Last week I got a sneak peek of the new Playland at the Conservatory of Flowers exhibition, their fourth annual garden railway show that runs until April 15, 2012.
Lau Hodges and her Conservatory team has outdone themselves this year with not only an interesting natural exhibition, but also one that is rich with history, icons and entertainment from the era of San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach, an amusement park that sat along the Great Highway below the Cliff House from 1921 until 1972.
Dominating the room are larger-than-life Playland letters that hang over the railway section – a genuine sign from the original Playland that was hanging in the hallway of the Conservatory’s marketing consultant; she picked it up at a Bay Area antique store years ago.
The garden railway winds its way through the landmarks of Playland, as well as the Cliff House, Sutro Baths and the Golden Gate Bridge. As with past years, the items in the exhibition are created in miniature from recycled and repurposed materials by San Francisco artist James Sellier.
The Playland carousel spins on an old 33rpm record player, the cages of Playland’s Rock-O-Plane ferris wheel are made from old pencil sharpeners, and the Cliff House turrets are accented with material from an old Louis Vuitton purse. The Dutch windmill from last year’s exhibit is back with rulers for blades, as are the Golden Gate Park bison which are covered with actual fur from the paddock.
The exhibition team did a great job of blowing out the Playland theme. In addition to recreating the infamous Playland landmarks like the Fun House, The Big Dipper Rollercoaster and The Diving Bell, they have also filled the show with interactive toys and games that recall a bygone era. Grab some giggles in front of the fun-house mirrors, test your skills shooting Indians in the politically incorrect “Texas Ranger Gatling Gun” game, or stop by to consult Zoltar for your fortune.
Another Playland relic that was resurrected for the exhibition is a 1930’s dodger bumper car that was being used as a rusty planter in a Sunset District backyard. The Conservatory staff tracked it down, unearthed the large tree that had taken root in it, and restored it to its former glory. While you’re there, be sure to sit in the car and hit the accelerator for a special surprise.
Also back this year are the talents of sound designer and SF native Andrew Roth of Earwax Productions, who helps bring the Playland exhibit and railway to life with nostalgic sounds. Press the button to hear Playland’s Laffing Sal, or listen for the sounds of the B Geary streetcar, which used to carry passengers to Ocean Beach to visit Playland, the Cliff House and Sutro Baths. Pay closer attention and you’ll hear the sounds of carnival barkers, beckoning you inside to see their sideshows.
Roth went to great lengths to capture the sounds of the original Playland band organs, traveling to Nevada to record the sounds of one, and to Santa Cruz for another. While in Santa Cruz, Roth recorded the sound of the Conservatory staff screaming on the boardwalk’s coaster, which he incorporated into the show for The Big Dipper Rollercoaster sound effects.
The show also features two toothpick constructions that used to be on display at the Musee Mecanique of Sutro Baths. Created by San Quentin inmate Jack Harrington in the 1930’s, the cases feature a dine and dance scene and a Funhouse which both move when a coin is inserted.
The Conservatory also acquired a new vending machine for the exhibition – a penny squisher where you can insert two quarters and a penny, and have one of four Conservatory designs stamped to turn your penny into a souvenir. Or stop in the 1960’s Carnival photo booth and pose with friends or family to take home a fun memory from the visit.
The exhibition also has some nice memorabilia on display including originals signs and woolen bathing suits from Sutro Baths. You’ll also find the 2010 documentary “Remembering Playland at the Beach” playing in a corner (or better yet, go see it AND the new Sutro Baths documentary in a double feature this week at the Balboa).
The Playland at the Conservatory garden railway exhibition is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10am until 4pm, and is included with the price of admission to the Conservatory of Flowers. The show runs through April 15, 2012.
Don’t miss this one – it’s a great romp through a fun part of the Richmond District’s past!