A Playland from the past
Tucked snugly in bed, the window of his upstairs bedroom open on a warm summer night, Hal Schlegel would fall asleep to a cacophony of fun...
Seattle Times staff reporter
You can help "find" PlaylandHave a park memory to share? Maybe some old film footage? A vintage artifact? Greg Brotherton plans to have his "Finding Playland" documentary film in the can by the end of 2008. He still seeks stories from people who visited Playland as well as vintage video of the park. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Shoreline Historical Museum is planning to expand its Playland exhibits and its archive. Vicki Stiles, museum executive director, is searching for physical artifacts from the park as well as photos and ephemera. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Tucked snugly in bed, the window of his upstairs bedroom open on a warm summer night, Hal Schlegel would fall asleep to a cacophony of fun from across the way — carousel music playing, midget cars racing around a track, girls screaming while braving scary amusement-park rides.
These were the sounds of his youth. This was Playland.
"Magic," said Schlegel, now 65, in describing those sounds today.
On the south shore of Bitter Lake, Playland Amusement Park electrified a generation of Seattle children from 1930 to 1960, creating memories that endure even as remnants of the park are few and far between.
To them, the Dipper was not something to search for in the sky but rather an 85-foot-high roller coaster with sharp corners and quick drops. They remember the first time they went down the Shoot the Chutes water ride and can recall collisions in the Dodgem cars.
That desire for nostalgia is reviving the spirit of Playland.
Local filmmaker Greg Brotherton, aided by a $4,200 King County 4Culture heritage grant, is making a 30-minute documentary, "Finding Playland," which sets out to show not only what the park was but also what it meant to people. Combining recent interviews with historic black-and-white footage, he wants the film to amuse those who visited Playland and those who never knew it existed.
"How we play is an important part of our history," said Brotherton, who lives a block from where Playland used to be.
Playland was open only during the summer, with about 10 rides and a midway with plenty of arcade games. The park hosted marathon dance contests, and the Fun House featured a hall of mirrors. A "dark ride" offered opportunities for giggly young couples to make out.
Brotherton's documentary will build upon years of research by a woman whose fascination with Playland has resulted in a static exhibit, a traveling exhibit and a rich archive of photos and ephemera at the Shoreline Historical Museum.
Kay Smithson, who had visited Playland only once as a tot, began working on the museum exhibit in 1994. In search of someone — anyone — who had worked at Playland, she dropped off a flier at a local antique mall. Hal Schlegel, who like most of the Bitter Lake neighbor kids worked at Playland in the summer during high school, saw one.
The two met. They picked each other's brains about Playland. They fell in love. She's now Kay Schlegel.
The Schlegels are Brotherton's neighbors. Brotherton would toss the Frisbee to his two coon hounds at Bitter Lake Park, having no idea that it was once the site of an amusement park.
The Schlegels filled him in, explaining that in addition to the park, the old 32-acre Playland property now houses the Bitter Lake Community Center, Broadview-Thomson Elementary School and the Four Freedoms House retirement home.
"What's shocking is how it just disappeared without a trace," Brotherton said.
"Very special place"
At the time it opened, Playland was in the boondocks, north of city limits but accessible by trolley. Back then, the lights atop the Dipper, built upon what is now North 130th Street, could be seen as far south as the Ship Canal.
Yet Playland almost never was. After it opened in May 1930, the original investors bailed as the Depression set in, selling the park to the Oregon-based designer and builder of the Dipper, Carl E. Phare. Although Phare may have been an accidental owner, he and his family invested heart and soul in Playland until the bitter end.
For the film, Brotherton traveled to California to interview Phare's daughter and son-in-law and also to Chicago to meet the couple's son. He interviewed the grandson of an early owner of Playland rides and recorded memories of locals, including Hal Schlegel.
"Playland occupied a very special place in the hearts of those who went there, and they've all wanted to talk about it," Brotherton said.
As Brotherton's grant application was presented to 4Culture, board member George W. "Skip" Rowley offered his own memory of the Dipper.
"It scared the living daylights out of you, but you went back and did it again," he said.
Playland was best-known for its rides, but it also once was the jungle for Tusko, an elephant billed as the world's largest in captivity. Tusko resided at Playland briefly in 1932 after his promoter stranded him during an appearance there. The Woodland Park Zoo eventually took him in.
Several fires burned at Playland during its 30-year run, including two at the adjacent racing-car speedway that, although not technically part of Playland, was considered by visitors as part of the same complex. Playland survived each blaze.
Closed in 1960
Kay Schlegel theorizes that the approaching Seattle's World Fair in 1962 — and a desire to rub out any competition for it — ultimately did in Playland.
When Playland shut down in 1960, most rides were demolished, their cars sold as salvage to other amusement parks. But Kay Schlegel's research tracked the Shoot the Chutes boats to Quilcene, Jefferson County, on the Olympic Peninsula, where they were used as oyster beds.
The Schlegels collect plaster figurines given away at Playland as carnival prizes. Legend has it that boxes of the figurines were chucked into Bitter Lake when the park shut down.
But no one seems to know what became of a Playland neon sign on Aurora Avenue North that promised "Fun for All."
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The information in this article, originally published Jan. 2, 2008, was corrected Jan. 5, 2008. The Shoreline Historical Museum's e-mail address is email@example.com. A previous version of the story incorrectly listed the museum's e-mail address.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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