what property George Whitney bought in 1937? The Cliff House. It was then that the Camera Obscura was added to the building. HISTORY, GUYS.

Business boomed at Playland at the Beach during the war years. Off-duty servicemen would bring their dates as an escape from the real world. Christopher Newton grew up in neighborhood and remembers visiting Playland often. He wrote for the Western Neighborhoods Association, “Everything about it was interesting. I liked to watch the sailors plinking at mechanical ducks paddling in a line across the green waters of the shooting gallery. I liked to watch the tough teenagers smashing baseballs into milk bottle pyramids. It looked so easy, but no one could ever make them roll off the stands.” He goes on to describe desperately wanting a candy apple, and being severely disappointed when he bit into one to discover it was a real apple coated with candy. Man now I want a candy apple…

George Whitney purchased the Sutro Baths in 1952, closing down the baths but keeping the ice rink and the natural history museum. At this point, though, interest had begun to decline, and not even the ice rink could help. In 1964, developers wanted to replace the baths with condos, but a fire in 1966 removed any interest in building on the property. In 1973 both the Sutro Baths and the Cliff House became part of Golden Gate National Park, and both have received a good amount of protection and renovation from the National Park Service.

Time was not friendly to Playland at the Beach. Topsy’s Restaurant became Skateway, and then the Slotcar Raceway. The Big Dipper roller coaster had been closed down in 1955 due to new San Francisco building codes, signaling the beginning of the end. After George Whitney died in 1958, his son, George Jr., came home from Anaheim (where he was working with Walt Disney to develop Disneyland!) to assume control of the park. By the 1960s, Playland at the Beach had lost its shine, and attendance plummeted. The end of the park came in 1972, when developers bought up the land. Now, a Safeway sits where the Diving Bell ride once was.

It’s important to note that the Whitney’s operated the park for 40+ years, which is incredible, especially when you consider that Playland really took off during the Great Depression. George Whitney kept the prices of rides and concessions low enough for families to come to the park and forget about their problems for a few hours while they navigated their way through the Fun House or lost their hat while riding the Big Dipper.

And there are still pieces of Playland throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area. The original Laughing Sal, a nightmare-inducing laughing clown that greeted guests at the entrance to the Fun House, is now at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (again, along with the Big Dipper’s sister coaster). The backup Laughing Sal can now be seen at the Musee Mechanique on Pier 39, along with many of the penny arcade games that once lived at Playland. Looff’s carousel took an extended vacation in Long Beach before coming home to San Francisco, where it’s now maintained and operated by the Children’s Creativity Museum in Yerba Buena Gardens. Artist Ray Beldner erected statues around Outer Richmond that recall iconic symbols of Playland, including the rooster from Topsy’s Roost, and a silhouette of Laughing Sal. If you’re ever in the Outer Sunset, I’d recommend checking out Playland at 43rd Avenue; named after the ill-fated amusement park, this outdoor community space hosts community gardens, concerts, and free yoga classes on Sundays!

And, of course, you can enjoy a piece of Playland history any time you’d like, because It’s-It can be found in most grocery and convenience stores. Actually I’m gonna go eat one as soon as I’m done recording.

That’s gonna do it for this episode of A Noble Earthquake. Thanks again for joining me! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, you can send me a note on Twitter @nobleearthquake, shoot me an email at anobleearthquake@gmail.com, or leave a comment on the show notes on my personal blog. As usual, links can be found in the show notes. I want to give a special shoutout to the Western Neighborhoods Association; their website Outsidelands.org and the oral history projects they have done were immensely helpful when researching for this episode, and they have their own podcast! And, of course, the intro/outro music is by Marcos Bolanos. Once again, thanks for joining me!

It’s-It Official Website
San Francisco Chronicle: “The Haunting Last Days of Playland At the Beach
San Francisco Public Library: Playland At the Beach
Western Neighborhoods Association: Playland, George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview, My Playland-at-the-Beach Childhood, The Cliff House
SF Gate: “Playland died along with blue collar image that once embodied a gritty San Francisco”, “George K. Whitney — Playland Owner“, “Our SF: Amusement parks and the pursuit of fun
PDX History: Playland
Musee Mechanique
National Park Service: Sutro Baths
The Cliff House
San Francisco Curbed: “Playland at 43rd Ave. is Coming to Francis Scott Key School“, Public Art: Playland Revisited
Children’s Creativity Museum
Groundplay SF: Playland at 43rd Ave.

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