This is a transcription of John Martini's interview with George K. Whitney, Jr. in 2002. The original tapes are held at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area archives. We thank the San Francisco History Association for providing funds for this transcription!
Read a summary timeline of the interview and the Whitneys' legacy with Playland, the Cliff House and Sutro Baths.
Interview with Mr. George K. Whitney, Jr.
[Interview conducted August 13 and 14, 2002, at subject's residence in Friday Harbor, Washington state, by John Martini, former curator of military history, Golden Gate National Recreation Area.]
[All nonverbal, unnecessary utterances by the interviewer, such as "mm-hm" and "uh-huh," were not included in the transcription.]
[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Martini: "Today is Tuesday, August 13th, 2002. My name's John Martini. I'm an historian and a researcher for the National Park Service. And this is an oral history tape of Mr. George K. Whitney, Jr." --
Martini: -- "Junior, George K. Whitney, Jr., being held at his residence in Friday Harbor, Washington.
"Mr. Whitney's father and uncle founded Playland at the Beach and, for many years, operated the Cliff House and Sutro Baths. And Mr. Whitney, Jr., himself managed Cliff House Properties until it was sold to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
"Mr. Whitney, we're doing this tape for the National Park Service. And you understand that this is a public document and other researchers can listen to it?"
"The first thing I'd ask you, for the record, is can you give me your full name and your date of birth?"
Whitney: "George K. Whitney, Jr.; April 21, 1922."
Martini: "And where were you born?"
Whitney: "San Francisco, California."
Martini: "Okay. Were you raised in the city?"
Whitney: "Yes, primarily in the city, although at an early age, I went to boarding schools out of San Francisco. So that the answer would be yes and no."
Martini: "Yes and no. But a native of San Francisco.
"If you could just kind of briefly give me the background of how your dad and your uncle came to be involved with Playland, initially, back in the 1920s."
Whitney: "My father had -- with my uncle and a crew of Americans from up in the Seattle area, had gone to Australia with a collection of rides and everything and opened or added to the amusement park in Melbourne, Australia, called Luna Park. And they operated there and they got into their late second year or third -- early third year when World War I started; and the Australian government closed all forms of amusements and shows, theater and entertainment. And so the partners, George and Leo, were out of business. And then it was just a case of survival; because they were Americans, and certain jobs were closed to them by the Australian government because they were aliens.
"And out of that, my uncle's interest in photography was such that they opened a quick-finish studio on Burke Street in Melbourne. And my dad concentrated on an arcade and shooting gallery. He convinced the Melbourne government that young Australian boys learning to shoot would be patriotic for the war, and they bought it. And with the combination of those activities, they survived through World War I.
"And they -- they split up. My uncle went back, I think, to art school. My dad came over, lived in Seattle for a few weeks; decided to go to San Francisco because he thought there would be a better opportunity. He came down to San Francisco, opened a shooting gallery on upper Market Street.
"Later on, my uncle joined him and they did a quick-finish studio. He had worked -- my uncle had worked with Eastman Kodak and had developed the ability to make a photo and get it dry enough that people could walk away with it in a little over a minute. And that was the first of the quick-finish photo, get your picture made while you wait."
Martini: "Now, was this different from the old-fashioned tintypes?"
Martini: "Real photos."
Whitney: "Real photos."
Whitney: "And they'd do it fast and you'd get your picture. And because it was still wet, you'd walk around with it, which was an advertisement. So my -- my father wouldn't let Leo dry the picture completely.
"But they had this down on Burke Street. Then my dad -- or on Market Street. And then my dad had the further opportunity of possibly a shooting gallery out at Chutes at the Beach, which was the amusement park that existed at the end of the Number 5, Number 7, Number B streetcars, so that they could build up traffic on the weekends."
Martini: "That was a question that I had. It's almost a chicken and the egg: Did the streetcar lines come out to the beach because of those old concessions, the Chutes, or were the Chutes built" --
Whitney: "I think in the case of San Francisco, the streetcars came out after things got going. However, most streetcar lines that terminated at amusement parks in the East came about for the streetcar trying to find something to do to get people to ride. So it's probably a combination of both attitudes, was what started that going with Playland --Chutes at the Beach."
Martini: "So when your dad and uncle got going out at Chutes at the Beach, we're talking after World War I, early 1920s?"
Martini: "What was the Chutes at the Beach amusement park like?"
Whitney: "Very primitive, but it was coming along pretty good; because it had the Big Dipper, the big roller coaster. And it had another ride -- high ride called the Bobsled, and it had the Chutes, which was the -- where the name came from -- which was the water chute. You'd take a car down into the lake and splash water all over everywhere."
Martini: "Kind of like those log rides they have now?"
"Now, those three rides existed on the property, and the merry-go-round was there. I'm not -- I'm not certain about the -- the funhouse, but I have a tendency to believe it was there, too. Probably in a much more primitive layout and with attractions and so forth that later on came. But it -- my dad started out with the one shooting gallery; eventually, worked up to where he had three. Then later became the manager when the prime lessee went, after the war, back to Germany."
Martini: "Who was the prime lessee?"
Whitney: "Fred—well, it was Fred and Bill Friedle."
Whitney: "The Friedles. And Frederick was really the one that domineered. Bill was a very mild, sweet, old German gentleman. And Frederick was a pretty strong-willed, opinionated -- just the opposite of his brother. But he had the power, ´cause he made certain that the lease was in his name first.
"But my dad -- when Fred went back to Germany, he retained my father to manage the concessions that he had, rather than his brother managing them."
Whitney: "So this set up a relationship at that time. And Frederick stayed longer in Germany than originally anticipated. And during that time, the -- the representative of the Swinerton estate, who owned the property and the -- leased the property of Playland, became very friendly with my dad and admired his drive and imagination. And by the time Frederick came back, my dad was general manager of the whole operation.
"And -- but the Friedles stayed on the property, ran the merry-go-round and the merry-go-round restaurant. And then gradually, over the years, all of the other activities, except the food, my dad and uncle took over under Whitney's -- under Whitney Brothers."
Martini: "Whitney Brothers."
Martini: "So the -- so it would be fair to say the Swinertons originally owned the land underneath, and the Friedles managed all the concessions?"
Martini: "And when your dad and uncle eventually brought it all together, they ran all the -- everything except the food concessions and merry-go-round?"
"Most of the food concessions, it just so happened, were all owned by Greeks, almost completely. And most of them, contrary to the old idea of the Greek greasy spoon, ran very good food operations and clean. They were good and they turned out good products."
Martini: "So the -- the Whitney Brothers, did they formally -- did they formally incorporate at a certain point? Or how did -- what was the operational organization?"
Whitney: "Well, there was, of course, my mother, my father, my uncle and his wife. The women were just like sisters, had been together in Australia and so forth."
Whitney: "In fact, my mother was Australian, and Dad married out there."
Martini: "So your mom's from Australia?"
Whitney: "My mother was Australian. My sister was born there before I came along, but I was born in San Francisco when my father and mother came back to the states."
Martini: "And they used to take you down, used to play around the" --
Whitney: "Well, for" --
Martini: -- "Playland?"
Whitney: -- "quite a few years, my mother and aunt had the Orange Mill"--
Whitney: -- "which was on the front side where the parking was and so forth.
"And it was a fresh-squeezed orange -- orange juice, and there was a big model of a half orange on the back wall with a track that came out of the top and circled around the onion -- the orange and disappeared into a hole and then went on a mechanical lift back up to the top and rolled around again."
Martini: "These oranges were like running around on tracks?"
Whitney: "Yeah, down a -- just a wire retaining track rather than on any kind of a vehicle. And they -- the two women had that; that was -- as we always used to joke, that was to keep the women out of the men's hair.
"But -- and I was about four or five, and I would be free to roam -- to be on the block in front of the Orange Mill and the other activities. I could go from one corner to the other corner. And so it was sort of a nursery for me, had the full run. And, of course, being the 'bosses' -- in quotes -- kid, I got a lot of attention from a lot of the tenants, especially the restaurants, and got fed a lot of extra food."
Martini: "Now, when did they start calling it Whitneys Playland at the Beach? Was there a clean break from the shooting" --
Whitney: "No. The Whitneys Playland, I don't think ever became an official name. It sort of -- the 'World-Famous Cliff House' rather than just Cliff House. I -- there'd be --because Playland was becoming a very popular name in the amusement business. Playland Rye, New York; Playland, Seattle; Playland, Vancouver. It was the most popular name and was available at the time that my dad and uncle thought of using it. So Whitney Brothers became Playland at the Beach just as an advertising name."
Martini: "Okay. How did you folks refer to it in legal terms? Was it referred to as" --
Whitney: "It would have been Whitney Brothers, because it would have been the original partnership."
Whitney: "And then it went through the changes, from tax standpoints, of my father giving part of the business to my mother and my uncle giving part of his interest to his wife; and then the consolidations of the later time and so forth.
"And, of course, eventually, my father bought my uncle out, so -- and his wife had already died. So it had come back to him and his daughter. And when my dad bought them out, then it incorporated and it became Whitneys at the Beach. And, of course, it remained that until the end.
"But the ownership made a few flip-flops, because after -- after my father's death, why, then it was just my mother and my sister and I. Then we had our split-ups and so forth.
"And then -- I wish I could remember his name, but I'll remind you on here -- Bob" —[ed: Bob Frazier]
Whitney: -- "who did the Comstock, bought my mother's interest; and, all of a sudden, my sister and I have a partner.
"And the same thing happens at a later time up at the Cliff House. And out of the trades all back and forth to get, first, Bob out of the Cliff House property, that was -- had already been commercially developed, we traded his interest for raw land behind."
Martini: "Raw land?"
Whitney: "Raw. Basically, the original Sutro Baths tank area and the -- and the rear of it and -- and -- oh, I forgot my train of thought for a moment."
Martini: "Well, we were kind of going over the origin of where the Whitney Brothers, how that evolved."
Martini: "And you did mention a couple things. I just kind of wanted to get some dates" --
Martini: -- "for the tape.
"Your -- when did your dad, George Whitney, Sr., when did he buy out Leo, about when? You don't have to be exact."
Whitney: "Can you switch that off for a minute?"
[Pause in proceedings.]
Martini: "Mr. Whitney just handed me a whole packet of information; basically, a time table of the names, the changes, the dates and the titles and ownership transfers. This is incredible. Limited partnership deeds -- yes.
"Could I take this and copy it and bring it back to you?"
Whitney: "Yeah, sure."
Whitney: "There might be a second copy there, with loose pages and a stapled page. Is there a group stapled together?"
Martini: "I'm looking right now. It looks like an eight-page document. No, they're separate documents. That's okay. That's okay."
"So your dad bought out his brother and" --
Whitney: "Eventually, he bought out my -- my uncle was seven years older than my father. So he reached an age where he wanted to retire. So my dad bought out his interest. And in the deal, my uncle was -- got ownership of the building that became the maintenance building for all of the Playland maintenance. And then my dad rented it back from a perpetual-lease type of thing."
Martini: "Where was that building located?"
Whitney: "That was on the block immediately behind the front block, where the -- the airplanes, the office, the arcade. It's that -- you've got a photo -- big, long building with two big doors" --
Martini: "Right; yes."
Whitney: -- "with a service station in front."
Martini: "Yes. That was"--
Whitney: "Right there."
Martini: "That was where, later, Fun Tier Town was located?"
Whitney: "Fun Tier was at the other -- was down where the Laugh-in-the-Dark was" --
Martini: "Where Laugh-in-the-Dark ride."
Whitney: -- "which was further down -- well, it was the next space, all the way to the corner of Cabrillo."
Martini: "Cabrillo and -- and, okay, La Playa there.
"And your -- so Cliff House Properties, that's a name that appears a lot. When did that come in? Was that under your tenure?"
Whitney: "My dad, in partnership with my mother, bought the Cliff House, I believe, in 1937. And so there was that partnership, which was completely separate."
Whitney: "And that was just my mother and father."
Martini: "It was just your mom and your dad, separate -- okay."
Whitney: "On the Cliff House.
"On Playland, when my father acquired the property and incorporated -- at least when he incorporated—I'm not too sure if it was before or after getting the Swinerton property, which was Playland property, but it was pretty close to that time—my father incorporated the business, dividing the ownership with 30—I think it was 36/36 to my mother and father, 13-and-a-half/13-and-a-half to my sister and I. And so we became part of the corporation. And from then on, any transactions involved the sale of the stock, rather than the sale of assets."
Martini: "Okay. Okay.
"Your dad and your uncle set up some really interesting real estate transactions here."
Whitney: "Yeah. It -- well, it -- it was his brother and his partner for years. And so he wanted to guarantee him a life income."
Whitney: "And they had that kind of trust and friendship, as well as their relationship."
"Do you know how your dad got interested in the Cliff House itself?"
Whitney: "He saw a potential there very early on and made arrangements with the Sutro estate to get a key. And he used to go up and sit in the southwest corner of the Cliff House, which looked down at -- the length of Playland and down the coast, and dream of the potential of how he, if he took it, could he make money, since no one had before, which is really his great personal challenge: To do what no one else had done."
Martini: "Make money off the Cliff House?"
Whitney: "Make money off of the Cliff House, in this case; but make money off of collections that he would have bought, different things of that nature. It was part of his life drive. And he did it in many ways, making money for himself and the partnership; making money for others, where he would see something and give them advice. And if --if the -- in many cases, the advice worked out terrifically."
Martini: "So he -- he was taking an interest in an area that -- well, this is the Depression, 1937. And the Cliff House was shut down.
"Was Playland doing okay? Was it making money during the Depression?"
Whitney: "Playland, as my father always said, was 'a nickel-and-dime business,' will do well when -- when the rest of the world is doing bad; because it was a nickel-and-dime. And it was very true. We did, from a family standpoint, very well during the Depression, the years of the entire Depression."
Martini: "Without being crass, it was cheap entertainment that the unemployed could afford."
Martini: "That's great."
Whitney: "It was good entertainment and fun entertainment and clean entertainment, and it reached a lot of people and what they wanted; and it was a diversion from the hardship of the -- that a lot of 'em were experiencing, with jobs and so forth, because of the Depression."
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