Sunday, June 28, 2015

Out of the Past: A Midway of Boyhood Ghosts ...

Carnies enjoy early morning coffee and donuts.

A peek at my favorite ride, The Whip. Watching it being laid out and assembled was a production. I loved the harsh heavy industrial music of its moving parts, the sudden jerking thrust of the cars rumbling around corners.

The old Ferris wheel turned with an almost graceful lilt.

My favorite attraction was the quaint Thimble Theatre fun house. The spooky dark walk-through labyrinth on the top floor. The grinding shuffle boards below. The air blast under skirts, and the collapsing floor section just before exit.

The classic Tilt-A-Whirl, about as perfectly designed a thrill ride as ever hit the midway, justly survives into the modern era. Its genius to me is shared by very few rides -- it delivers unpredictable action.

Instant fan: Thunderbolt of surprise for my friend Boyi, who knew virtually nothing of my model building and had never seen this when he's visited me, because the rides have been packed away for over three years. After work last Sunday he dropped by, having only been told "I think you will be surprised." I turned a switch and Century of Thrills came to life, five rides simultaneously. Boyi was ecstatic. "A triple triple plus!!!!!" he exclaimed, overcome with my scratch-built quarter-inch spectacle. What a pleasure when somebody so joyfully overwhelmed appreciates what you've achieved. And what a bummer: I had his immediate reaction on a video, I thought. But I hadn't clicked my camera onto the film icon!

Four rides -- The Whip, Tilt-A-Whirl, Ferris Wheel and Swings operate perfectly. 100% More than I could ever say for my Big Dipper roller coaster, a grand champ of derailments. Once upon a time, it might circle the track nine out of ten times. Not lately. I've accepted its chronic imperfections, but still soldier on, fixing this over here only to be vexed by that over there. BTW: Among others, Paul Horseman was of immense help to me on the Whip and the Wheel when I built the park (1990-2003). I'd like to add a boat ride, if I could bring off a little big splash when it hits the water. And figure out a way to get the tubs back around and connected to the lift chain.

I'm keeping Century of Thrills open up until my niece Lisa and her little boy Noah visit in August. Then down it goes so that I can lay out the roller coaster, section by section, and embark yet on a new set of prospective solutions to make the track and the train that travels it more compatible partners. Finally, I've accepted the coaster as being a permanent "work in progress." The impossible dream lives on ...

Originally posted on July 21, 2010 

Below: My New Laff in the Dark, completed in May, 2015

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Growing up in the Shadows of Playland at the Beach: The Ocean Roared ... The Big Dipper Clattered ... And Through the Fog We Romped

I was raised across the street from the Big Dipper.  So many photos and videos about Playland have surfaced in recent years.  And what wonderful memories they stir!

Proudly he stands, top of the photo, my Uncle Smity (William Smit), directly above park owner George K. Whintey, with Whitney's son, George, Jr. to Uncle Smitty's left.  This revelatory photo, new to my eyes, appeared in a great new book by James. R. Smith about the history of the park, Playland at the Beach: The Early Years (and a second volume, The Golden Years).  And it shows me how important a figure was my uncle to the Whitney brothers, who owned  and operated Playland as one of the classiest amusement parks in the nation.  

Up goes the Big Dipper, 1922.  It only took them a few weeks.  Uncle Smitty, who at the time was managing the Merry-Go-Round, took on management of the Big Dipper as well, a position he held for the ride's entire career.  It came down in 1956. 

A great coaster it was.  It's most thrilling drop was the second one, seen below, which traversed the entire length of the ride.  I took this shot when Uncle Smitty invited me, one day before the ride opened,  to go inside and walk around.

This horrendous second dive gave you a feeling that you were crashing down into and through a forest of white lumber!  Nothing in any other coaster I have sampled could quite compare.  

Dangerous Walk:  My Uncle Jack, one day while working on the track before the Big Dipper was  about to open, did not hear the first train coming down the first dip, and was struck by the first car, resulting in his left leg having to be amputated.   Uncle Smitty once told me that, during the lifetime of the Dipper, some ten or eleven people were killed (or injured), if I heard him right.  Almost always from some reckless punk standing up in a car to show off.

1949: Playland thrived weekends and holidays, the park and beach drawing up to 50,000 people a day.  Its best years were the war years.  Sometimes the sun actually came out!  To the far left, above, you can see Skateland-at-the-Beach.  A great roller rink.  After heating up our bodies rolling round and round for a couple of hours, we exulted, upon exit, in the fresh salt air!  Walked down the street to the pie shop for a sit down, to eat and gossip and laugh.

You can see the Dutch Windmill in the distance, beyond the Big Dipper.  And beyond the Dutch, there's the Murphy.

It's all gone today, replaced by architecturally sterile condos and a large Safeway. How insultingly drab for a world class city of rare charms.

On many days, the chronically pervasive fog made Playland a grey land

A fun house like NONE OTHER:  Was there ever one to match Playland's?  You think that's the slide?  No, that's the little slide.  Look below.  We ran up over rambling boards to reach the top of the Great Slide, hustled our bodies onto gunny sacks and careened down like giddy birds in low flight.  I've been to Coney, and to the others.  I've looked at photos and You Tubes,  and have never found a fun house so generously endowed with so many amusing things to do. 

When it opened, the failed to slide right.  Too George Whitney went my Uncle Smitty, thinking he could fix the problem.  Please, go ahead, said George.  In short order, the slides worked.

The Laff in the Dark did not circle around inside a single dark room or expanded carny truck, but followed a long snake-like tunnel, so that you had a true feeling of actually moving through a spooky tunnel.  My father, an electrician, installed many of the scare devices -- skeletons that popped out,  the sound of crashing dishes as the car pushed through a door.

Playland offered many standard rides, like the old Tumble Bug, the classic Tilt-A-Whirl and the Octopus, the Roll-O-Plane and the Caterpillar.  

Such a dreary midway it was under the ocean fog.  But that did not stop us from going.  Open every day, noon to midnight, they advertised. On cold damp nights, the crowd(s) retreated, I assume, under cover at the games, and inside the fun house, where you could stay as long as you wished.  We ran up wobbly stairs, gazed at our distorted figures in crazy mirrors, rode rocking horses and dared walking through the barrel of fun.

If you are interested in the history of Playland, I can't recommended Mr. Smith's books enough. I once harbored half a desire to write a history myself;  I could never have brought off what Smith has so magnificently achieved -- his two books are deliciously rich and thorough in photos, coverage, design drawings and more.

Many in my father' side of the family worked at Playland.  The woman, below, in the overcoat is my Aunt Olga, who married Uncle Smitty. For a time, the two lived over the Merry-Go-Round.  They ended up owning their own home only two blocks away.

And here, below, is another photo of Uncle Smitty, during Playland's declining years.  Such a true gentleman whenever I paid him and Aunt Olga a visit.  Best of all, just as I was about to leave, he would always rise from his chair, walk over to a closet in the hall, reach up and take down a strip of free tickets to all the rides!   Among his many talents, he kept the mechanical organs and instruments on the Merry-Go-Round tuned up and going.  From Holland, he was a quiet-spoken and even tempered man, far closer to an engineer than to a midway barker. 

Many great cities have retained their amusement parks.  Sadly, not San Francisco.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Golf Course From Hell Vexes the Best: When Tiger Smiled, I felt a Rejuvenation of the Human Spirit

Updates, 6/20/15:  Tiger failed the cut, coming in around rock bottom. Golfers are starting to complain about the treacherous greens.  Call this "course" Death Chambers Bay. What next, USGA: Three Mile Island?

Watching the golfers right now on Fox ...

He is so far away from where he should be. So far away from his prime.

And it is sad watching him in the weeds of the U.S. Open (the whole course looks weedy), struggling to hold his composure.  To go on.  And maybe find a road back.

And I struggle too.  Sure, he is a cold player, and he's done many things unflattering. That was then, which seems to be discretely vanishing into a mist of  hallowed history.

Watching him, now, struggling to find a way back forms the portrait of a fallen star, grappling for a genius missing in action, a talent once so effortless, now so tragically elusive.  Most humbling of all, the golfer he once was -- and likely will never be again.
Most heartening is the cheering good will of the crowd.   Compassionate fans in need.  Yes to their participation.  I've heard he's been booed at certain recent contests, which strikes me as callously malicious.  Not here. 

Whatever you think of Tiger's reckless days of yore, of his cunning, machine-like drive, for me, that he is still out there trying is what I respect.

For you of the circus, it would be like watching the Great Sebastian, returning to the trapeze and giving every fiber of his being, every careful breath of air, just to bring off a single somersault through mid-air.

He made one great stroke.  The crowd cheered wildly. Tiger smiled, gratefully.

To see him smile that way -- I saw a flickering glow of hope seeping through a  darkening face of torn bark, shadowed in anguish -- the picture of searing humility heroically faced.

Half hour later.  It is getting almost unbearable to watch. Tiger Tiger, burning out? .... A Greek Tragedy on this ugly duckling of a golf course.  I've gone back to watching Larry King talk to Ralph Nader.

 End of the day, a smile just to be alive, to be still playing the game?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

More Pin Pricks in Space: A Sci-Fi Thriller that Fails Its Tragic Potential

Last night, while riveted to a film of mounting suspense, Europa Report, I had not felt this enthralled with science fiction in space since, as a kid, watching Destination Moon.  And I started imagining a great tragic story of human folly in the making: Space ship destined for Jupiter's moon ends up stranded in a hostile environment while coming upon evidence that there is, indeed, life out there — at least a blobby form of it lurking under ice.  And the entire crew, consumed by alien forces or its own misadventures, never returns.

The only evidence of the doomed mission would be visuals transmitted back to earth of a creepy creature bearing light bulb eyes and the physique of an octopus.

That would have been a powerful end.  But, no, it had to be another example of American — or should I merely say scientific? —  triumphalism. Look, see!  There are signs of life!  Frozen water!  We must keep probing!   Surely, we will ultimately find half-way hospitable landscapes to develop!  Ice Condos!  Even living things amenable to cross-planetary communication!  So, bring back NASA! 

Yes, bring back NASA and make a few more futile pin pricks in space. And bankrupt what's left of the U.S. economy.

Here on earth, the brainy brigades still dream of conquering a corner of the outer worlds, of laying claim to barren real estate and luring to it earthlings seeking escape from the mounting hells of war-torn Planet Earth.  And the same thing won't happen out there?

First of all, we would have to get out there. Please feel free to laugh -- or scream -- along with me as I ponder all the billions, if not trillions of dollars, it would cost to even bring off Stage One of such  a ridiculously esoteric adventure.

Pin pricks in space.

When real astronauts landed on the Moon in 1969, yes, I was as thrilled as everybody else.  But that was yesterday.   Today and tomorrow, have we not yet learned, should look much different, should they not?

All the tiny years later, I am no longer a space age dreamer.  Where will it get us?  How much will it cost?   How many infinities will it take to stake out claims, tame the land and build the protective bubbles to contain the doomed dreamers?

Pin heads in space.

Could have been a great movie.  Although, I’m not sure how it would have played on Jupiter's moon.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Joy in Oakland -- Almost! The Hoop Circus Knocks Another Win for the Hometown Boys ... I'm Feeling Giddy and Glorious

And I don't even watch the games!!! 

But sometime after they are over, I hear about it on the news.  Just now, this AM, learned about it on TV.  Three games down, one to go!

Yes, right here in my own backyard.  Exciting to anticipate positive coverage, for a change.  Don't know how it's gone, at all.  You might have been shown views of lovely Lake Merritt, around which I have walked probably hundreds of times.

If you see an old three-story Victorian, edge of the lake, with three turrets on the roof, I once lived in a third floor studio just under one, and there I wrote my first book, Behind the Big Top.

If you happen to see the old Oakland Auditorium, on the south end of the lake,  that was the best place to see, indoors, the Ringling show.  It sat around six or seven thousand at the most; perfect size; would be ever better today than watching the show in the oppressively huge and dark arena, where the NBA finals will begin.  So dark and night cluby in there, I hate the place.

Doubt I'll be watching the hoop-diving stuff. Not a fan. 

But what a high, getting the kind of coverage this town deserves -- if, in fact, that happens.

It took East Coast Eyes  -- The New York Times, a few years back, to come out here and be very impressed and call Oakland the "Brooklyn" of the Bay Area.

I'll take that.

Even over in "The City" (San Francisco), we are getting a little respect.  SF seems to live in fear of its lofty status being knocked down a peg or two.  Not likely.

Did I show a snide lack of respect up there?  Gradually, it is nesting in my noggin that these basketball players, whomever they are, are one terrific tribe.  Maybe they will decide to remain in Oaktown, as the local boys call it, rather than defect to a new arena promised them by a much  bigger city -- Yes, the one incessantly in love with itself, where to live there, you have to be either very rich or very poor -- across the bay.

I took this picture several years ago.  The one above is not mine.