By Ken Kaffke
Sal was the laughing lunatic who greeted visitors to SanFrancisco's Crazy House, later called the Fun House. By her side stood a bug-eyed, bulbous-headed imp. On the off-limits carousel over the top of Sal's parlor, a gaggle of walking Charlie figures whirled in and out. Flesh and blood patrons entered by first passing through the mirror maze, next by squeezing through the spin-dryers and finally by stumbling across the slinky, kinky catwalk. Boardwalks offered up plenty of real shocks in the old days, as seen in vintage Coney Island film footage. Women were typical targets of treachery (read: lechery!) from well aimed air blasts capable of lifting layers upon layers of ankle-length fabrics! For the gents there were electric cattle prods, always good for a hee-haw, back then that is! Out on the main floor the popular fun-wheel easily whisked away anyone sitting off-center. On a busy day, the ongoing chaos resembled the surreal Van Buren cartoons of the '30s. While most of these goofy gimmicks were hardly unique to Playland's Fun House, we had the world's longest indoor slide. High above the moving sidewalks and staggering staircases loomed 200 slippery feet of polished hardwood. The slide was potentially dangerous, without any straps or brakes. Sitting on a burlap sack protected the skin from scrapes but, by reducing friction, the sacks also increased the speed. One time the burlap flew out from under me and I burned holes through the knees of a new pair of pants. Maybe sliding down on all fours wasn't such a smart idea! Of course skidding to the bottom was a breeze compared to the test of endurance required to scale the steep steps. Then at last, ready to brave white hot friction, yell a crazed challenge: "Made it, Ma! Top of the World!" The slide was offered for sale intact in 1972, but there were no takers. Escalating insurance rates closed down many old fashioned fun houses. Much of the park's fixtures were sold at auction through Butterfield, and many lesser items were simply savaged from the ruins. Sadly, it was a time when most people weren't too concerned about the irreplaceable antiquity that was forever lost. Thrill rides elsewhere on the four square blocks worth my two bits included the "Diving Bell" which was kind of like hopping onto a plumber's helper and plunging real frantically into its murky waters filled with questionable fish. My favorite was the "Rock-O-Plane", the see-saw rocket that looped and twirled. The "Dodgem" bumper cars were bigger and faster than most with the familiar smell of electric sparks. I rode the 1963 "Captain Satellite" space ride once. He was the popular local KTVU cartoon host and was personally at the helm. A few months later it collapsed but no one was hurt. The '60s coaster called "Alpine Racer" had some truly scary hair-pin turns on the flat top, so violent that it really felt like the car was gonna' go over the edge. I love upside down and free-fall gravity rides of the latest kind but "Alpine Racer" was like a death ride. I sensed real danger and only braved it once. "Kooky Kube" was a miniature crazy house of sorts, with optical illusions and off-beat angles. I didn't like it much but later I heard that Pot-heads liked to light up in there. It was probably empty most of the time. The "Octopus" was cool at night with all its colored lights spinning around and the "Tilt-a-Whirl" at least gave you a little bit of control. One time I got thrown off for messin' around on it before the rides opened. Playland's Carousel is legendary and has been miraculously kept intact. It now operates at Yerba Buena Park Children's Center in South of Market in San Francisco. Funtier Land was in the back of Playland. My lil' girlfriend and I kissed on the "Model T" cars. Thrills of a very different kind lurked within Playland's dark rides. The city of San Francisco has alway harbored the off-beat, from all the way back in its Barbary Coast/Gold Rush hey days to the beatnik and prankster eras. The California Midwinter Fair of 1894 in San Francisco notably included a "Dante's Inferno" attraction, whose dragon "Jaws of Death" entrance easily swallowed the tallest of visitors along with their bowlers. The Barbary Coast era offered the horrors of Dr. Jordan's Museum, where one jar contained the pickled head of the notorious California bandit Joaquin Murieta, and another preserved the hand of his accomplice, Three Fingered Jack. Only a few blocks away down old Market Street, the Eden Musee housed realistic wax figures of Marie Antoinette at the guillotine and Indians busily removing the scalps of white men. Although the '06 fire razed both landmarks and all their treasures, many natives still recall the freakish exhibits found in the bowels of the Sutro Museum, which at one time stood in the ruins next to Cliff House. A curse is said to prevent any rebuilding on that magical spot.
Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here!
Haunted by Victorian-Era Dread of the inner animal in nature and unlocked id monsters, Playland's "Limbo" and "Dark Mystery" rides played host to half-human simians smeared with the blood of painted ladies. A whole lot of snakes in black light were all over the interior exhibits as well. Playland's "Limbo" was rivaled in gothic weirdness only by Playland's older, more exotic "Dark Mystery". Playland's first spook ride, "Laff In The Dark", was vast in size judging by a detailed 1945 map which shows the inside path of the cars. You can see a glimpse of the facade when it appears briefly in the background at the end of Orson Welles' "Lady From Shanghai". Other amusement parks ( such as Kennywood in PA) had "Laff In The Darks" during the 1940's. In the '50s, Playland opened "Limbo" and topped them all with a bizarre display front. In glass display cases there were realistic lizards, skeleton hands reaching out of graves, a gorilla, a Tor Johnson of the Opera-style ghoul, and various other assemblages. On the ground level nearby was a large skull. The sinister guardian of "Limbo" (seen in the Twilight Zone "Perchance To Dream" episode, and also in the b-movie "Hands Of A Stranger") was a nameless vampire witch. She was bigger than Laughin' Sal. Her arms swayed up and down from left to right in a perpetual semi-circle motion. Long metallic drops of blood were loosely hinged to the sharpened tips of her middle finger and thumbs so they'd always hang straight down. Several unsightly drool strands of type "O" hung from her fangs. Her cowl was a dull crimson, her big beady eyes were a yellow green. Decapitated and bleeding dolls' heads were lined up easily within her reach. To her left, a stern epitaph was carved on a tombstone: "He Stood Up. April 13, 1957. Rest In Pieces". Two swinging slabs decorated with orange flames were rudely slammed into by the inbound cars...no time for anyone to heed the warning posted above the doors: "Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here!". Screams were blasted at and usually echoed by the riders..."Yaah-Aieee!". Plunged into pitch black darkness, eyes strained to see the slightest shard of light. A few more agonizing seconds of silence and then the cars jolted forward towards a vanishing point of stars and deep space...a point perspective pulling you towards a horizon without end. Suddenly, a sharp turn into a lunar cave (ALA the desolate cave of 1st season Twilight Zone titles) reveals a chest filled with glowing red spiders. Aliens gloat over chained up skeletons. Inside of wire cages, women are pawed by half-human fiends. Scenes such as these were rendered in the lurid horror fantasy pulp magazine covers of the '30s and '40s. Anyone wishing to reconstruct "Limbo" would do well to look up the shudder pulps. When you finally bumped through the exit doors, a part of you was still back inside there FOREVER!
Article ©2000 Ken Kaffke And Used With Permission.
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