Don’t have the time or the funds to make a pilgrimage to the World’s Largest Skillet or the Weeki Wachee Mermaid Show this year? Don’t despair! There are plenty of weird wonders of the world to behold in the San Francisco Bay Area. No matter how much of a grizzled world-weary townie you may be, there’s always something special left to discover around here.
Crockett Historical Museum
For the ultimate tour of Bay Area roadside attractions, you need to start in Crockett. That’s right, I said Crockett. Once known primarily for its chief exports — sugar and meth — the tiny town just below the Carquinez Bridge boasts not one but TWO opportunities for roadside marveling.
The first is the Crockett Historical Museum. Tucked away in the shadow of the glorious C & H Sugar Factory, you won’t find any pompous “vahhhses” or uppity marble statues in this museum. The permanent collection boldly blurs the line of what constitutes a valuable historical artifact and what is a box of your grandma’s yard sale leftovers. Some of the exhibits include: a photo of a '70s man in short shorts standing next to an enormous fish, creepy toys, a charcoal portrait of Oliver North, a busted-up old switchboard (the last one used in California, actually), Hawaiian shirts from the sugar factory, and a whole room full of old yearbooks from John Swett High School. Each exhibit is lovingly displayed on a shelf, in a drawer, or in a curating style that could best be described as "piles." If you want an unpretentious and authentic representation of a town, this museum has got you covered.
Bailey Art Museum
Just two blocks away is the crown jewel of Crockett, the Bailey Art Museum. Equal parts artist, inventor, and mustache, Clayton Bailey is a Wisconsin expat who settled in the rolling Carquinez Straits with artist wife (and high school sweetheart) Betty in the late '60s. As his mad scientist alterego Dr. Gladstone, Bailey used to sculpt life-sized skeletons of cryptozoological creatures and then bury them in the hills above his house. He would then invite groups of unsuspecting school children on archaeological digs and wait for tiny minds to be blown forever as they unearthed Cyclops or Bigfoot. Other Bailey creations include gargoyles, cartoon face jugs, pop guns, "the urn of the unconceived," gelatinous blob creatures, and — perhaps most noteworthy — robots. Bailey’s robots have appeared in a Playboy television special, the Sylvester Stallone film Cobra, and the dreams (or nightmares) of the many children lucky enough to catch sight of one of Bailey’s creations wandering the streets back in the '70s and '80s.
Once only a lucky few were granted a front row seat to Bailey’s creations, but in a Willy Wonka-esque gesture, the general public was finally allowed a peek behind the curtain in 2013 with the grand opening of the Bailey Art Museum. If you plan to visit, be sure to call ahead and if you’re lucky, Clayton and Betty Bailey will be there to walk you through their mad laboratory.
Pet's Rest Cemetery
You wouldn’t think there would be much happening in Colma considering the majority of the population is dead but a visit to The Pet's Rest Cemetery may change your mind. This pet cemetery is still in use and is nicely maintained. There is even at least one celebrity canine: Tina Turner’s dog is rumored to have been buried here, swaddled in one of the singer’s fur coats. Wander amongst the tiny tombs and remembrances of Rex, Spot, and Goldie, and let yourself ponder how a dog who lived for two years wound up in a nicer resting place than you likely will.
But don’t leave Colma yet. Be sure to swing by the Circus Showfolks of America Memorial at Olivet Memorial Park and visit clown graves with inscriptions like "There’s nothing left but empty popcorn sacks and wagon tracks – the circus is gone."
Cinephiles will want to take a detour to the Holy Cross cemetery to find a couple of key shooting locations from adored '70s cult film Harold and Maude. Thanks to the excellent website Reel SF, even the most navigationally-challenged can locate the site where Maude sat on a tombstone and cruised young proto-goth Harold.
The struggle is real at Playland Not at the Beach (PNATB). An ode to Playland, San Francisco’s beloved amusement park that offered decades of thrills before closing in 1972, curator Richard Tuck began scoping out a location to house his tribute collection, finally settling in 2008 at a fairly non-descript former grocery store in El Cerrito.
At PNATB, original amusement park artifacts and memorabilia live alongside modern homemade replicas, and like most roadside attractions there is something endearingly janky about the place. In one room, sliding cabinet doors reveal recreations of sideshow classics such as the headless chicken and Fiji mermaid. Another room hosts miniature diorama tributes to the circus and Halloween. There are also three rooms full of pinball machines, including a dayglo room that houses only monster-themed games.
Like many other cultural institutions in the Bay Area, Playland Not at the Beach faces an uncertain future. So if you haven’t been, get down there soon.
This list has barely scratched the surface but hopefully has given you the itch to search out more. There are private roadside attractions you can only witness from afar, like the Flintstone House and the Niles backyard monorail (now defunct); tiny trains in Richmond and big ones in Suisun; classic attractions like the Bigfoot Museum in Felton and the Pez Museum in Burlingame; and many historical treasures in San Francisco like Musee Mecanique and the Columbarium (I suggest seeking out the Chinese takeout container the doubles as an urn). There are even unintentional attractions, like the enormous sculpture of Digital Underground frontman Shock G's head that has sat in a private parking lot in East Oakland for decades. In spite of numerous attempts to find a new home for the Sphinx-like statue, the prop continues to sit in the lot, collecting dust.