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Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Old Memory - Laffing Sal

When I was a kid, growing up on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, there was a place that I longed to see. It was an amusement park over on the Pacific side of San Francisco, called Playland at the Beach. It was near the Cliff House; in fact, the owner/developer of Playland also owned the Cliff House. This was a classic Depression-era amusement park. By the time I got to prime Playland age, the facility had begun to decay. This made it creepier and more alluring to me. And the creepiest thing about Playland was Laffing Sal, pictured above.

I have learned that there were many Laffing Sals at many amusement parks across the nation. I think there still may be some in operation. Sal was a terrifying thing - 7 feet tall, ugly, and mechanical. At Playland, Sal was positioned on the second floor of the Fun House, on a balcony. She bowed at the waist, waved her arms and twisted about while a manical female laugh was blasted continuously from nearby loudspeakers at very high volume. Sal was the first of the animatronic figures - Disneyland/Disneyworld owes a lot to this old hag.

I was about 10, I think, and I really wanted to go to Playland. I don't think I had ever visited the place. I was pestering my dad to take me, and he wanted no part of it - a long drive, crowds and expenses did not fit my father's idea of a good time. My mom overheard our interaction and weighed in forcefully. "You never take your son anywhere! It isn't like he asks for much. Why can't you do something nice for him once in a while?" I was horrified and delighted with my mom's intervention - horrified to hear the argument, delighted that I was going to get my way. My dad was shamed into taking me to Playland at the Beach.

It was surreal.

We drove in silence, parked and caught a trolley over to the park. I walked through the place, rode the roller coaster, stared at scary Laffing Sal, went into the Funhouse and tried to knock down the milk bottles with baseballs at the arcade. My dad followed along behind, picking up the tabs, looking grim. It was not a Hallmark father-and-son experience.

I think I enjoyed myself somewhat, but I never went back to Playland after that. The appeal of amusement parks ended for me on that day.

Playland at the Beach was demolished in early September, 1972 - about the time that I started attending UC Berkeley. I think they built condos on the site. Laffing Sal is in an obscure museum (Musee Mecanique) at Fisherman's Wharf. My father has been dead for 19 years now. I should erase this old memory; it serves no useful purpose. But it keeps popping up, often when I am surprised by loud, raucous, female laughter........

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