2/1/97 PLAYLAND bids Herb a heartfelt farewell. We'll miss you Herb.

Herb Caen, San Francisco's Chronicle Columnist
Visits Playland for the Last Time, Sept. 4, 1972

We'll Never Go There Anymore

SINCE IT CLOSES forever after today, I decided to give Playland-at-the-Beach one more chance to kill me.

Parking my Mazda Rotary where the city meets the sea. I stepped up to that familiar open window at the corner of Balboa and ordered a Bull Pupp Enchilada. "Famous for 49 years." This one tasted a little younger and had plenty of zing. Bull Pupps are not for kidds.

Then I walked up the block to the It's It place and had a 40-cent corn dog, with plenty of mustard and catsup, and topped that with an It's It itself: the fabled sweetmeat made of two oatmeal cookies with vanilla ice cream between, the whole covered with chocolate sauce and frozen.

The It's It didn't taste as good as I remembered it from years past but hardly anything does. For one thing, the ice cream between the cookies should be flat. This was round, scooped out like a golf ball and it never did soften into a manageable mess.

Still, as junk food, it's right up there with Taco Bell and Shakey's Pizza, and dyspepsia was fast setting in. I had planned to get a little heartsick over the closing of Playland, but heartburn would have to do.

* * *

I WOULDN'T want to keep you away from today's last rites, but Playland looks awful. Along with the familiar aroma of salt air, popcorn, tobacco and greasy food there is the smell of death. Somebody along the way must have bled the place dry, letting it fall apart like railroad owners trying to discourage the passenger trade.

As I stood on the sidewalk, gnawing at my It's It, a station wagon with Oregon plates pulled up to the curb and out stepped a Norman Rockwell family -- youngish parents and three neat little pigtailed girls. They stared in dismay at the fading and fallen signs, the grimy windows, the debris on streets and sidewalks. After a long silence, one of the little girls took her father's hand and said "Let's go, Daddy."

They got back in the wagon and drove off. As a San Franciscan I felt embarrassed. "When Playland closes," an old-timer points out, "San Francisco will be the last major city in the country without an amusement park." It has been for some time now.

* * *

I RAN INTO Marty Davis, a friendly fellow whose fate it is to be Playland's last operator; he has done the best he can but the business hasn't been there and now Jeremy Ets-Hokin takes over the huge property for an apartment complex. When I told Davis what I had just ingested for lunch he whooped "Nobody has ever eaten a Bull Pupp Enchilada, a corn dog, an It's It, ridden on our merry-go-round and lived!"

Accepting the challenge, I boarded a painted wooden horse on the 56-year-old Loof merry-go-round, one of the world's best and certainly the dizziest. "This thing goes so fast," said Davis, bobbing up and down on an adjoining steed, "that my kids are afraid to ride it. About 20 miles an hour. Just think, 68 moving animals, wood, not plastic, and four chariots, a thing of beauty."

* * *

THE FADING MIDWAY, barely alive with yesterday's laughter. The Diving Bell, a ride I never did like, stood suspended in rust over a pool of fetid water and beer cans. At the old rifle range, George Whitney's first concession 50 years ago, I emptied a load of .22 shells at moving targets so grimy you could barely see them. But the Dodgers -- or Bump'ems in other parks -- were still running, crashing around amid the familiar smell of graphite to keep the metal floor slippery.

In the corner of the Fun House, hideous Laughin' Sal (already bought by Ets-Hokin) bobbed up and down, cackling. As kids, we used to cover our ears as we passed Sal, and we did so again. Inside, I began the long three-story climb to the top of the finest, longest, humpiest wooden slide in the world. On the lane next to me sat a little blonde girl, staring down the long slide and screaming in terror as her mother tried to get her going.

"Tell her it's safe," the mother implored me. "It isn't, kid." I said as I whooshed off. "You gotta be crazy to ride this thing," slide, bump, slide, bump, crash into the wall at the bottom.

* * *

OLD PLAYLAND. I suppose only those who knew it in the glory days will really miss it, and part of the glory disappeared when the scary, rickety roller coaster, the Big Dipper, was torn down in the late 1950's, for what is an amusement park without a roller coaster? After a show or on a weekend, we'd ride the Dipper in clouds of shrieks, losing our breath on the first dizzying descent and never finding it again till the end, when it was "Let's go again!" There was the slide that took you into Topsy's Roost to dance to Ellis Kimball, the milk bottles that wouldn't fall over even when you hit them, Skee Ball (delightful game) and the prizes you gave your girl in return for her admiring gaze...

Goodbye to all that, to part of our youth, and like that youth, we expected Playland to last forever. It is an odd, sad feeling to have outlived it.

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