George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview


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George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview

This is a timeline of the interview done by John Martini with George K. Whitney, Jr. in 2002, just a couple of months before Whitney's death. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area of the National Park Service (NPS) has the tapes, which are available to researchers and the general public.

Read a complete transcription of the interview, generously funded by the San Francisco History Association.

Great thanks to John for letting us post this fascinating peek at Playland, Sutro Baths and Cliff House history.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Oral History Tape Summary

Informant:     Mr. George K. Whitney, Jr.

Informant is the son of George K. Whitney, Sr., and nephew of Leo Whitney (aka "The Whitney Brothers") who were the founders and owners of "Whitney Properties", which at their height included Playland At The Beach, the Cliff House, Sutro Museum, and various concessions. Informant assumed control of the operations when his father died in 1958 and managed the properties with his sister, Beatrice Whitney Gillman, and mother, Eva C. Whitney, until the dissolution of the corporation and eventual sale of the "Cliff House Properties" to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GOGA).

Date of Interview:     August 13 & 14, 2002

Interviewer:   John Martini

Summary:     Person-to-person interview conducted at informant's residence in Friday Harbor, Washington State. Interview consists of four 60-minute tapes with a total running time of approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes. Sound quality is very good.

Tape 1, Side A

Time                Topic                                                                                                             

00:01

(Page 1 of Transcription on Web site)
Interview begins with introduction, date, identification of informant, and release consent statement.

00:50

Informant introduces self, provides personal data, describes early life.

01:30

Description of how father (George Whitney Sr.) and uncle (Leo Whitney) began careers in amusement park operations. Travel to Australia at start of WW I. Developed "quick finish photo process" and ran shooting gallery in Melbourne.

03:30

Brothers return to USA. George Sr. to SF and opens a shooting gallery on upper Market St. Leo attends art school then rejoins George. Perfected their quick finish photo process

05:15

Early 1920s. George Sr. opens shooting gallery at Chutes at the Beach.

06:30

Description of Chutes and rides as they existed when Whitney Brothers opened their first concession.

07:30

Evolution of George Sr.'s acquisitions at Chutes by buying up concession leases from the prime lessee, the Friedle Brothers. George Sr. eventually became manager of the Friedles' other leases.

09:00

The Swinerton's were owners of land under Chutes and leased it to Friedles. Whitneys eventually assumed control of Chutes and became "prime lessee", and ran almost everything except some food concessions and the carousel.

10:45

Description of Whitney family: Mom from Australia. Sister was born there. George was born in San Francisco.

11:35

Childhood memories of playing in front of orange juice stand operated by his mother and aunt (Leo's wife) at the Chutes. Called "Orange Mill". Had free run of area; he was the boss' kid.

13:45

"Playland" never an official, legal name. Officially "Whitney Brothers". Evolution of properties from the two brothers to only George Sr. after Leo's retirement; incorporation as "Whitneys At the Beach"; and ownership by Mom, Sister, and George Jr. following father's death.

16:00

In 1960s a land developer described only as Bob [informant can't remember his last name] gains influence over Mom and bought out her interests in Whitneys. He became a controlling partner with Sister and Jr.

17:00

Interviewer asks for clarification on dates. Informant produces a written timeline of title and an ownership changes originally prepared as attachment to a legal document, and gives it to interviewer.

18:00

Leo retires. He was seven years older than George Sr. George bought out Leo, who got ownership of the Playland maintenance building on La Playa and leased it back to "Whitneys At the Beach".

19:30

George Sr. purchases Cliff House, with wife, in 1937. Property becomes a separate partnership from Whitney Brothers.

20:00

"Whitneys At the Beach" incorporated about time Whitneys purchased Playland site from Swinertons. Interests divided as follows: 36% George Sr.; 36% Mom; 13½ % Sister; 13 ½% George Jr. From that point on, all transactions involved sale of stock, not assets.

21:15

George Sr. set up "life income" for Leo.

21:35

George Sr.'s interests in Cliff House. Used to get key from Sutro estate, go into empty restaurant, sit at SW corner window, and look over beach and dream of potential. Figured out how to make money off the Cliff House and all the collections he'd purchased over the years. Description of these "visions."

23:10

Descriptions of Playland. George Sr.: "Playland is a nickel and dime business, and we'll do well as long as people have nickels and dimes in their pockets." George Jr.: "We did well during the depression. Good, clean fun diversion."

24:00

Dealing with "carnie" types at Playland, especially gamblers. Not allowed.

28:00

Topsy's Roost described. A former 'chicken shack' purchased by George when owner retired. Designed by Leo. Operating full blast by 1929.

30:00

Tape ends.

Tape 1, Side B

Time                Topic                                                                                                             

00:01

(Page 2 of Transcription on Web site)
Tape begins. Topsy's Roost description continues. All black employees except for manager and, for a time, the band. Union problems with musician's union. Staff did much of the entertainment. "Cabaret" venue. Fire on opening night; minor and little damage, but scared Sr.

03:00

Assuming control of Cliff House in 1937. Back and forth between George Sr. and Leo. Sr. wanted to aim for the tourist trade. Leo and his wife wanted to upgrade it to "top hat and tails" trade. Opened as a high-tone establishment. Business was bad. Sr. brought it down to earth, got rid of crystal, etc.

05:20

George Jr.'s involvement with Whitney operations began in 1946 following his WW II service. He'd only worked summers at the food concessions previously. Worked briefly for Bank of America after war; didn't like it. Worked midway operations mostly, overseeing games and rides. Not mechanical end, though.

08:15

Bingo invented at Playland by Whitney Brothers. Describes early operation.

10:00

Informant's duties patrolling Playland midway. "Walk back and forth and drink coffee." 12-hour days. Food facilities described. Al Hines was food manager. Rides mostly operated by George Jr.'s brother-in-law, Floyd Gillman (husband of Beatrice Whitney). Jr. oversaw food and games. Floyd also did the redesign of Cliff House in 1949-1950.

13:00

Rides at Playland described as "off the shelf" except for Fun House. Bill Smith did maintenance.

14:00

Many employees were Masons. George Sr. was a Mason, too. Discussion of benefits of using employees versus concessionaires.

16:15

Games were real profit-makers, especially the quasi-gambling 10-cent games. Rides attracted younger folks; games attracted the older folks.

18:30

Diving Bell. Came from Treasure Island World's Fair. George Sr. asked the operator to come to Playland when fair closed in 1940. Started as an underwater aquarium, but had problems keeping fish alive. Eventually it turned into a ride.

21:00

Playland remodeled over years. "Can't let things get stale." Facades kept changing. "Salesmanship. Showmanship."

21:45

Dark Rides described. Moved rides a lot to attract audience to back properties.

22:30

Playland's "front" and "back" properties described. Location of rides described.

24:00

Additional information on land acquisition. George Sr. bought properties adjoining Playland as they became available and bought "back properties" across La Playa before actually owning Playland site. Warehouse, restaurant, apartment house on back properties.

26:00

Work for Walt Disney Corporation. Disney studied Playland (and other amusement parks) in early 1950s when planning Disneyland. Came to Playland, met with George Sr. George Jr. impressed Disney, who asked to use him as a consultant. Eventually George Jr. hired as the 7th employee of Disneyland. Only person on the Disney team who had practical amusement park experience.

29:30

Opinions on Walt Disney [very high] and working with designers on Disneyland.

30:45

Tape ends abruptly in mid-sentence.

Tape 2, Side A

Time                Topic                                                                                                             

00:01

(Page 3 of Transcription on Web site)
Tape begins with introduction.

00:10

Continuation of story of working with Disney Corporation, 1954-1958.

01:40

Ideas from Disneyland brought back to Whitney's: "Fun Tier Town" on site of old "Laugh In the Dark" ride. [Off-mike he also mentioned adding the "Giant Camera" facade to the Camera Obscura and waterfalls at Sky Tram].

03:00

Worked on Seattle World's Fair 1960. Describes duties and responsibilities. Rides, shows, amusements on that fair's midway.

04:50

Other jobs in the amusement business: Squaw Valley Winter Olympics; Osaka World's Fair; Montreal World's Fair; Brussels's World's Fair; Seattle World's Fair. All due to his practical, operation experience at Whitneys.

06:10

George Sr. dies in 1958. "Whitney Corporation" described following his death. George Jr. had been designated by father to run the business. Mom and Sister and Junior become sole partners.

07:15

Floyd Gillman's duties described, as well as some of his architectural efforts for Whitneys (e.g., Cliff House and Sutro's redwood facades).

08:00

Mom sells interest in Playland and Cliff House to Bob. George Jr. and Sister find out about sale when they read it in newspapers. Bob ends up with controlling interest.

09:00

"Back Property" (Sutro Baths) portion of Cliff House Properties sold to Bob.

10:10

Description of selling his Playland interests to Sister and Bob, about 1962.

11:00

(Page 4 of Transcription on Web site)
Relations between Whitneys and the Sutro Estate, and acquisition of Baths in 1952. Stresses Leo was not involved.

13:05

Decision to close pools in Baths and focus on Museum and ice rink.

13:30

George Sr.'s "collections of other people's collections" described.

14:00

Stuff collected from Fiji included a steam locomotive that Floyd Gillman rebuilt to look like "Cliff House and Ferries" loco.

15:20

Extent of Whitney properties at their height described, extending from Fulton Street to a snack stand in the streetcar barn on Point Lobos.

16:40

Many of the Whitney's food concessions run by Greek families (e.g., the Hountalis family).

17:15

World War II years described. "Playland did a fantastic business." "Sailors had nickels and dimes."

18:30

'Booster tickets' developed. Buy a ticket to a popular ride, and get a coupon for a ride on a less-used attraction for only a few cents more. Spread the crowds out on the midway.

19:30

Wartime blackout regulations and effects on Playland. Buildings facing ocean repainted in dull colors.

21:00

Security at Playland and Cliff House areas handled by George Jr. and his assistant. "Kick them in the pants." First race riot in City occurred at Playland in early 1960s. "Negroes against the whites." Mostly rowdyism.

22:45

Racial restrictions discussed. None under Whitneys. 'No racial slurs heard.' Blacks hired to work at Topsy's. Japanese did janitorial.

24:30

During WWII, caricatures of Japanese [Tojo?] used on "Pop the Jap" balloon game. Playland reflected culture of the time.

26:15

Floyd Gillman's redesign of Cliff House. Driving force for remodel was more space for banquet room. Lots of wedding receptions.

27:40

"California Missions" display on lower level of Cliff House. Enter for free; pay to exit. Proceeds usually went to SF Boys Club. George Sr. was a big donor to Boys Club. Helped purchase ranch for the Club.

29:00

George Sr.'s charitable activities discussed.

29:25

Conversation pauses. Tape ends.

Tape 2, Side B

Time                Topic                                                                                                             

00:01

(Page 5 of Transcription on Web site)
Tape starts. Cliff House discussion continues

00:45

Many of the plans for the Cliff House in the park's collection were probably drawn by Floyd Gillman at George Sr.'s suggestion, and don't always reflect what happened.  Lots of planning ideas. Gillman usually didn't sign his plans.

01:35

Redwood facade for Cliff House explained. George Sr. had a 'redwood theme' going. Redwood bar in CH; redwood decor in Souvenir Shops; redwood exteriors added to Cliff House and Sutro's. Practical. Exteriors also practical; would weather and not need painting.

02:15

Musee Mecanique originally started by George Sr. Another example of a 'collection of collections.' Ed Zelinsky bought most of the machines.

04:15

Musee displays discussed. Mostly bought by George Sr. as attractions. Sometimes they started as Christmas window displays in department stores (e.g., Santa's Workshop). Very few, if any, commissioned.

05:15

Toothpick Circus built by San Quentin convicts. George Sr. was friend of Warden Duffy at San Quentin. Also got lots of convict-made weapons for display.

07:00

Other displays discussed. First cable car in City loaned to Whitneys by cable car company. Tucker car. 3-wheel Davis Car. Steam Motorcycle.

09:15

Sutro exhibits described. Museum. Marine Deck. Mynah birds.

10:00

Sky Tram. Big mistake; couldn't generate enough revenue to pay for itself. Tram too small and needed higher passenger capacity.

11:15

Description of maximizing passenger flow on Adventureland boat ride at Disneyland.

12:45

Sky Tram built by Roebling Corporation. Not an off-the-shelf ride. George Jr. was able to chide father over the bad design of the Tram.

14:30

Interview ends for the day.

 

 

14:45

Tape resumes with reintroduction and interview resumes on morning of August 14, 2002.

15:40

Description of Sutro Baths and Museum. Acquired by George Sr. in 1952. Memories of visiting Baths as a child, especially the smells (not unpleasant) of cedar wood and warm sea air.

18:45

Describes building and how it was constructed. Entry via staircases through tropical gardens and palm trees.

20:00

Sutro's original exhibits remembered, especially the mummies. No rhyme or reason. Sutro also "collected collections." Stuffed animals; rocks. Reorganized by Whitney with aid of curator from DeYoung Museum. Exhibits sometimes swapped between Sutro's and DeYoung.

21:45

Some exhibits in Museum were purely George Sr.'s showmanship.

23:00

Economics of operating Sutro's before the Whitneys. Did OK until competition arose from municipal pools.

24:10

Ice skating rink economics described, especially dealing with professional skaters and instructors.

27:10

Oval pools outside building on east side. Briefly stocked with trout by George Jr. Catch basins for fresh water for use in Baths' powerhouse and laundry. Water possibly for ice-cold plunge, too.

28:15

Ice-cold plunge described. "Fairly decent sized pool" at foot of main staircase before you reached salt-water pools.

29:00

Maintenance of Baths structure was costly. Business fell off due to competition for city-run pools. Heating expensive, but water from ocean was free.

30:00

Catch basin operation described. Series of settling ponds where sand was filtered before pumping into Baths.

31:20

Tape ends abruptly mid-sentence.

Tape 3, Side A

Time                Topic                                                                                                             

00:01

(Page 6 of Transcription on Web site)
Tape starts with introduction and date

00:10

Tunnels to north of Baths described. Dead-end tunnel was a pump room. Other tunnel was source of stone for constructing Baths. Some rock taken from beach at far end of tunnel.

01:50

Wave Machine remembered on rock off the point. Didn't work. Steamer OHIOAN wrecked nearby. Visited the wreck and took off some items.

03:30

(Page 7 of Transcription on Web site)
View area above tunnels called "Shipwreck Point" when Sky Tram built. Waterfalls added as part of the attraction. Lots of people just walked in and didn't ride Tram.

04:30

Gillman designed redwood facade for Sutro's in 1952 as part of George Sr.'s redwood theme. Collections brought in for display: bicycles, carriages, spinning wheels, more stuffed animals. Continuing examples of Sr.'s policy of upgrading and changing things to attract the public.

07:15

George Sr. philosophy: 'Nothing not of quality, but nothing snooty.'

08:20

Tom Thumb exhibit. Purchased in New Orleans. Sold to Tom Thumb Museum in Vermont. Col. McNutt, too.

10:40

Statue of "Ito." Another former World's Fair exhibit. "Mrs. Ito" later added.

14:30

Adolph Sutro's original stuffed animals were hauled off when Whitney took over. Very bad condition. Trash man sold many of the specimens to interested people on way to dump. George Sr. applauded him.

15:50

Tucker car was purchased purely for display. Supposedly it was car #49, and possibly the last built. George Sr. did have personal collection of antique cars. Many went to Harrah's Club in Reno.

17:05

"Last Supper" originally at Playland. Later moved to Sutro's Museum. Bought directly from man who made it (Schlessinger?), but was not commissioned. Again, revenues to Boys Club of SF.

18:20

"Sutro Museum" defined. Exhibits located on first level visitors reached when descending from Point Lobos, and sort of on the roof of the Baths.

19:40

Promenade Level surrounded the ice skating rink. Next level down was originally ice-cold tank. Innumerable closet-sized changing rooms under bleachers.

22:50

Bathing suits still remained after Baths closed. Many sold at auction in early 1970s along with Cliff House items.

23:30

Ice skating rink. Construction details. Elevated above level of old swimming tank. Full headroom beneath ice. Zamboni machine used to shave and polish ice surface.

26:00

Staff needed to run Sutro's was relatively small. Manny Glantz (sp?), a former skater, managed the rink. She kind of let skating associations take over. Not much other labor. Maintenance crews came up from Playland to do major work. Gillman did some minor modernizations over years.

28:10

Exhibits and coin-operated machines rotated between Sutro's, Playland, and other sites to increase draw.

29:10

Playland. Description of Jeremy Ets Hokins' role in possible Playland development. Charles Knapp was the first potential investor for redeveloping the site. Ets Hokins came next. Took place after Bob acquired Playland.

30:30

Conversation ends. Tape ends.

Tape 3, Side B

Time                Topic                                                                                                             

00:01

(Page 8 of Transcription on Web site)
Tape begins with discussion about the demise of Sutro's. Complicated scenario about Bob assuming control of back property of Baths for possible development.

01:30

George Jr. got two-year extension to keep operating the Sutro Museum and skating rink while Bob planned his development of area.

03:15

Bob exercises option to take over entire site with his controlling interest. George Jr. and Sister eventually sold him the entire building but kept Cliff House and Gift Shop.

04:00

Fire that destroyed Sutro's discussed. George Jr. thinks it was the fault of the demolition company, possibly caused by their night watchman. Agrees it was a "suspicious fire."

05:10

Disposition of exhibits inside Sutro's. Nothing left in building at time of fire. Some objects sold to collectors in lots, other items sold individually. DeYoung loans returned, but confusion arose over what was Whitney property and what was City property.

08:30

Egyptian collection donated to San Francisco State College.

08:45

Marilyn Blaisdell helps organize sale of remaining items in early 1970s. Mostly small stuff. Sale took place after main restaurant in Cliff House closed down. Chance to sell off old items before Hountalis took it over and reopened restaurant.

09:30

Site of Sutro's no longer controlled by George Jr. or sister after the fire. Owned by solely by Bob.

10:30

Discussion of various architectural concept drawings now in park's collection. Early plans showing entire cove developed date from before takeover by Bob. Plans showing development of just Cliff House and Gift Shop date from later period when George Jr. and sister retained control over only those areas.

11:50

Reason for developing site was to attract new money. Al Beach helped George Jr. with project.

13:15

Proposals made to potential Japanese investors. Otami Hotel chain. Dreams for a partnership didn't materialize.

14:20

George Jr. at one point hoped to some of his father's collections in the new hotel development. Would also have liked to have retained part of original Baths structure and incorporated it into new development as "an indoor Disneyland but no rides."

18:00

Bob's development plans didn't include this option. Any hope of retaining part of old Baths structure disappeared when George and Sister transferred ownership to Bob.

19:50

Discussion of various architects and firms whose names appear on design proposals.

21:50

Early planning for GOGA. George Jr. saw it as a battle of wills between Phil Burton and "another SF congressman" over who could add more land. Eventually the Cliff House Properties were included in park. So was Playland. Never approached by politicians or their staff during planning phase.

24:00

Bill Whalen's representatives were first to approach George Jr. with offer for purchase of Cliff House Properties, which did not include old Sutro site. (Bob owned that.) Original asking price was rejected. Some of the concept drawings prepared during this period were designed to show NPS people the development potential of the area.

26:50

Negotiations with NPS last five years, during which time George Jr. and Danny Hountalis increased revenues and earning capacity of Cliff House, factors that determine value of property.

28:15

Cliff House Properties sold to NPS for $6.5 million. Sale took place just days before condemnation proceedings were to start.

29:40

Conversation ends. Tape ends.

Tape 4, Side A

Time                Topic                                                                                                             

 

00:01

(Page 9 of Transcription on Web site)
Tape starts with introduction. Informant states "I surprise myself with how much I forgot, but also how much I remember."

00:49

Family strife between George Jr., Sister and Mother during this period. Sister resented George's being given management control of Whitney operations while Mother resented both her children's running the family business.

02:00

Describes relationship with father, who was rather distant and felt that "little boys should be seen and not heard."

04:10

During negotiations with government for sale of property, George Jr. represented only himself. He had bought out his sister from Cliff House Properties, and Bob owned Playland and the Sutro Baths site.

05:00

Declined NPS offer to lease back Cliff House from government and continue to operate restaurant. He didn't like food business and only ended up with the Cliff House because of family restructurings.

06:55

He met Marilyn Blaisdell when she became interested in the Whitney photograph collections. "She came at a time when I was interested in getting rid of stuff." Photos originally came from variety of places. More of George Sr.'s 'collection of collections.'

08:50

George Jr. sold Marilyn the photographs and maps and drawings he wanted to get rid of.  What had he been doing with them? "Pack rat. I couldn't get rid of anything."

09:50

Reflections on present-day family legacy and continued public interest in Playland and Sutro's. "I'm sorry there's not a Playland. Every big city should have one."

10:50

Reflections on personal goals and desires aside from the family business. World War II experiences and dreams of becoming an army pilot. Post war pilot's license and flying. Descriptions of planes he's owned.

13:25

Conclusion of interview. Informant invites interviewer back for further interviews.

14:20

Interview ends. Tape ends.


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Page launched 30 November 2004; updated 4 June 2010.