Playland-Not-at-the-Beach, 10979 San Pablo Avenue, El Cerrito, CA 94530

Report by Jon Olkowski
Date: October 2009

Playland-Not-at-the-Beach is a special place  

It's not your ordinary pinball venue.  It was conceived by Richard Tuck as a way to preserve the rich history of the Playland at the Beach Amusement Park in San Francisco. Yet Richard doesn't want visitors to simply get a glimpse of that history, he wants them to experience it first-hand. And to that end, he and his team of wholly volunteer staff have created an entertainment and historical venue that is simply like no other.

On my first visit to Playland I pulled into the parking lot with few expectations. The outside of the building is typical of the area, which is comprised of strip malls and fast food joints. I was just looking for a new place to play some pinball. I stopped off at the hot dog place next door for a quick lunch. I had no idea what was inside the unassuming building.

The experience starts with a small movie theater describing the original Playland at the Beach located next to Ocean Beach.  Originally known as "Chutes at the Beach" as early as 1921, in 1926, the operation was run by George Whitney and it became Playland at the Beach. An interesting fact about Playland and George Whitney: If you ever enjoyed an "Its-It" ice cream sandwich, Playland was where it originated. It wasn't until after Playland closed, over forty years later, that it entered the broader market and could be found at every corner store.  Playland closed its doors in 1972.

Beachside Amusement parks were common in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years.  Now only the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk remains.  Above: The original Playland at Ocean Beach just west of San Francisco.

While watching the film about Playland's origins, I couldn't help but be distracted by the door visible to my left, and a gnawing curiosity. Just like the fun house at the local fair, it entices with the promise of intrigue and surprise.

When I stepped through it for the first time, it was like walking into another world. Immediately you're in the midst of a carnival sideshow of freaks and oddities, sights and sounds: Fiji Mermaids, glass jars with medical specimens and people born with the odd extra leg or two - all the attractions that a barker would entice the casual carnival-goer into spending his errant dime in the days of yesterday to get a glimpse. Oddities that, both before and since the Internet, still stir the imagination. The level of detail and thought put into the exhibits is incredible, and the mix of historical display with historical context is impeccable.

All is not quite right with these girls

The halls of Playland-Not-at-the-Beach contain a seemingly limitless
collection of historic documents and photos

Turn another corner and you're confronted with a collection of miniature dioramas of circus scenes: circus tents being erected by crews of struggling men, jugglers practicing before their shows, trapeze artists running through their routine outside the Big Tent and cooks working huge spits to feed the hungry crews. The display is so profound, intricate and personal that it tells a story all its own, and its depth and breadth convey an attention to detail and perfection which is so often absent in our modern culture.

The above collection was built by a father for his son in order to pass the time while they were quarantined in their home during a polio epidemic in San Francisco

Turn another corner and you're in a winter wonderland of miniature December bliss that brings forth memories of Macy's storefront animatronic displays and the movie A Christmas Story: a Santa Clause workshop, children sledding, elves working at their toys, lights twinkle, snow glistens. All the frenetic child excitement of Christmas Eve.

Turn yet another corner and it's suddenly Halloween, with dark yet inviting macabre miniatures reminiscent of Disney's Haunted Mansion. Ghosts haunt behind tombstones, children trick-or-treat, jack-o-lanterns glow.

Turn around yet again and there's an assortment of carnival skills games that brought back the Circus Circus and County Fair days of my youth. Volunteers award tickets to winners, which can be traded in for prizes later.

Overwhelming? You bet. One can't experience Playland-Not-at-the-Beach without being awed.

PNATB has a great selection of skill games such as Skee-ball and Dip-Bowl.  Tickets, redeemable for prizes, are awarded and all are free to play.  Doesn’t get much better than that.

In the Penny Arcade you can see everything from stills of the
1906 San Francisco earthquake to the exotic and risqué feather dance

Oh, and somewhere in this frenetic wonderland of lights and sounds there's also pinball. You might be thinking I forgot about that. No, Playland-not-at-the-Beach has pinball. And it's no mere afterthought, mind you. Playland has some of the best pinball to be found anywhere.

There are four rooms jammed full of pins. There's the "Laff in the Dark" room which features a 3-D floor and walls, and black lights, complete with 3-D glasses for a mesmerizing effect. It houses a Monster Bash, Elvira, Scared Stiff, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Haunted House.

The 3-D floor and walls make this one of the more immersive pinball experiences

There's the "Coney Island Pinball Museum" featuring historical electro-mechanicals, woodrails and bagatelles that go back to the 1950s, complemented by a Pinball Magic and Funhouse.  Everything from obscure games like Barnacle Bill, Sitting Pretty, Big Top, Flying Circus and Roller Coaster to more well known titles such as World Fair, Gigi, Big Game, Flight 2000, and Hokus Pokus.

The Coney Island Room has games from every era of pinball

Historic backglasses, signs and posters fill out the décor of the pinball rooms. 
Above: A WWII-era backglass from 1943.

In the "Fascination Parlor" nestled in amongst games donated from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk are Heat Wave, Cinderella (a 1946 woodrail with 6 backwards flippers) and Circus Chimera (a modified customized Bally Hoo from 1979).

Then there's "Pinball Alley", which houses mostly moderns, including a Whitewater, Pin2000-SWE1, Cirqus Voltaire, Split Second, Bride of Pinbot, Circus, Earthshaker, Lord of the Rings and Rollercoaster Tycoon. On the walls above the machines are lit backglasses from other classic games. Skillfully using large mirrors and black walls, the room and pins seem to go on forever.  All told there are currently 33 pinball machines, but the number seems to be growing.

Mostly modern pins occupy Pinball Alley

You might think with so many pins that maintenance would be a challenge, and it is. Yet Richard Tuck keeps all his pins in stellar playing condition with the aid of his dedicated pinball volunteer technicians, who check and repair them on a regular basis, and they always welcomes feedback from players to ensure everything is running in top shape. Every pin at Playland has good rubbers and mechanics, and "just plays right".

In order to encourage new players to learn about the joys of pinball, Playland has recently instituted a history program where guests are encouraged to play all the games in chronological order in order to appreciate the many innovations over the 7 decades spanned by the many games in this collection. Players are awarded tickets for each game played - tickets that can then be turned in for teddy bears and other prizes. It's a clever way to attract new generations of pinball devotees.

Beyond pinball, Playland holds regular magic shows and treasure hunts, and welcomes private parties, even providing a kitchen and eating area for hosting them and restrooms that are impeccably maintained. It's a particularly great venue for children of all ages.

Magic shows are part of the pay-one-price experience of PNATB.
They also host seasonal events and special interest events, such as pinball clinics.

In summary, Playland-Not-at-the-Beach is a sort of brilliance. It's the best of the old combined with a wise and worthy acceptance of the new.  There is only one goal at Playland: that all who visit should simply have fun and leave with a great feeling. And to that end, it achieves its goal in spades.

Playland-Not-at-the-Beach is open Saturdays and Sunday plus other days by special arrangement or for certain celebrations. Entry costs $15 per adult for all day access. Youths and seniors are $10 for the day and discounts are available for multi-day purchases.

For more information:

Richard Tuck, PNATB’s Master of Fun, is always happy to answer any questions you may have.




Back to the sites page

Back to the front page

© Pinball News 2009