In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Remembering Playland at the Beach

Balboa Theater

(Previously reviewed)
The Balboa Theater is the logical place to exhibit this film, as the Balboa is nearest to Playland's former site.  I had missed out on the initial showing, but as the theater sold out shows it added others.  I believe I was seeing it during its third sold-out day.

In some cases, scarcity creates the illusion of popularity.  The Numbers often has a 'Per Theater' chart, showing the average dollar amount brought in by a movie (its domestic gross divided by the number of theaters showing it).  Limited releases typically top this chart (though of late Clash of the Titans has been king).  This seems to suggest that if the movie found a wider release, it would continue to make money at that rate.  More likely, all the people who want to see the movie are being funneled into just a few showings at a few theaters.  Opening up the film to more showings would only dilute the per theater amount.  The Paramount nearly sells out each of its classic movie showings, but were they to add an additional showing to the program, we might see the same 2500 people redistributed among the two showings, with few new people added to the mix.  Over at the Alameda, the classic films show for two days with multiple showings per day; for each of the showings I've attended (typically the last showing of the run), the theater has been scarcely populated.  Were we all crammed into a single showing, we could fill the theater.

Playland at the Beach, though, sold out at least six showings (nearly two thousand seats), which is very impressive for a home-brewed documentary.  Based on the age of the audience, I would guess that we more comprised people who remember Playland at the Beach than people like me, curious about a bygone era of their neighborhood.

The filmmakers set up shop in the lobby, showcasing and selling memorabilia from the lost park and advertising a new museum, Playland Not at the Beach, located in El Cerrito.  The Balboa has a dedicated page promoting the film, which they will bring back on April 23rd for a regular release.

Today I was seated in the fifth row from the front, and this seat is not too close.  So be warned, closer is better than farther in this long, narrow auditorium.


Unlike for their typical mainstream releases, the Balboa has put together a wonderful pre-show program for this film, showing clips from movies shot in and around Playland, or thematically relevant.

Donald Duck is a carnival huckster in Straight Shooters (1947).  In walk easy marks Huey, Dewey, and Louie (is there any way to tell them apart?), young cadets from some military academy.  Donald manipulates the shooting game to ensure their loss, but is then infuriated when they circumvent his trickery.

In The Lineup (1958), Eli Wallach and some cronies park outside San Francisco's Sutro Baths, another entertainment venue now tragically missing from the city's landscape.  While the cronies wait in the car with a kidnapped woman and child, Wallach goes inside to make a drop-off of some sort.  He wanders around Sutro Baths for a bit, trying to look inconspicuous, and in the process we are privy to some rare footage of the building's interior before it burned to the ground in 1966 (actually, according to this source, it was in the process of being torn down when it burned).  Ice skating rinks, marine exhibits, and an arcade are prominently featured.  The ruins of this once great palace are my favorite place in the city, so getting to see the building even during its waning days was a real treat for me.  Though Eli Wallach has been making movies for a long time, he has only recently come on my radar.  He had a cameo role in The Ghost Writer, and I've recently seen him on video in How to Steal a Million (1966).  He was also the villain in The Magnificent Seven (1960) and also, of sorts, in The Godfather: Part III (1990).

The finale of The Lady from Shanghai (1947) ends with a shootout in the hall of mirrors in Playland's funhouse.  I haven't seen enough of Orson Welles's movies to know if this is typical of his work, but I could barely understand a word of his Peter Lorre-esque dialog. The clip ends with Welles walking out of the funhouse into Playland.

Finally, an excerpt from Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945) has a thug chasing Costello on the tracks of a roller-coaster, with hilarious consequences.  Eventually, Costello is zipping around the roller-coaster standing on nothing but a single axel.


Gumby Dharma (excerpt)

I was aware of Gumby as a child, and had a Pokey bendable toy I found at the dump, but mostly Gumby was before my time.  This film chronicles the character's creator, Art Clokey.  The trailer doesn't leave me too interested in Clokey's life, but it did make me want to see more of Gumby.  He is claymation in the most literal sense, looking and behaving like clay, morphing himself into various shapes and sizes as he embarks on diverse adventures.  Clokey says he chose Gumby's green hue to make him racially neutral.  The trailer features an interview with Gary Meyer, the founder of Landmark Theatres. 48 cuts.

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

Seeing both a clip from a movie and a trailer for a movie back-to-back is a good experiment in which is more effective in getting me to buy a ticket.  In the case of The Lineup, I'd definitely like to see more of that movie.  Neither the clip nor the trailer from The Lady from Shanghai left me with that feeling.  From what I could tell, Rita Hayworth entraps Orson Welles to help murder her husband, or something like that.  There is a standout moment when, in court, the prosecuting attorney shouts at Hayworth, "isn't it true that you kissed him?", as if kissing were the most damnable crime.  We'll always have drama; it's only the details that change.

Remembering Playland at the Beach

Beginning in the late 1800s as a few ragtag attractions, Playland at the Beach quickly became San Francisco's own amusement park, with a roller-coaster, carousel, funhouse, diving bell, arcades, restaurants, and many other rides and attractions.  This documentary shows photographs from early in the park's history, video footage from the fifties and sixties of adults and kids enjoying themselves, and interviews with various people who either worked at Playland, or remember what great fun they had there.

The park was open from noon until midnight, every day of the year.  Originally (and this seems to be a trend with many types of entertainment), the park was just for adults.  When roller-coasters were a new thing, there wasn't any precedent to say they were just for kids (in fact, looking back at those rickety things, only a crazy person would let their child onto one).  The place thrived during the war years as a great place to take a date.  In later years, Playland was frequented more by children, who on a limited budget could spend an entire day roaming around, taking a trip down the five-story slide in the funhouse, or riding one of eighty bumper cars.  Its popularity declined in the late sixties, perhaps precipitated by the destruction of the signature ride, the Big Dipper, closed in 1955.  The entire park was demolished a day after its closing in 1972.  On its location now stands a row of condominiums (pictured below).

From the official site you can click through to some excerpts from the film which will give you a sense of the personalities of the various interviewees.  Most are thrilled to have had Playland in their lives.  One man with purple sideburns recounts growing up nearby without knowing the park was there; when he finally discovered it as a teen, he was hooked, eventually working there.  The cackles of the park's mascot, Laughing Sal, could be heard from miles away, and to many her laughter was solace.  Not so to one curmudgeon who provides some very humorous moments during the film describing the horrors of every aspect of the park.  He hated the funhouse.  He hated the roller-coasters.  He says of the diving bell that although most attractions get your adrenaline pumping by presenting the illusion of danger, on the diving bell he actually thought he was going to die.  This man has been scarred, and now we all get to enjoy his misery.

When Walt Disney was dreaming up Disneyland, he traveled all over the country examining existing amusement parks to come up with a list of dos and don'ts.  The film credits George Whitney, Jr. (son of one of Playland's early visionaries) with convincing Disney that his Jungle Ride could not feature live animals, thus spurning on Disney's innovation in animatronics.  (A lesson not employed by the diving bell, itself a model for Disneyland's submarine ride, which had live fish who must have been terrified if not ejected every time the submersible rushed to the surface of the water.)

It is unfortunate that we don't have more footage of the park's early years.  I'm hopeful, with today's preponderance of video cameras, that future generations will have ample material from which to construct documentaries of whatever subjects fascinate them.  Regardless, this movie conveys what a fun destination Playland was for San Franciscans (my parents have silent film footage of them at the Playland when they were dating).  Perhaps all beauty must fade, but I'm certainly sorry to have never seen this place.


  1. There was a survivor of the demolition: the carousel. It had a bit of a ramble (incl. a New Mexico warehouse and an installation In Long Beach) before being restored, returned to S.F. and erected at Yerba Buena Gardens (just opposite St. Patrick's Church, near Metreon). We took Clare to ride it just before Quinn was born, so it's still serving the family well.

    Let me know if you want your niece to arrange a tour. :)

  2. I hope you will soon return to the Balboa where the front of the building and marquee were recently restored, all new seats have been placed in the theaters with great leg room and other improvements are ongoing.
    I operated the Balboa for ten years until January 2012 when I turned the lease over to the San Francisco Neighbrhood Theatre Foundation and the operation to an ambitious couple who have even more plans.