Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Laughing Sal

I saw Laughing Sal today.

She was standing inside the Musée Mechanique below the Cliff House in San Francisco, smiling her toothy grin, bobbing up and down and laughing that bizarre laugh.

She used to terrify me.

When I first met Laughing Sal, I was a little girl. My parents would take my sister and myself out to Playland at the Beach. This was a stretch of several long blocks, which ran parallel to the ocean beach and where there were lots of rides--gentle ones like the merry-go-round and more thrilling ones for the more adventurous--a flume ride, a small roller coaster, a Tilt-o-Whirl. Pretty tame stuff by today’s standards.

You could buy cotton candy or hot dogs, or the Beach’s own special creation, "It’s It," an ice cream sandwich made with oatmeal cookies. Now you can buy them at the local supermarket, but, of course, they don’t taste the same as they did standing there with the wind in your face, the sound of the waves breaking on the sand, and the distant laugh of Laughing Sal.

Laughing Sal stood in the window of the Fun House. Laughing and bobbing up and down, her red curls bouncing as she bobbed. She probably came from some English carnival--she has the look of someone you might see in an English music hall. When I was a little kid she petrified me and I was afraid to walk past the Fun House -- I never looked at her because that was entirely too scary.

As I got older, I was less fearful of Sal, though she did make me uncomfortable, but I did go into the Fun House. It was a two story building and you entered through revolving barrels which were elevated to about butt-height. The thing about the barrels was that as you walked through them, there were holes in the floor where air would shoot up. Some guy up in a control booth would watch the young girls come in and when a skirt was positioned over one of the air holes, he would shoot off a blast of air and the skirt would go flying. We learned quickly to wear pants to the Fun House.

Other things you would find in the Fun House were the hall of mirrors that distorted your figure, a huge turntable where all the kids would pile one and try to be the last one left, when the centrifugal force of the spinning wheel shot all your friends off to the side. There was the barrel you had to walk through, hopefully remaining standing as the barrel rolled around. Some of us cheated and just crawled through. And there was a marvelous 2-story wooden slide, highly polished. You grabbed a potato sack at the bottom of the stairs, climbed to the top, decided if you wanted the straight slide or the slide with the bumps in it, sat on the potato sack, and took off down to the bottom--and then ran around to do it again.

When we finished playing at Playland, we could always climb up the hill to Sutro Baths. Years and years ago, when my father was a child, Sutro Baths was a huge building where there were huge pools, with lots of diving boards. He spent a lot of time there and told me tales.

In my day, they had closed off all but one pool, which had been frozen and turned into an ice rink. I took ice skating lessons and Sutro was where we always went to practice. I was no Dorothy Hamill -- I never even learned how to skate backwards. But I sure had a lot of fun trying.

There were other attractions at the Sutro Baths--from the street level, you descended this huge wide sweeping staircase flanked by enormous palm plants, their fronds leaning gracefully over the stairs. You imagined a king and queen and their retinue making a grand entrance down those stairs.

Once you got to the first floor (the ice rink was two floors below), there was an exhibit of old cars and then the fun part--there were old machines from the turn of the century--for a penny or a dime you could watch movies of the San Francisco Earthquake, or some woman coyly removing her clothes, you could see a diarama come to life, with intricate little figures that moved. You could have your palm read electronically by a machine that stuck flat nail-like projections into your hand and then "printed" you a horoscope. You could look at the model of an amusement park that was said to have been built by was all made of toothpicks. There were gramophones to play, and player pianos and somewhere in all that was a display of things that belonged to Tom Thumb, the "little person" who, with his little person wife was a star attraction for P.T. Barnum for many years.

Sutro baths burned to the ground many years ago. Where it once stood, there is now a deep pit with concrete foundations. You can climb down and try to imagine what this immense pleasure palace had been like in its day.

Many of the old machines were rescued and moved into the Musée Mechanique. You now pay 25 cents, instead of a penny or a dime, to play the machines--and at the back of the museum there are modern day video games, their noise drowning out the sound of "Only a Shanty in Old Shanty Town" playing on the player piano.

But in the entrance of the Musee Mechanique stands Laughing Sal. We shared a smile and remembered the good old days when Playland at the Beach was "the" place to go on a Saturday afternoon.

I put 50 cents in her slot and Sal started giggling. Her curls bounced and she leaned down toward me.

And I wasn’t scared at all.

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