I'll be honest: I'm glad Playland at the Beach was before my time. Is glad too strong a word? Relieved. From all I've heard and seen of the place, I just can't help but get the impression of something utterly unholy.
A west-coast Coney Island was the idea, but that's putting it optimistically. Besides, isn't Coney Island itself already a tad depraved? Aren't all amusement parks? I recognize that I've been conditioned to think this way by movies, having soaked up the varied horrors of so many cheap thrillers, squirmy coming-of-age comedies and San Francisco's own noir canon (in which more than one harrowing climax gets staged in the general Playland vicinity). Well, it doesn't help to have local director Tom Wyrsch's documentary Remembering Playland, a nonchalant assembly of stock footage and talking-head remembrance, implying that the absence of the place has left a whole generation haunted.
Oh sure, Wyrsch means well. But he's kind of freaking me out. I don't think I need to know any more about the mysterious bobsled accident in the early days, after which the place suddenly had new owners. I understand that the rumor of the roller-coaster beheading was just a rumor. That in fact it was merely a crushed skull. And it was a long time ago. And yes, Wyrsch does point out that they had a sign, disclaiming, "Danger: Do Not Stand Up." It's just that, well, he also points out that in those same early days, there weren't even any kids. Just neatly suited adults in face-concealing hats. Creepy.
As for Laffing Sal, the plump, animatronic park hostess who stood there spewing a maniacal titter like some Wal-Mart greeter with severe self-medicated PTSD, I am glad never to have made her acquaintance.
"I never got that," one of Wyrsch's testifiers says, "why people were scared of her." OK, let's all keep our eyes on that guy. I'm more inclined to trust the other guy, who says, "I don't know why they called it the Fun House. They should have called it the House of Torture and Humiliation or something."
Location has a lot to do with it. History has shown us that the upper corner of Ocean Beach seems less than inherently recreational. As far as I know, we're not dealing with the actual horror of having profaned a Native American burial ground (that would be the Bay Street shopping complex in Emeryville, even spookier and still going strong). But there's still something ominous about this ten-acre spread at the outer edge of the continent, where, weatherbeaten by frigid salty fog approximately 360 days per year for nearly a century, Playland finally slipped into a coma of disuse and got demolished in 1972. (Concerned looters snuck off with souvenirs, which now live at Playland Not at the Beach, in El Cerrito.)
In addition to the post-demolition film stills, with skull-adorned empty buildings out of some apocalyptic thriller, it's a nice touch when someone in Wyrsch's film describes the park's closure as "destroying everything and breaking every little kid's heart." Good to know that before going under, it finally was discovered by the children!
Remembering Playland screens 4:15pm, Sunday, December 12, 2010, with director Tom Wyrsch in person, at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For tickets and information, visit cafilm.org.