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George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview, Page 2

Whitney Interview Continued:

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Martini: "Arcades and places, they've had -- they've kind of been tainted by a carnie-type atmosphere. How did your" --

Whitney: "Well" --

Martini: "How did your dad deal with all these people coming in? There must have been some elements -- you must have to keep an eye on the different concessions."

Midway concession from Playland, 1970s. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

Whitney: "Yeah.

"One of the best examples, and kind of an interesting story, Harold Smith, Smith's Club up in Reno, the gambling -- I've got to get the names right. The son was Harold; the father -- oh, gosh, I just draw a blank. But then there was another son.

"But Harold was a born gambler, and he -- he went to work out at Playland in the games. And he was up and down the midway, gambling with all of our people. When things were slow, he'd be up betting that he could knock the baseballs off the [shelf] -- that type of deal."

Martini: "Putting some real money on the games of skill."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"And my -- my father didn't want any professional gamblers connected with the business -- Raymond Smith was his father, Raymond Smith; and then the other was Raymond Smith, Jr.

"But in the whole thing, my dad's advice to the father was get the kid out of here and get him up into Reno, where he can make some money. And out of the conversations, Harold, as I understand it, opened a penny bingo. Because who's going to complain about a penny game? And so he was able to work himself into a business that had a lot of criminal element controlling from the big -- the big shows and the big gambling houses. And he started out with a penny bingo, gradually built it into the" --

Martini: "The Harold's Club today?"

Whitney: "Hmm?"

Martini: "The Harold's Club of today?"

Whitney: -- "The Harold's Club of today.

"But that -- that's kind of a story of what my dad saw. He and the father became good friends. And the fact that my dad didn't just throw Harold out and create a deal was greatly appreciated back and forth. And Raymond became a good friend of my father and, at a later date, when Harold's Club did their first big remodel and did the big panorama that's out in the front, that was designed by my uncle; and my uncle set up the gun collection inside. So there was a continuing relationship."

Martini: "Now, you mentioned that your uncle, Leo, was -- did a lot of the artistic and design work?"

Whitney: "Yeah. He was the artist of the business, creative in that way. My dad was the creative artist when it came to the financial and the business and the approach to amusements. My dad was a great one for knowing what people would like, and he then was able to tell his brother what he would like in the way of a finished product without having any ability whatsoever to get that finished product. And my uncle would put it together and do the artwork within the framework of what they both liked in the way of printing, design, all of this."

Martini: "That—that very unique Whitney's kind of labeling and typeface, the signage --"

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: -- "that was all over?"

"And was your uncle -- he was responsible for Topsy's Roost design?"

Whitney: "Oh, yes, he did -- almost exclusively."

Martini: "Tell me about Topsy's -- Topsy's Roost. When did that get going?"

Chicken dinner restaurant in Playland. -

Whitney: "Topsy's -- there was a restaurant at the southwest end of the front block, the Big Dipper block. And a chap put the -- got the idea of the half fried chicken and so forth. And over a little period of time, my dad acquired the right to do that job; because the -- the owner wanted to retire. And so they ran that corner stall as Topsy's Roost. And my uncle started the design work, and then they realized they had -- really had something.

"So they took the big chateau building or chalet building at the far end" --

Martini: "The casino building."

Whitney: -- "the casino building, yes, and designed the main Topsy's Roost.

"And I'm -- I'm hazy at when it opened, but I know that we were going full blast in '29; and it didn't last too many years after that because of the -- the economy, as far as food was concerned and restaurants."

Martini: "Oh, you—yeah, you opened just at the start of the big Depression."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Okay. I'm going to flip the tape."

[Begin Tape 1, Side B]

Martini: "You'd mentioned -- we were talking about Topsy's Roost on the other side of the tape. That was -- everybody that worked there, except the manager, they were black?"

Whitney: "Every one, yeah. Now, I'm not certain about the orchestra. But for a while, Red Nickels and his Five Little Pennies played there, before they became as well known as later. And I -- I don't recall remembering the orchestra. My memory became sharper when the entertainment, basically, was provided by the -- a combo of negros who were employees -- waiters and so forth -- and also played music and tap danced and so forth as entertainment.

"Because the musicians union wanted to change the Cliff House -- or Topsy's from a Class B or C cabaret to a full-blown Class A, which would have been about two or three times the expense. And as a result of that, plus the fact that the Depression had really gotten going -- well, not the Depression, but the Crash had gotten going in '29 and was sort of the handwriting on the wall. And my dad said, 'I'm just not going to let them coerce me.' So he and my uncle closed it" --

Martini: "Really."

Whitney: -- "closed it when it was still making money.

"My dad was always very afraid of fire. And it just -- so it started from the first night, when the place was open and jammed with over a thousand people, that a fire, very minor, but got started in the kitchen and -- I believe in the deep fryer for the chicken or for the potatoes. And the fire department came in and very quietly herded people around and so forth, but got the -- the exits opened, everything ready to evacuate; but they were able to get it under control. And practically no one knew that such an occurrence had taken place on opening night.

Front of promotional postcard for Topsy's Roost, run by the Whitney Brothers at Playland, 1930. -

"But from that moment on, my dad was always afraid of fire. And the connection -- it was an old wooden structure, the whole building."

Martini: "Yeah, all of Playland was -- was all wood, wasn't it, out there?"

Whitney: "Yeah, all wood."

Martini: "Yeah.

"Well, (inaudible) has quite a history of fires and explosions out there in that neighborhood anyway, in the old days."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "So was -- taking over the Cliff House and reopening it, that came after the Topsy's Roost shut -- shut down."

Whitney: "Yes."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"I think my dad acquired the Cliff House in '37, so the reopening of it occurred after that and was just primarily the main restaurant.

"And there was the continual back and forth between my -- my dad, who wanted the -- the business, basically, shopped at the tourist, where my uncle wanted to upgrade it. And his then wife wanted to become the decorator and everything, and my dad lost out to them and opened it. And it had crystals on the table and all of the fine deals of a fine restaurant, but business didn't take off. And, finally, my dad says, 'I've had it.' And he took all of the -- all of those fine accouterments and got rid of them and brought it down to -- down to earth, where the people who were wearing the shorts, coming out to San Francisco, could still come in and eat, where with my -- my aunt -- at that time aunt -- she wanted them comin' out with top hat and tails."

Martini: "Yeah.

"Restaurants are risky businesses. And in 1937, that must have been a real risk to take on a place as big and as remote as Cliff House and open it to the"—

Whitney: "Yeah.

"I -- of course, I -- I wasn't that interested in what was going on. I was away in boarding schools and, not too long after that, was up in college; and then I was into the service. And my activity with the business, from a business sense, didn't start until '46, when I got out of the Army."

Martini: "Out of the military, hm-hm."

Whitney: "And I started laying around, and my father said, 'Tomorrow, you go down and start doing this at the -- at the Playland.' And to escape that end, I went back to school. And then I -- I dropped out of school and decided to go to work for my father."

Martini: "How did you -- how did you first get involved with the day-to-day operations? You said your dad tried to bring -- to bring you in and you went to school."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "When you did finally get back, what did he have you doing?

"I guess this is probably about 1950 or so?"

Whitney: "Well, I had -- I had spent summers -- and I can't tell you the actual years --but I had worked in some of the hot-dog stands, the pie shop, the different food facilities. For some reason, he wanted me -- I think because he didn't like the food any more than I did. Not the quality of it or the taste of it, but the business of it. But -- here I go again."

Martini: "The day-to-day" --

Whitney: "I had something going."

Martini: "He had you working in the food -- around the food concessions."

Whitney: "Yeah -- oh, you asked me how did I get going in the business."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "And so that was summer business, quite a bit. And after the war and after the school, when I decided to go to work for him -- I worked for the Bank of America for a short while in the foreign trade division. We were -- I was on an assignment to open the -- be part of the team that opened the first Bank of America in Tokyo."

Martini: "After the war."

Whitney: "Yeah.

"And I didn't take to the bureaucracy of the bank and went out and told my dad I was ready to go to work. So my first job and the main job that I had for -- for quite a while was running the midway; all the games, overseeing all the rides, except from a mechanical standpoint" --

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: -- "from an operational standpoint.

"And I worked most of the games: The skeeballs, the -- the bingos and the things of that nature.

"Now, when I say 'bingo,' there was a game that came out down in Southern California called Fascination. And Fascination was a small version of bing- -- of what later became bingo. But my uncle writes about the creation of bingo, and he claims in there that they were -- that he and my dad were the first to do the real big amusement park bingo and give it that name."

Martini: "Really?"

Whitney: "Now, my uncle was not prone to exaggerate, like my dad was. I don't know if exaggerate, but -- embellish."

Martini: "Embellish."

Whitney: "But -- so there's a deep tie to bingo in our operation."

Martini: "That's -- so bingo of a thousand church basements may have been born at Playland."

Whitney: "Yeah.

Shooting concession on Playland midway. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

"His -- his -- my uncle definitely says that they created the name there. The concept of the game already existed, but it hadn't been really pulled into a deal. My uncle designed an operation so that it was a big room and -- with a -- a target cart that would roll up and down, so that there would -- it could roll in front of the individual player, who would them throw the baseball to roll around on the top and drop into a numbered box or a lettered box. And it was that concept that became really the bingo in amusement parks."

Martini: "So when you were supervising these various games, you were -- what would you do? You know, go out to the skeeball and make sure that it was on the up and up?"

Whitney: "Basically -- basically, you patrol the midway" --

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: -- "just constantly, back and forth, and drink coffee.

"God, we had so much horrible coffee in those years, but it -- primarily, it was -- I always worked from noon until midnight. I had a 12-hour day from the day I started, with time out for dinner at home."

Martini: "So this was -- this was your role when Walt Disney came up and talked with your dad?"

Whitney: "This -- I had graduated so that I had taken over some of the responsibility of the food operations that -- restaurants, as they went out of business, we took over and modified. So that we had, at one time, 14 of our own restaurants or food facilities: The Pie Shop, the It Stand, the Sea Lion restaurant and so forth.

"And we had an excellent man, Al Hines, who was the manager of the food business. And I worked with Al because he'd grown up -- he'd seen me grown up, and he was a great one for teaching. And so we worked together, and I became, in his absence, the food manager. He really ran the thing and told me what to do, but I would have that.

"But the main thing that I had and where I was creative in my own way were in some of the games that we had. Rides were -- basically, my brother-in-law got involved in, although he was primarily in building. And then we retained his brother, who became top engineer, on the ride maintenance.

"So there was a continuation of family. My brother-in-law was my father's gofer, and --which my father needed. And Floyd did the job and did that job well, and even to the point of helped design the 1950 remodel of the Cliff House and so forth."

Martini: "What was his full name?"

Whitney: "Floyd R. Gillman."

Martini: "Floyd R. Gillman."

Whitney: "My sister was Beatrice Gillman."

Martini: "Okay. When you mentioned the rides and designing the rides and all that, were the rides that were there, were they off-the-shelf rides?

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "They were? Okay."

Whitney: "Basically, all off the shelf, except for things like the Fun House. Of course, the (missing) by -- I believe it was the Looff brothers. Either that or they did the merry-go-round."

Martini: "Looff brothers were the merry-go-round, I know."

Whitney: "Yeah."

Martini: "Okay."

Whitney: "And I forget -- Lutz" --

Martini: "Oh, okay."

Whitney: -- "I think Lutz did the Big Dipper.

"And we had a man, William Smith, Bill Smith, who did all the maintenance and ran the thing. And he was a real old-timer and a wonderful man.

"You know, an awful lot of the people that worked for my dad were Masons, because my dad was a very early-on Mason after Australia, before he came down to San Francisco. And it just so happened that the Masons gravitated -- he didn't seek them out to make the operation exclusive, but he ended up mostly with Masons. And it was -- the people that came out of the Masonic order at that time were -- were a little above the usual class. They -- they had a belief in things and they had the camaraderie of their lodges and so forth. And they were -- some -- the best employees that we ever had in management were all Masons."

Martini: "Was it easier to have them all just as straight employees on salary than to have a bunch of independent concessionaires in there?"

Whitney: "Well, we've gone through both. I wanted to run the things myself. My dad had gotten tired and wanted to get some of the stuff off his back, and I was still traipsing around in the Army or in the thing. So he switched to a lot of concessionaires. And by the time he had died and I had come in as full -- as president of the corporation, I wanted to go back in and run the thing ourselves; because I saw the way that the whole operation was integrated, that you couldn't run the rides without the food. There was an integration. And we wanted just more control of the operation, to change it when we wanted and to put in new when we wanted and so forth."

Martini: "What was the -- what was the big profit there? Was everything bringing in equal or did some things really" --

Whitney: "Games -- games became really -- from a money standpoint, the games that were quasi-gambling, where people could bet -- and they couldn't bet more than two cents, except that they could bet multiples of two-cents tickets; but they couldn't ever bet any more than a dollar."

Candy concession at Playlan amusement park, 1970s. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

Martini: "Right."

Whitney: "So it -- the Spinning Wheels of Fortune and so forth were all predicated off of the 10-cent play."

Martini: "Gotcha."

Whitney: "And" --

Martini: "Were the rides -- did they -- were they an attraction to draw people in for the games or did the rides" --

Whitney: "Rides primarily attracted the younger people."

Martini: "Ah-ha."

Whitney: "The older people wanted to have the fun of -- of the bingo game, playing the Skeeball, which was relatively new and very -- very well liked by the older people because there wasn't a lot of weight to it and a lot of exercise, but they could play it well. The food went for everybody."

Martini: "Yeah."

Whitney: "But the games were kind of divided, because there were, as we said, wheel games and skill games. Skill games are the ones where there is an -- an element of skill. And by that element of skill, at that time, the law was such that it wasn't a gamble."

Martini: "Ah."

Whitney: "And what made bingo legal at that time was the fact that each patron threw the ball into the hopper, and where it ended was a little bit up to his skill. Of course, it was more up to chance than to his skill; but that element of skill was accepted for years."

[Whitney Interview continues…]

George K. Whitney, Jr. Interview:

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