George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview, Page 7

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Martini: "When the Sky Tram was operating, they developed those tunnels out there and that platform into a viewing area. I remember they used to hype it" --


The Cliff House Sky Tram ran for about a decade, from May 1955 until 1966. Photo by Erma Zimmerman July 1956. - Courtesy of Bree Ann Buckley

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "they called it Shipwreck Point or something."

Whitney: "Right.

"They -- my dad decided to do some attractions, which I -- you recall for me, of a waterfall out there and so forth, using -- he wanted to use some of the water in the cheapest way, get action and build it up as an attraction. And when he found out that most people were walking out and not taking the Sky Tram, it wasn't quite so attractive a proposition."

Martini: "Yeah. I remember, as a young teen, you could walk through the fence on the hill up above" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "and save like a dollar on the ride.

"I wasn't the only one doing that, huh?"

Whitney: "No."

Martini: "When the baths themselves, you know, changed over to Whitney ownership --your dad's ownership, actually" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "they put a new façade on that sort of matched the Cliff House, a big redwood façade."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Was that -- was that your brother-in-law again?"

Whitney: "That's -- that's my brother-in-law again and my dad's interest in pushing the redwood."

Martini: "Redwood theme."

Whitney: "Yeah.

Martini: "He also, from the photographs, appears to have brought lots of his collections into the baths."

Whitney: "Yes."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "Collections of horse carriages, spinning wheels; just a lot of the things that he had -- the collections that he had collected. And, of course, it was part of trying to make the interior of the building more interesting and more attractive.

"And some of those collections were very valuable, and the equipment that was in them was very rare. And so people that had real interest in bicycles could go out there and see bicycles that just don't exist and haven't for years."

Martini: "We talked about like there's the Whitney lettering style for all the signs and all that went down to Playland."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Cliff House and Sutro seemed to have had sort of the Gay '90s lettering style. Was there an intent to harken back to the turn of the century?"

Whitney: "Not particularly on that building. It was more an exploitation of what was there and what hadn't been successful to be converted into something that would be successful. Change -- like my dad changing the approach to the restaurant from a high-hat type of thing to a -- somebody in a T-shirt and shorts -- although, actually, I don't remember anybody ever getting in there with just a T-shirt and shorts. But people that were less dressed."

Martini: "So your dad was just putting a new spin on what was already there."

Whitney: "Yeah. He was -- he was changing it to where his whole understanding of economics in these things, that we were in a nickel-and-dime business. And he had survived so beautifully through the" --

Martini: "The Depression?"

Whitney: -- "the Depression with his then nickel-and-dime business concept."

"And he just followed it all through his life. He never did anything not of quality, but nothing was snooty."

Martini: "Mm-hm. No, no."

Whitney: "And that also reflected his own social interests. He was extreme- -- in fact, one of the biggest shocks in my life was the size of the funeral cortege for my dad going out to the cemetery, of his friends and the type of people that were in there, from the top politicians all over that were friends with my dad. And my dad was always not out in the foreground of any of these things, but he was always behind the scenes working. But the size of that and the length of that was just staggering."

Martini: "Well, he was a city institution. He was" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "When -- in the -- going back to him and his collections, what do you remember about the Tom Thumb exhibit and how he got that?"

Whitney: "If I remember correctly, it came out of New Orleans. It was in storage down there. It had been in storage for years and no one had paid on it, and there were a lot of other things. And one of Dad's good friends in the amusement business owned the park in New Orleans, Pontchartrain Beach, Harry Batt. And Dad got him to search out a few things, because New Orleans struck him as being quite a source, of the age of things and the types of collections that would be in storage for a long time. And I believe that the Tom Thumb stuff came from one of those purchases."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "And it was Tom Thumb and Colonel McNutt, who had the carriage that looked like a walnut, and then the Tom Thumb carriage was more elegant and a little more traditional."

Martini: "There was a -- I believe there were clothes, a lot of photographs; just sort of an assemblage of Tom Thumb-related items."

Whitney: "Yeah. It was a very extensive -- had been a very extensive collection. And, eventually, a good portion of it went to the Tom Thumb Museum back in Connecticut."

Martini: "Is that associated with the Barnum museums in any way or is it a Thumb museum?"

Whitney: "It probably is. I -- I just don't -- I'm not aware of the actual company name."

Martini: "Was that one of the -- this is probably jumping ahead to when the baths actually closed, but to follow through with Tom Thumb, was that one sold specifically as an auction item or did you negotiate a sale for that collection?"

Whitney: "Negotiated with them direct, yeah."

Martini: "What about Ito? Everyone remembers Ito, the statue."

Whitney: "Well, Ito was another one of these things that had been made for one of the fairs in San Francisco. Which one, probably the 1940. A carving of an Oriental man that was so realistic that he actually plucked the hair out of his own eyebrows and put in and out of his own head. And it was a very life-like, showmanship-type statue, not of the classical approach in life. And he was -- he was all nude, except for a loincloth. And the loincloth was arranged so that you could just peek in and see a little bit of his masculinity. And it was -- it became a very -- when any guests -- when anybody had guests, they'd get 'em around and edge 'em around and how everybody was looking to see if the statue was anatomically complete."

Martini: "Kids were very up-front trying to figure it out. You could see adults were trying to be a little surreptitious."

Whitney: "It wasn't the kids."

Martini: "Yeah?"

Whitney: "It wasn't the kids. It was the adults. And in this particular case, it was the adult women more than the men. The men didn't -- they knew. But the women had to prove to themselves."

Martini: "He was bought by an entertainer, wasn't he, in the East Bay?"

Whitney: "I -- I" --

Martini: "Marilyn [Blaisdell] remembered Bobo the Clown or something like that."

Whitney: "I don't know -- I wasn't there when we got -- well, if I was, I paid no attention. I mean, we -- we negotiated a business deal and -- he'd been, basically, on display out at Sutro's and that before that, and Playland, and he'd pretty well worn out his welcome."

Martini: "Some people remember there was a Mrs. Ito statue? Does that ring a bell?"

Whitney: "Yes. It was done exactly the same way, and it was of Ito's mother. And she's kind of kneeling down in a -- not actually kneeling, but squatting, as they do in the Orient. And she's fully clothed; and all the hair is real, put into the mask of the head one hair at a time, the eyelashes, the eyebrows. And she was as authentic looking as he was.

"And she went out of my memory long before Ito did. So I don't know -- I think it goes back at a pretty early date, from my standpoint, as to when she was gotten rid of; and I have no idea where she went."

Martini: "We'll find him. He's -- I know Ito is still around somewhere."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "You hear rumors that, perhaps, Ripley's has him. Still trying to" --

Whitney: "Something like that."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "But where she went" --


SF News, Sept 10, 1952: "Cleanup Day At Sutro Baths --The Stuffed animals and other curiosities which have decorated the interior of Sutro Baths for lo, these many years, were crated today and hoisted abroad a truck for fast delivery to the dump" - San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Martini: "Don't know.

"One of the pictures in Marilyn's book shows them hauling off a truckload of stuffed animals in the early 1950s. Was -- do you have any memory of some housecleanings?"

Whitney: "Yeah. All those were in the Sutro museum as part of his collection. And when we bought it, they were in such horrible condition, faded and hair and dirt and everything, that my dad said just get rid of them all. And so they loaded them up on trucks and everything.

"And it was amazing how many people came along and wanted one to take home of different types of birds and small animals and so forth. So the truck driver started selling 'em, and he made a pretty good pile. And when my dad found out about it, he thought the guy was ingenious that he turned it into money. And so the sale was completely accepted and he was complimented and so forth."

Martini: "Entrepreneurship there."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "The Tucker car, was that purchased straight ahead to be a display item or was that something that your dad owned for personal use?"

Whitney: "No. At one time, my dad had a very extensive collection of old automobiles. A great number of them ended up with the exhibit up in Reno."

Martini: "The Harrah's Club bunch?"

Whitney: "Yeah, and so forth. And so he had an interest in interesting cars. So it was natural -- he'd immediately see the showmanship possibilities of displaying this new car with the single headlight and so forth as a showmanship exploit. So when one came along, he bought it. I think it was -- if I'm not mistaken, it was the 49th car built, which is about, I think, the total. And somebody told me they thought it was the last one built."

Martini: "The diorama of the Last Supper, the three-dimensional waxwork one" --

Whitney: "Right. The full -- full-size figures."

Martini: "Yeah.

-- "was that a Playland attraction or was that" --

Whitney: "Well, it -- it was put on exhibit down in Playland. And it also had been exhibited -- and it could have been that diorama that was across the back of the Sutro museum for a while. But it was a set of figurines depicting the Last Supper, and they were bought from the maker. And I think his name was Schlesinger or something of that nature, that type of a name. And it -- it just was one of the collections. And my dad finally put it on exhibit, really set up a nice -- nice display and so forth. And all the monies went to the San Francisco Boys Club."

Martini: "You used the term "the Sutro museum," like it was a distinct part of the building. Was it one particular area that you thought of as the museum?"

Whitney: "Yeah. It was the top level after the main entry level. You'd go downstairs and split -- get down to the first level, and the museum sat sort of on the roof of the main building."

Martini: "And that would have been where Ito was located, the mummies; a long, straight room, correct?"

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "Running north and south.

"And it -- while my dad owned it, just about everything of one -- at one time or another was displayed there; because it gave him a repository for a lot of the collections and different things like that. It also, in his mind, enhanced the interest of the building and so forth. But it was also, basically, good storage space."

Martini: "Yeah.

"Rickshaws, people in rickshaws" --

Whitney: "I don't recall."

Martini: -- "show in some of the photos, yeah."

Whitney: "I don't recall that."

Martini: "Lots -- lots of stuff.

"After that, I remember you went down flights of stairs. And then you came out through like a big promenade" --

Whitney: "Right."

Martini: -- "that circled the ice-skating rink.

"What would you have considered that level to have been? What was its purpose, just" --

Whitney: "It would be -- like if you were entering a home, you'd come in the entrance and the entry, go up and down a level, or whatever, of stairs and get to a level that would possibly be a library, which was the museum."

"And then if you went on down, the next level was the living room; and it had the biggest collection of the plants, the indoor plants, that Sutro had planted in there a long time ago, and the big trees and so forth. So it was the main --main floor for them viewing, over the railing, the immensity of the pools and so forth.

Martini: "And then the next levels down all pertained to the pools and -- like on the next one -- next level down, I believe, was where the ice-cold tank was, in that stairway. And then, of course, on the main north-south access to the building were the -- all of the changing rooms for the swimming pools. They made a big deal, in the old publicity, about there were all these individual, private dressing rooms."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Were we talking like big rooms, little rooms? Closets?"

Whitney: "Closet."

Martini: "Closets, yeah."

Whitney: "Yeah. Yeah, just enough room to comfortably take your clothes off and hang 'em up and put on your swimsuit, which usually people rented as part of the entry. And then they would -- then they were able to close and lock that -- it became their locker while they were swimming."

Martini: "Mm-hm. Oh, okay."

Whitney: "And all of these -- these dressing rooms were built under the main viewing bleachers for the main pools, where they could -- people could sit and watch exhibitions of swimming or races in the big tank and so forth."

Martini: "When you took over possession of the baths and the last years that you were running it, was there -- we hear rumors of like piles of old bathing suits left behind and stuff like that. Was there -- was there still a lot of remnants?"

Whitney: "Well, they were still there; and we got rid of a lot of them and then, eventually, put the remnants in auction when we were getting rid of some of the Cliff House -- some of the old Cliff House stuff. And, of course, everybody connected in the business wanted one of the swimming suits; and I had four or five of them, of different shapes and ages.

"So they -- they -- there was a great deal of interest, right from the beginning, in these things as artifacts and relics and memorabilia and so forth."

Martini: "The lowest level down, that was the ice-skating rink; right?"

Whitney: "Well, the ice-skating rink was built up over the end of the main tank."

Martini: "Like the L, the dogleg?"

Whitney: "Yeah, it was an L. And the -- it was dammed off so that the long leg of -- not the leg, but the upright of the L still remained as a swimming pool, a big, rectangular pool.

"And the ice rink was the leg. The flat part, horizontal part, was built over the tank so that you had full headroom underneath it. And it was all supported; the ice rink was all supported with timbers and so forth.

Martini: "Ooh."

Whitney: "Now, I know I've seen it in there, but I forget completely where they had the big ice-making unit. It had to be back in that maintenance building, and then it was -- the ammonia and so forth necessary to make ice was piped up and they made the ice.

"And, of course, we had one of the very first of those machines that would grade the ice."

Martini: "Zamboni."

Whitney: "Zambonis. Whichever -- he had 'em -- he ended up with a monopoly in that business. And, basically, still goes on; because there's still a lot of ice skating."

Martini: "I often wondered how that worked, if the ice-skating rink was set into the pool. So it was actually above it?"

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Oh, okay."

Whitney: "Well, you know, in that photo that shows the -- that one other pool all closed off?"

Martini: "Mm-hm."

Whitney: "That's done the same way."

Martini: "Okay. Okay."

Whitney: "That was dammed off and the floor was lifted up. And you had full maintenance headroom underneath so that you could constantly inspect the timbers that supported the -- the rink or the stage platform."

Martini: "Yeah.

"What we're talking about, just for reference for some of the listeners to the tape, is some of the photos that show all of the bathing tanks in operation."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "And one of them has been planked over as a stage for public events" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "one of the five small pools.

"What kind of staff did it take to run Sutro Baths? Was it" --

Whitney: "Well, when my dad acquired the property, he also acquired the manager. And she ran the whole operation almost herself, Manny Glantz. She was an ice skater, but not in a commercial and -- but she knew the ice-rink business enough that allowed the associations to get in and basically take over and create as much rink time as they could.

"And then they would rent it to their members on a time deal, so that they'd rent maybe an hour of time. And she was the one that really got that going. But it was -- the -- it was a very -- there was not a high labor when we took it over, because the ice rink wasn't that difficult. The -- my -- my brother-in-law's brother took over the maintenance of the plant, and they rebuilt it and modernized it, made it more efficient. But he still retained his position at Playland. So it was -- that kind of an approach.

"When they needed some construction in there for modifying the museum, or whatever, it was somebody that worked full time on the Playland that would go up there, be assigned up there to do the job. And when the job was finished, they went back to the Playland."

Martini: "And when I talked with Ed Zelinsky, he was under the impression that, frequently, the smaller attractions, like the operating models and the music machines, were moved between the Cliff House and Sutro's and Playland, just to see how they'd" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah?"

Whitney: "Yeah. They were space fillers" --

Martini: "Space fillers, mm-hm."

Whitney: -- "more attraction; traffic generators in certain areas where we weren't getting enough attraction, to get people to walk that far and then see that there was something just beyond that was worth seeing.

"There was a big collection of large, like full-size dioramas, like a lady swinging on the moon and" --

Whitney: "Yeah. A lot of those figures -- yesterday, I said that the -- that Messmore & Damon did Laffing Sal."

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: "But I think it was Philadelphia Toboggan Company. But those two companies turned out a lot of stuff that was exactly the same.

[Whitney Interview continues…]


George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview:

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