George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview, Page 3

Whitney Interview Continued:

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Diving Bell ride at Playland, early 1970s. Originally displayed at 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exhibition. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

Martini: "One ride that I specifically remember -- I could never quite understand -- was the Diving Bell?"

Whitney: "The Diving Bell -- and I'm going to be hazy about this, but I think the first Diving Bell -- and her name was, if I'm not mistaken, was the same as yours, Martine or some -- she's close to your name.

"But, anyway, she and her husband put this game -- this ride in the San Francisco Fair. And then after the fair was over in '40 or whatever year, my dad had 'em come out and they built it out at Playland."

Martini: "So that -- so it did come from the World's Fair."

Whitney: "Yeah. That's where they had set up it originally. And -- gosh, I -- I'm sure their name is similar to yours."

Martini: "Was that -- was it supposed to be an underwater aquarium or was it just supposed to be just a ride where you went down and then flew to the surface like a cork? Because that was the outcome."

Whitney: "Yeah. The -- what eventually knocked the Diving Bell out was the high cost of getting the fish."

Martini: "Oh, really?"

Whitney: "Getting them alive and into the water, because you had to have salt water" --

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: -- "and all of the things.

"So it was a continual expense to bring in a shark or an octopus. I mean, we had -- in the early days of it, they had any kind of a fish that you could imagine off of the Pacific coast; and it was very good. It was very educational. It was like the early-day Marine World."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "And then as it became too expensive to get the fish or you'd only have a couple of them, that was when they'd cut it loose and it would pop up; and that made it a ride, as opposed to an exhibit."

Martini: "Thank you. For -- for 45 years, I've been wondering what did I miss? Where were the fish? I was going down" --

Whitney: "You were just too late."

Martini: "Too late."

Whitney: "Yeah. In the beginning, they had -- they had -- of course, most of the sharks are dogfish" --

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: -- "you know, and these kind of things; and every once in a while, they'd get an octopus.

"They didn't live very long."

Martini: "It looks like, from the photo books and all, that Playland was always getting facelifts. They were putting new facades on buildings. Was this to"—

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- " keep it fresh or to" --

Whitney: "It's just part of -- you can't let things get stale. It goes on right today in Disney World and Disneyland. They're constantly changing rides and upgrading things, changing the facades on rides that have been in there for 20 years now. So it's -- it's part of the salesmanship or the showmanship of the business itself."

Martini: "I really noticed it on the dark rides at"—

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "at Playland; they'd -- they'd get some -- some new treatment every few years."

Whitney: "Well, we -- one of the reasons the dark rides at Playland changed so much was because we moved them a lot. Like Dark Mystery, which was on -- way in the back, that was right where the -- what eventually got there? Well, it was where, originally, Noah's Ark was or the terminus for Shoot the Chutes, but it was in the forward block. And I just -- I don't recall right now why we moved it to the back, other than maybe to help get the back going; because it was a popular ride."

Martini: "When you say 'the back' and 'the front,' what do you mean by that?"

Whitney: "Well, the front consisted of three city blocks: North of Balboa -- no, north of Anza, then from Anza to Cabrillo, then from Cabrillo to Fulton. And behind that was the block from Cabrillo to Fulton; and then the half block, where the maintenance and so forth was, was in the block just to the north of that. It was the half -- the front-half block. On the corner was the Laugh-in-the-Dark."


Playland and the Great Highway along Ocean Beach. Postcard from the 1920s - Courtesy of Dennis O'Rorke.

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "Then the end where, eventually, Fun Tier Town came."

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "That would be the northeast corner of Cabrillo and La Playa."

Whitney: "Well, La Playa runs north and south" --

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: -- "which is truly 48th Avenue."

Martini: "Yeah, right. Yeah. I got that, yeah."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "And all -- all this -- and even -- it was all the Whitney properties. And then under -- eventually, you bought the land, too, away from the" --

Whitney: "Oh, we bought" --

Martini: -- "Swinertons."

Whitney: "Well, no, they didn't have any of that property. My dad had acquired these properties way before he bought the front Playland property."

Martini: "Oh, my apologies; okay."

Whitney: "As pieces of property around the area would become available, he'd snatch them up."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "And so he ended up with that whole block. There was an apartment house down at the end, which was kind of a hotel. Then underneath that was a restaurant. The first decoration was all boxers, and then it became music boxes and so forth. In fact, I --down in here someplace, I've got a bottle of Wray & Nephew rum that was in that bar. And then the upstairs over there was -- was a warehouse.

"And -- are you familiar or aware of the Dore paintings that we had? Okay. That's another story, so I'll get into that later."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "But, in any event, they were all stored up in this building, along with personal property from the family; certain things that my dad wanted to hang on to, like the fuselage from Admiral Byrd's plane that he flew over the North Pole or one of them that he flew over the North Pole, and these paintings and everything. And that's where one of the big fires was."

Martini: "Oh."

Whitney: "That was a neon sign to let go."

Martini: "You -- you just alluded to something. Your dad collected -- both your dad and your uncle collected collections."

Whitney: "Well, my dad collected the collections" --

Martini: "Exactly; okay."

Whitney: -- "not my uncle."

Martini: "And he -- kind of -- we kind of jumped around, but" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "I'd kind of like to follow one thing through:

"And that is, for you, personally, you -- you were involved with the Walt Disney Corporation."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah.

"Can you explain how that happened?"

Whitney: "Well, Stanford Research was hired by Walt Disney Productions or by WED Enterprise, Walter E. Disney Enterprise, which is a personal design concept company and so forth. They retained Stanford Research to study, first, the economic feasibility of Walt's concept of a new outdoor amusement attraction. And they did a good job on it. In that job, they interviewed a lot of people in the business, one of which was my father. And upon the interviewee's coming back to talk to Walt, they recommended that he meet my father. He says, 'There's a kindred soul.' So they eventually met.

"And when they sent their -- the main team up to talk specifically to some questions, the whole team came up. And I was given the job of showing them around the amusement park and the activities and some of the things that we had created. And they went back. Stanford did the -- at the same time, started a site survey for the property; and, eventually, it was picked down in Anaheim.

"But they -- Walt asked my father -- contacted my dad and wanted to know if he could borrow me as a consultant to talk about the practical aspects of amusement. Evidently, I had impressed the people that I'd shown around; and they -- they recommended me.

"And so I went down as a consultant, and I was there for -- as a consultant at the studio with the artists and everything. And I was just electrified by the whole concept of Disneyland. And Walt picked up on it immediately and wanted to know if I would like to work for them full time, which I did. And I was the only person on the entire project from the outdoor amusement business in Disneyland. All the rest were studio" --

Martini: "Oh."

Whitney: -- "related people.

"The cartoonists, who did the artwork; Roger Broggie, who designed the steam engines, and on down the line like that. And Walt would take one of his top finance men, Larry Tryon, to become the financial -- the treasurer of Disneyland and so forth.

"So I ended up being the seventh employee of the Disneyland Corporation."


Food concessions at Playland, Great Highway and Cabrillo Street, 1970s. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

Martini: "How was it working with those other types of people? Did they get it? Did they" --

Whitney: "Oh, boy. Nobody worked for Walt that didn't get it because -- but they got it on their own, by example. Walt set the finest example that I've ever met. I -- I think he's, without question, comparable or surpasses my father. But they were two men cut out of the same cloth in quality and in perception and in being able to convey enthusiasm."

"So people were working 12, 16 hours a day, not because anybody was telling them to, but because they wanted to."

Martini: "Did you have to do a lot of educating them about what rides were about and how they should work? Did they have ideas?"

Whitney: "That's -- that's pretty much -- an artist would come up with a creative idea. I would look at it and make suggestions of the type of equipment that would be needed to do the job or I would come up with a -- with a mechanical device" --

[Tape ends abruptly.]

[Begin Tape 2, Side A]

Martini: "I'm sorry, the tape cut off. You were talking about how you worked with the artists to design the rides."

Whitney: "Yeah. The artists that worked on the Disney project were usually the finest of the artists that Walt had, and he pulled them into his WED Enterprise company. If they were going -- if he saw them as being full time on designing working, if it wasn't for a specific project, he'd pull them into WED -- WED being his private company. The head of it was Dick Cottrell, who was Walt's brother-in-law and who became my closest friend and the man that I traveled all over Europe with looking for amusement attractions and so forth for the park, things that led to like the street of lights, the Parade of Lights. These kinds of things came out of that trip."

Martini: "How long did you stay with Walt Disney Corp.?"

Whitney: "I was there for almost four years exact, two years before we opened and then two years after."

Martini: "And Disneyland opened what year?"

Whitney: "Oh, August '56, I think."

Martini: "'56, right.

"Was -- did you take some ideas back with you after working with Walt Disney?"

Whitney: "Oh, yeah."

Martini: "Did you learn from him?"

Whitney: "Fun Tier Town was an attempt to do something along -- to add the character. Of course, it wasn't economically feasible."

Martini: "Explain what Fun Tier Town was."

Whitney: "Well, it was a -- the Laugh-in-the-Dark ride, which was a long, serpentine ride that occupied the corner of the half block behind the main office building and so forth, had gotten to the point where, mechanically, we wanted to take it out. And so it became an excuse for me to come up with the Fun Tier Town.

"And we had a train ride that we wanted to run. And I could see how we could go behind the shop building and into a lot area and make a U-turn and come back and put in a trellis and a tunnel and, you know, all these kinds of things with a little train ride. And then the other rides for the kids: We had a little dark ride and a few other kiddie rides."

Martini: "It didn't -- it didn't work?"

Whitney: "Well, it didn't work because nobody followed up. I -- I left on something other. I -- I -- the timing is such that I couldn't tell you what I left. I might have left for the Seattle Fair in '60, because I ended up being up here for almost four years working on the Seattle Fair."

Martini: "I remember a lot of media publicity on the kids' Saturday morning TV shows about the new attraction, Fun Tier Town."


Alpine Racer ride at Playland - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

Whitney: "Uh-huh."

Martini: "So you -- you -- there was some real (inaudible), they call it now."

Whitney: "I -- I got a tremendous amount of responsibility in the Seattle Fair by default. Nobody wanted to do the dirty work. And so I ended up with it. I ended up with getting all the food in there, of developing the Armory into the Food Circus; of putting all of the trash deals under the stadium; you know, like the Encyclopedia Britannica and these kind of salesmen, the demonstrators, the potato peeler they'd show you."

"I had the responsibility of all the shows, other than the art shows, other than the Opera House, the ballet. The girlie shows, those kind of things, I had to do. And then I had the responsibility to get the entire amusement park in."

Martini: "For the -- for the big Seattle Fair, yeah."

Whitney: "And I did it with only two paid employees and myself. But nobody wanted to do it, so I had an absolute free hand, almost."

Martini: "Yeah. Every World's Fair has kind of like a midway area, right?"

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah.

"And so -- so you were it for the Seattle Fair."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Wow.

"So -- you kept, in other words, going from one project to another. You became" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "a specialist in this."

Whitney: "After -- after Disney, then that was the Brussels deal. Later on, I -- well, even before that, I got involved in the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley as the director of -- on the committee for merchandising.

"Then I was the Osa- -- yeah, the Osaka World's Fair. And I got involved in the Mon- -- in the Montreal one, putting in a Japanese diving-for-pearls deal. And, of course, the Seattle Fair. God, I'm leaving a couple out. But I would -- I was able -- because of the fact that I was an owner and officer and the only one in the family that was really running the business, I was able to get away and work other projects, almost all of them as a consultant; or I'd get in as a consultant on an operation and the operation would go bust, I'd have to take it over, which I did on the -- on the PolyTrade. That was the diving for pearls up in Montreal" --

Martini: "Montreal."

Whitney: -- "and these kind of things."

Martini: "Now, your dad passed away in '58."

Whitney: "'58."

Martini: "Right.

"And what happened to the Whitney Brothers corporation when he passed away, it became whose property?"

Whitney: "Well, Whitney Brothers had gone out of existence. It was Whitneys at the Beach, the corporation."

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: "When my dad died, he gave his interest -- of course, he had no interest -- yeah, he did -- he gave his interest in stock in the main corporation of Whitneys at the Beach and he gave his interest in stock for the Cliff House property. So that meant that in one -- in all cases, it was my mother, my sister, myself."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "And before he had died, he had designated me to run the business, primarily because of the success I'd had in doing things in the Disney and so forth.

"And -- then my brother-in-law was a nice guy, but he was a gofer. He just -- he took my dad's laundry up and got it back to him, and then he dabbled in this design where he'd build eaves way out; and then in two years, they're like this (indicating)."

Martini: "What, are you referring to the Cliff House, the" --

Whitney: "No. This was primarily ones that he did down in Playland."

Martini: "Oh, okay."

"Was this Mr. Gillman, Floyd Gillman?"

Whitney: "Gil, yeah."

Martini: "Floyd Gillman.

"And the -- at some point, he had mentioned that your mother sold the Playland and it kind of caught you guys by surprise."

Whitney: "I -- I get, right now, a little confused as to whether she sold her interest in Playland first or her interest in Cliff House, as to which one actually came first. I just -- I got the two mixed up, they're -- they're close enough together.

"But, in any event, my sister and I picked up the Sunday paper and found out that she had sold her -- whatever interest in whatever corporation it was to Bob [Frazier], who did the Comstock. And then we got in to -- oh, I believe the first move -- the first move was selling the Cliff House properties, of dividing the front from the back. That's the one where we got Bob in as a half owner or as" --

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: -- "or as a third owner or whatever it was."

Martini: "When you said 'the front from the back,' you mean the Cliff House and what bordered Port Lobos from" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "the old site of the Baths."

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: "This would be after it burned."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"And I think that -- in fact, I'm certain that it was preceded, her selling and the newspaper article that came out about her selling her half interest in -- or 36 percent interest in Playland. And, all of a sudden, we got a new 36 percent owner and" --

Martini: "Controlling interest."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"So -- but I -- I -- I would not claim that to be the absolute fact, 'cause I'm still hazy on it. Because she was still in a position, when we were negotiating -- I, at some point, got involved in the negotiation on the sale of the property at Playland once I said my sister --my mother's got a third of this; my sister's got a third; I've got a third, and I'm outvoted. Why fight it? I'm -- I'm finished fighting.

"So it came, I'm certain, after the Cliff House, then."

Martini: "What time period?"

Whitney: "I'm not going to guess right now."

Martini: "'60s?"

Whitney: "I'm not going to guess."

Martini: "Not going to guess; okay."

Whitney: "It had to be after the Seattle Fair."

Martini: "After the Seattle Fair."

Whitney: "That's '62."

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: "So it's after that sometime."

Martini: "I'll see if I can't find in the newspapers when that happened."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "You said there was newspaper coverage."

Whitney: "You'll run into it someplace."

[Whitney Interview continues…]


George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview:

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