George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview, Page 4

Whitney Interview Continued:

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Martini: "We've talked mostly about Playland and just peripherally about the Cliff House itself. I kind of want to talk about the relations between your -- your dad, uncle, and how they dealt with the Sutro estate.

"Was Playland -- Playland was down here. Sutro's -- venerable old Sutro's was up the hill. Was that competition or did they work -- or did they work together or how did -- how did they see this" --


Postcard images of Sutro Baths. 1940s? - Courtesy of Dennis O'Rorke.

Whitney: "I believe my uncle was out of the picture completely on the Cliff House deal; that was my father. It was not Whitney Brothers, ever. So right from the beginning, it was Cliff House Properties."

Martini: "So it would have been George K. Whitney, Sr., dealing right with the Sutro estate?"

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "And the -- the other owner, that's when he gave my mother half interest" --

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: -- "in that."

Martini: "Okay. Even though they -- what confuses me sometimes is you always see Whitney's" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "stretched across the Cliff House."

Whitney: "Yeah. It's very hard to figure out what is the real, true name of the operation."

Martini: "When -- and your understanding is that when your dad got the Cliff House, he also somehow got an interest in operating Sutro's Baths at the same time?"

Whitney: "No, no. That was a later acquisition."

Martini: "Later acquisition."

Whitney: "But I have no recollection as when. That was probably sometime when I was on some other job. It was probably while I was down in Disneyland."

Martini: "Oh, okay.

Whitney: "It could be tied back to that period."

Martini: "I know from my reading that they did a big remodel of -- of Sutro's in the late '30s, when they put the ice-skating rink in. And in 1952, it almost closed. And it says that it was purchased by George Whitney."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "And I guess he -- basically, he saved it, but the cost was" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: " -- "closing the baths part down."

Whitney: "And then kept -- closed the baths part pretty quick and just relied on the ice-skating rink.

"So the back of the building was abandoned, all the dressing rooms and all that sort of stuff. So we had the museum in there, the collection of carriages and so forth, and the ice rink; was about it."

Martini: "The collections, these are the ones that your dad -- the collections that your dad collected."


Musee Mecanique entrance in Sutro Baths, 1950s? - Courtesy of Thomas Bratton

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Right.

"Was a lot of the stuff that was in there things that he'd brought in? Specifically, I'm thinking about the carriages, the bicycle collections. There were spinning-wheel collections."

Whitney: "Each of those three were acquired by my dad as collections of somebody else's. I don't know of other collections in Sutro's than those.

"My brother-in-law and I went to Fiji and bought a steam engine that ran in the sugar-cane fields down there; brought it -- had it shipped back to the states. And my brother-in-law then, with wood -- not to make it running or anything -- made it look like the cab in front, engine that used to pull the -- the ferries to Cliff House railroad out to the Cliff House area. So we had that on exhibit in one of the windows up on the Point Lobos esplanade" --

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: -- "or whatever you want to call it."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "But little trips like that that we did. And my brother-in-law made the damn train look like the photos."

Martini: "It looked just like it."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "It fooled a lot of people."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "A lot of people thought that one had survived."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "It was an old Baldwin engine that was built in '26."

Martini: "Do you know if it's still around?"

Whitney: "I have no idea. I don't even remember who I sold it to."

Martini: "Well, it ended up at a place -- at a -- at a railroad museum down in the Santa Cruz mountains called Roaring Camp and Big Trees."

Whitney: "That's right. Roaring Camp, that's right."

Martini: "Yeah, it's still down there."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah.

"Later on, when we're talking, I'd like to ask you about a bunch of little specifics, like --that really piques people's interest.

"At the extent of the properties that you controlled, it ran from Playland at the Beach at Fulton Street at one end all the way to the -- past Topsy's Roost, which eventually was the Surf Club" --

Whitney: "The third block up."

Martini: -- "the third block, and then the Cliff House" --

Whitney: "The Cliff House."

Martini: -- "the Curio Shop next to it" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "Sutro's Baths" --

Whitney: "Sutro Baths."

Martini: -- "and the museum and a Louis' -- was Louis' restaurant" --

Whitney: "Yeah, Louis' was -- well, wait a second. Louis'. Yeah, it was one of the restaurants up in the" -- there were three of them in there."

Martini: "Yeah."


Interior of streetcar barn terminus east of Sutro Baths, about 1936. 2 Sutter-Clement car on right. Hot dog stand run by the Hountalas family. - Courtesy of Jack Tillmany.

Whitney: "One of them was Hountalas and the -- one was Louis'. And then there was somebody that had one in and out of the streetcar terminal; 'cause one of the streetcars terminated right in that building."

Martini: "Right. The -- that was the -- I think it was the" --

Whitney: "The Number 3 or the Number 2."

Martini: "-- 2 -- I think it was the 2 Clement."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah. And there was a little -- little sandwich stand in there."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"But that -- I think the -- I think the sequence was Hountalas, Louis', the entrance to the Sutro Baths and then this other one."

Martini: "Okay.

"So the Hountalases were out there well before they took over the concession under the Park Service."

Whitney: "Yeah. They were one of the -- one of the Greek restaurants that my dad had inherited."

Martini: "They just caught that, Hountalas, yes. That's a Greek name."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"Well, almost every one of the restaurants out there was Greek."

Martini: "Greek, mm-hm."

Whitney: "And they were all just regular -- they weren't -- you wouldn't say high class or anything, except that every one of them was a high-class human being."

Martini: "What was World War II like, the World War II years, for the -- for the Whitneys?"

Whitney: "Well, of course, I was in the service" --

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: -- "during most of those, but it was -- because of the numbers of military that were going through to serve the Pacific area for the war, Playland did fantastic business.

"And somewhere -- we finally run across it -- there's a stack of photos like this (indicating) of that particular time of Playland, with the crowds. But we did very well during the -- like the -- like the period of the" --

Martini: "Depression?"

Whitney: -- "Depression.

"God, it's getting bad."

Martini: "No."

Whitney: "Like that, it was a nickel-and-dime business. And the sailors had nickels and dimes. They didn't have dollars. And then we had lots of things -- like you would buy a ticket to go on the Big Dipper and you would get back maybe two or three tickets that we called booster tickets. And it would say 'This ticket and 10 cents good for one ride on' -- naming one of the other rides. And we'd move people around so that the crowd was spread out with these things."

Martini: "Oh.

"Otherwise, they'd probably all congregated to very few" --

Whitney: "Yeah.

"And these booster tickets worked marvelous, but it also reduced the price so that the military were in a pretty good position to get a lot of enjoyment."

Martini: "You were right on the Pacific Ocean -- (loud sound of a ferry whistle is heard on the tape) excuse me."

Whitney: "That's done."

Martini: "That's the ferry boat."

Whitney: "That's the one coming in."

Martini: "Okay. You were right on the Pacific Ocean at the start of World War II. Were -- did your dad ever talk about any blackout regulations?"


World War II propaganda sign advertising for Sutro Baths, 1942. - Library of Congress

Whitney: "Oh, yes. The -- right in the very beginning, the panic of the possibility of Japanese shelling and the balloon bombs and the whole thing like that, they -- they made it very, very stringent on lighting that would show out into the ocean. We could show lighting going the opposite direction, because it wouldn't pick up except if it was lighting a white building. So we'd paint the whole building gray, these kind of things.

"But General DeWitt, I think, was the commanding general during that period. And it just so happens that his -- his aide in the beginning, without my ever knowing it, was -- at one time, I was married to his daughter. But he was an old cavalry man, and he couldn't fight a war without his horse.

"But General DeWitt was very, very stringent, as -- of course, later on, he and the other politicians ended up being the ones that shipped all the Japanese into internment camps."

Martini: "Did you -- was Playland and the Cliff House area, with all the arcades -- got to ask about law-enforcement problems.

"With all those people milling around, did you ever -- did police pay special attention or did you have your own security guards?"

Whitney: "No."

Martini: "How did you work that?"

Whitney: "Security would be -- I had an assistant that -- we pounded the pavement of the midway, back and forth and out in the front, making the circuit. And we were the security. And the problem was that -- the only problem we ever had was a few kids. And you'd tell 'em you'd kick 'em in the ass if they did that again and go on. And they never did it again and so forth.

"However, at a later date, the first racial riot in San Francisco of much notoriety occurred at Playland."

Martini: "When was that?"

Whitney: "It was the beginning of the -- all the racial tension that started. I don't know what year it was, really."

Martini: "What -- was it like gang-fight type of thing or what happened?"

Whitney: "Negroes against the whites."

Martini: "Whites, yeah."

Whitney: "And rowdy-ism."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "Not so much doing physical damage to each other as it was just plain rowdy-ism; and then the pushing fights that they'd get into and so forth. But it was the first, to my knowledge, real race riot in San Francisco. And then, of course, later on, they had some terrific ones."

Martini: "Yes. There's Hunter's Point" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "and Bay View that, you know, had fires and everything else."

Whitney: "Yeah. That -- the -- the timing on that could probably be confirmed by newspaper."

Martini: "When -- do you know, in the early years, was there any type of restriction on -- on blacks or Asians visiting the attractions" --

Whitney: "No. I have never heard my father or anybody that worked for him, particularly the Masons, make one anti-racial slur. The Masons, though, made some pretty nasty comments about people that were Catholic, but never racially. Anybody was always welcome.

"Well, look at the number of blacks that we had working at Topsy's and so forth. I set up the entire janitorial service for Playland and it was all -- just so happened all Japanese. But it took one Japanese off the street and put him into a job; and it built up to where he had 75 men working for him in time, Harada."

Martini: "Harada; okay. Just writing down names here to check out later."

Whitney: "Harada was -- and he was a -- just a very pleasant man. I don't know what his reaction to us was. But there was -- never, at any time, do I remember anybody making an anti-black slur or anything like that -- although, of course, everybody, at that time, used the word nigger. It was just part of it. It was not understood to be that much of a slur.

"Because during the war, we set up a game where you'd throw a dart at a balloon; and behind the balloon were faces cut out of pasteboard, first of Hitler, then of Mussolini, then of Tojo. And there was a legend underneath that had 'Pop Tojo' or "Pop the Jap" or something like that. But that was the time."

Martini: "Oh, sure it was."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "And -- and much as we look back now -- and the term political correctness" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "-- something that might not have -- would never make it in the year 2002, in the context of its time, it was (inaudible)" --

Whitney: "It'll come back."

Martini: -- "the culture."

Whitney: "Yeah. Most of it'll come back.

"In fact, I heard a program the other night about Jewish humor. Gosh, the -- the Jewish humor -- the Yiddish humor was marvelous, terrific people."

Martini: "Mm-hm. Very inward focused, very self-" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "self-deprecating and" --

Whitney: "Well, you had to -- had to understand it to get the full fun out of it. But the fact that that's -- they're starting to play Jewish -- re-broadcasts of old Jewish humor."

Martini: "Let me -- can I jump into a couple" --

Whitney: "Shoot."

Martini: -- "of the things here we have?"

"I hit on that one. When -- your brother-in-law came up with the design of redoing the Cliff House" --

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: -- "about 1950 or so."

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: "Yeah.

"What -- what was the driving thing to give the Cliff House the new look?"

Whitney: "You mean from an architectural standpoint?"

Martini: "And from -- from a business standpoint. Why did you want to redesign the Cliff House?"

Whitney: "More room."

Martini: "More room?"

Whitney: "Wanted to put a banquet room upstairs; enlarge -- I don't know whether we enlarged the gift shop -- no, we didn't."

Martini: "I think you might have pushed the wall out forward on the street or something."

Whitney: "No, we couldn't; because that was the original building."

Martini: "Yeah; okay."

Whitney: "But, in any event, it was primarily for private parties and banquets and so forth. We -- we had quite a business of wedding receptions, and that was the space for 'em. And, of course, then -- because it was such a nice spot -- wedding receptions, then weddings themselves and so forth."

Martini: "Now, the downstairs at the Cliff House, there was a banquet room downstairs, too. But that -- my -- in the old plans and my memories, mostly there was attractions in that downstairs room."

Whitney: "No. There was -- there was attractions down on the lower floor. I don't recall any attractions."

Martini: "The California mission display."

Whitney: "That's right. That was on the upper -- yeah, the California missions was -- once again, a collection that my dad bought of models of all the California missions -- was in there.

"And then he put what in -- in the business was called a 'bed box' so that as you were --you were channeled in free; and as you exited, it had an obvious jar there for you to put a contribution in.

"And most of the time, he would do an operation like that and give all the money to the San Francisco Boys Club. My dad was a tremendous backer of it; gave -- up in the Mendocino County someplace, between Willows and Eureka or Yreka, where the old Skunk [rail] road, there's a Boys Club up there, Camp Marwadel. My dad bought the property for 'em."

Martini: "Oh, okay."

Whitney: "But he -- my dad was involved in politics in a great amount, in a great way, but he -- always in the back of the scene. He wasn't pushing himself forward. He would give that property out of his pleasure."

[Whitney Interview continues…]


George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview:

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