George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview, Page 9

Whitney Interview Continued:

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Martini: "The names that appear on the largest proposals or the earliest, the 1965 ones, is a Wurster Bernardi Emmons, architects?"

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah. That was your" --


Aerial view of Sutro Baths, 1930s? - Courtesy of Dennis O'Rorke.

Whitney: "That was a -- there was some personal connection with Wurster, and I can't -- I think it was through -- more through my sister and brother-in-law" --

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: -- "who knew him socially and so forth.

"And, also, at the same time, I was doing another plan, which was some modifications to Playland. And I was using the other architect" --

Martini: "Mario?"

Whitney: -- "Mario Giordano.

"And then there was a period in between where -- not Giordano, but he became a very --one of the top city designers and planners, did a lot of the freeway work in designing the supports and so forth. Italian name, and I -- but it just goes out now.

"But I was working with him down below, and then we were working with Wurster Bernardi on the first. And then this is really more just Al Beach and me (indicating)."

Martini: "Okay. These would be the ones with the reference numbers" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "Cliff House 9, 10, and et cetera."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "The scaled-back versions, I guess, is a way to describe them."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Did you -- how did the local neighborhood and the City of San Francisco, did you involve them in any of these designs" --

Whitney: "We never got to the point of really involving the city.

"And, of course, somewhere along in this chronology, the federal government got interested, or the Park Service. It was really between the congressman in San Francisco by the name of Burton. And then there was another congressman, and I'm not too sure -- I don't recall the name offhand. But the two of them got vying with each other in the creation of the size of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. And one would say, 'Oh, I want to include this extra 20 acres.' The other one would say, 'Well, I want to include this extra 25 acres.'

"As a result of those back-and-forth deals between those politicians, they got the property up so big that they had to take the Cliff House. And they were working on getting Playland and all that property at the time."

Martini: "So there was some talk about taking of Playland even?"

Whitney: "They wanted to take every bit of property that they could get along the waterfront. They didn't want any private ownership of waterfront property."

Martini: "Did they talk to you directly about this, however? Did Philip Burton or his aides ever come and discuss this with you?"

Whitney: "No, never saw a politician. This was strictly I put up to a Republican trying to outdo a Democrat and a Democrat trying to outdo a Republican."

Martini: "So" --

Whitney: "And the park just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger."

Martini: "Hmm, boy.

"How did you -- how'd you react to that, when people are planning what's going to happen to your property without talking to you?"

Whitney: "Well, it -- we finally realized that if they wanted the property, they were going to get the property. And so the best thing to do was to work with them.

"And, eventually -- you mentioned his name, who was the head of the park department."

Martini: "Bill Whalen" --

Whitney: "Whalen."

Martini: -- "the superintendent."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"Well, he and his associates and so forth, and we negotiated then on the property. And, eventually, I came to a figure that I would be willing to take. And, in fact, some of these architectural renderings were done strictly for the negotiation of our trying to establish the potential value of the land."

Martini: "Oh."

Whitney: "Which one -- and it might have been the Wurster Bernardi. I'd have to go back and look -- yeah, because it was the whole property."

Martini: "There are -- there are many others that I didn't bring."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "So -- okay. So these were -- in some cases, these were illustrations of what could happen" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "future value, rather than existing vacant land value."

Whitney: "Or potential projects, other than pipe dreams."

Martini: "Got you.

"What was the number that you felt was fair for the property?"

Whitney: "In excess of $5,000,000. I don't know whether I said $6,000,000 or six -- or five and a half, but it was somewhere along in those numbers. Because, eventually, what I was paid was six-and-a-half million."

Martini: "So -- and what were the parameters of the land that the Park Service was dealing with? Was it the baths and the Cliff House?"

Whitney: "All the privately owned property up there that we owned, meaning the Whitney family, or the successors to the ownership of the back property of Sutro. And then, of course, they had all of the city property above Merrie Way and so forth."

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: "And who's the ownership in there, I don't know."

Martini: "City and county."

Whitney: "But they were shooting to get a pretty good-sized chunk."

Martini: "But I would guess that they didn't include Playland, that" --

Whitney: "No."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "No. That kind of came along as -- well, you know, we can always do this. I think it was probably more trying to intimidate me than -- because as I might not look my age right now, during this period, I looked more like a kid than I did a man. And I think that an awful lot of the problems I had in negotiation was based on that."

Martini: "So what was -- what was their response when you said in excess of $5,000,000?"

Whitney: "'Oh, you're ridiculous, ridiculous.'

"So we ended up with a five-year fight. And during the five years, I was able to develop the economic base of the Cliff House operation by increasing its earning capacity. In association with Danny Hountalas, who did the running, we negotiated -- he and I worked out that he would pay a percentage of the gross -- percentage of the gross as rent. And that number was divised by what he was able to pay the month before.

"And so as business was escalating, the earning capacity of the property was going up, the earning capacity issues as part of establishing value. So by the time we ended up selling the property -- actually, five years later; was just a few days before the condemnation hearing was going to take place -- the government accepted a number very close to mine.

"But we -- we had built the business, the business' gross, by developing mainly the Cliff House operation. The bar became a fern bar, and the Omelette House, and all of those things produced revenue."

Martini: "'Cause there was a time, about 1970, '71, when the Cliff House was pretty much closed down almost entirely, wasn't it? The restaurant was closed and" --

Whitney: "Well, the big restaurant, yeah -- although after my dad died and so forth, I ended up with the Cliff House. We didn't do too bad. We didn't -- we weren't running losses. We were still doing fairly good. And I think -- 'cause I carried on my dad's philosophy of not getting too elegant. So we kept the menu and so forth more to the average person's liking and -- and it continued to make money right up to the day that the government handed me the check."

[Begin Tape 4, Side A]

Martini: George Whitney interview, Tape Number 4; August 14th, 2002.

Whitney: "I'm surprised myself at how much I remember, but I also surprised myself how much I forgot. Like I have to get into these conversations; and then, all of a sudden, Wurster Bernardi and Emmons, hell, they worked on this at this time and so forth.

"'Cause as this -- as all this was going on in various phases -- not so much this Cliff House stuff -- I was also fighting the family, the personal relationship between my mother and my sister and I."

Martini: "I kind of picked that up, yeah."

Whitney: "Yeah. My sister really was pissed off that she wasn't richer than she was, and my mother resented the fact that the kids were running the business. My sister was very resentful of the fact that my dad had left me the responsibility of the general, overall management of the business; and that they -- they didn't come to me for -- when they wanted something specific, but my sister was resentful as hell that she didn't get the things that she wanted without asking."

Martini: "It sounds like it got especially acrimonious when your mom went in" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "to deal with this fellow, Bob."

Whitney: "Well, that -- this started right from the very beginning. My mother -- until my uncle's wife died -- who basically became my mother's sister, the two of them were that close; and their daughter, Leo's daughter, was the exact same age as my sister. And I was the odd man out in the family. I was little Georgie. And one of the first projects that they would do is build me a workshop down in the basement, where I was relegated to. Because the sisters -- I was too young to play with them or too old to play with them, one way or the other.

"And one of the things my dad would do is he would come home from work for dinner. And the first thing he would do is go into the living room with the Call Bulletin, the evening San Francisco paper. There were gates on the entry to the living room. He would close the gates, which was a signal to me not to go anywhere near. My mother would fix him a scotch and soda, and he would sit there and read. He wouldn't say a word to her or anything. And that was his relaxed time.

"And by the time he'd finished the newspaper, she had dinner prepared. And then he was as gregarious in his thing; and I was allowed to speak, although constantly reminded that little boys should be heard and not -- or seen and not heard.

"But that's sort of the genesis -- that's a kind of behind-the-scene reason for quite a few things that happened."

Martini: "But when you were finally going into those negotiations with the Park Service" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "were you representing the whole family or was there still the split?

"Did they" --

Whitney: "Well, Playland was gone. So that was -- that took my mother out; because she was already out of the Cliff House. I had already gotten enough money put together and bought my sister out on the Cliff House. So, yes, the negotiations with the park department were a hundred percent me."

Martini: "Did you have control over the back property again at that point?"

Whitney: "No."

Martini: "You didn't."

Whitney: "No."

Martini: "So the Park Service dealt with him [ed: Frazier] as a separate entity?"

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "I don't know what their arrangements were and everything.

"God, I wish I could remember his name."

Martini: "I'm going to get that."

Whitney: "Yeah. You -- you" --

Martini: "I'm going to get that. I'm going to give Bob" --

Whitney: "You'll recognize it, because it's a big San Francisco name."

Martini: "So when you walked away from the Cliff House, you -- the Park Service did offer you the option to be the manager, to continue on; correct?"

Whitney: "They wanted me to lease back the operation. Because we had been building the business, knowing that I would keep Danny Hountalas as the operator; and that we would keep running it the same way.

"And I said if you are going to own it, you're going to run it. And so I said I will not lease it back."

Martini: "You didn't especially like the restaurant business as much as" --

Whitney: "No. I -- I wasn't interested ever in the food business, wasn't interested in Cliff House. I became -- I got the Cliff House because of the family switching around and my mother getting the power, in essence, to force the sale of Playland, which took it right out of existence, eventually. And so I was out of that.

"And then I was able to get money together and buy my sister out of the remnants of Cliff House Properties, where we had already traded off to Bob the back property. So I -- I ended up owning the building that the gift shop was in and the Cliff House and the Terrace and so forth.

"But I was not really interested in the food business, per se, only in getting it to make money. And the big impetus there came in that I saw the way that we could increase the revenues, thereby increase the value to me, in my negotiations with the government."

Martini: "Oh.

"Now, how did you -- how did you and Marilyn Blaisdell get to know each other?

Whitney: "Just -- just she was interested in the photos and came out at a time when I wanted to get those -- I've wanted to get rid of a lot of these accoutrements along the way. Because I -- everywhere I went when I traveled, I acquired stuff. And out of businesses, I acquired stuff. And, all of a sudden, all of the stuff that I had acquired --which included two homes and an 87-foot boat at one time.

"So I had more clothes than I could ever wear, because I'd keep a wardrobe in one house and a wardrobe in another house and a wardrobe on the boat; so I'd end up with three levels of ownership of clothing. And when I got down to where I was staying in one place, the first bedroom became the closet and those kind of things."

Martini: "And Marilyn helped you organize all of those photographs?"

Whitney: "Yeah. She was interested in the photographs, and I was interested in selling them off and getting rid of them; because I didn't want the details of going through 'em."

Martini: "Where did all those old photos and negatives come from?"

Whitney: "Just over the years, my dad collecting."

Martini: "Collections; collections of collections."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "And, of course, he was -- having worked a great deal in the photo studios that he and my uncle had. In fact, in that article, I think it makes him more of a photographer than I ever heard. But, in any event, they -- from -- always interested in photography. So a lot of those collections came that way."

Martini: "Marilyn also bought a large collection of plans and maps."

Whitney: "Yeah. Once again, to get rid of surplus."

Martini: "Get rid of surplus."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Yeah.

"It's a great collection. A lot of it is Playland" --

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "and that's where all these artists' renderings and all came from."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Now, what -- just for background on that particular collection of plans and maps, what -- aside from the artists' conceptions, what were all the other drawings gathered for? What did you keep them around for? I'm thinking like the rides and the remodelings of the Cliff House."

Whitney: "Pack rat. Pack rat."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "I went through a long period where I couldn't get rid of anything because I was acquiring new. And I couldn't justify, philosophically, buying new and still wanting to get rid of stuff. I didn't know that you could do both."

Martini: "Well, what do you -- what are like your personal feelings now, looking back, on how the public looks at like the legendary Playland, the legendary Sutro Baths? It was your -- it was your day-to-day life. Does it amaze you? Were you" --

Whitney: "Well, I'm sorry that there isn't an amusement park in San Francisco. Every big city should have one. I'm not sorry that Playland itself is gone. I'm just sorry that San Francisco doesn't have a good location with a good amusement park. But I don't know where else it would be any better than where it was.

"So -- but my interest in the business was the amusement park, the midway and so forth. But keep in mind that I had dreams and desires personally that did not include the business at any time."

Martini: "Of course; of course."

Whitney: "I wanted to be a pilot. And, of course, growing up, I was a great airplane modeler and so forth. And when the war started and -- I went into the Air Force and ended up doing a lot of flying; crew, never pilot. But during the thing, I became an illegal pilot, flying military craft; never solo.

"And after the war, then I became a full-fledged pilot. And I've owned five or six airplanes of various types."

Martini: "I noticed the pictures on the walls."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Little jets?"

Whitney: "Yeah. That was the BD-5 jet."

Martini: "Yeah?"

Whitney: "They made a propeller version of it first. And I -- I was one of the original buyers of that. You know, where you put up the money and it was a pipe dream. He was a -- he was another Tucker, but this time in airplanes. And then at some point, he got the plane flying marvelously and came out with the jet version. So I worked out a deal where he'd take my prop jet -- I mean, the prop -- the propeller-driven one that I'd bought back, and I'd get a jet. And by the time that that was all nailed down and running along smoothly, he went bankrupt and I lost my deposits and everything.

"But I have no regrets, because it was part of a -- mention BD-5 to any pilot and they know the romance of the little plane and what happened to it. And so it was a one-of-a-kinder, like talking about the Davis car that I had for a while."

Martini: "The little three-wheeler?"

Whitney: "Yes."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "So that it was a one-of-a-kinder that -- a pipe dream. The Tucker, a pipe dream."

Martini: "Obviously, we've talked about everything there is to talk about. No."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "No. We could probably go on for a lot longer, but this -- this has been great. And I'll be in touch with you again, because -- I can send you more questions, and maybe come up this way again?"

Whitney: "I would say put it off until you can come up and do it this way. Because I -- I just -- I get to the point where I start working on the keyboard" --

Martini: "Oh."

Whitney: -- "the -- my hand just gets going; I can't stop it.

"And I've gotten off of the Internet because I -- I just don't feel comfortable running it. I have to repeat too many things and make corrections. And I -- I find it easier talking than I do writing."

Martini: "It'll have to be in person again.

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Hey, thanks. I'll click this thing off.

"End of tape."

[End of transcription.]


George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview:

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