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Playland Remembered

This SF Bay Area museum pays tribute to amusement parks of yore, but it's about to close

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

It doesn't look like much from the outside, but when you enter Playland-Not-At-The-Beach in El Cerrito, California, you're cast back to a world of old-time amusement parks and carnival sideshows. The 9000-square-foot museum pays tribute to Playland at the Beach, which operated near San Francisco's Ocean Beach from 1926 to 1972. It also contains items from the old Sutro Baths & Museum, as well as a hand-carved miniature circus and a set of dioramas depicting "The World of Charles Dickens."

El Cerrito, between Richmond and Berkeley in the East Bay, happens to be where I live. I can't count the times I walked past this place without giving much thought to what might be inside. Curiosity finally got the best of me, and I spent several hours last December taking pictures, which you'll see in the gallery below. It was time well spent.

Among the attractions: "Side Show," with oddities such as a two-headed duckling, an (alleged) alien baby and a fossil that supposedly demonstrates that Tinker Bell was real. "The Coney Island Pinball Museum" contains working pinball machines dating back to the 1930s, all set on free play. "Dark Mystery" depicts old haunted house rides. The museum also contains two "Laughing Sals," an animated figure that beckoned to amusement park visitors during much of the 20th century.

Frank Biafore, who manages the museum, is also president of the International Eartha Kitt Fan Club, and his office serves as the club headquarters. He dubs it "The Happiest Place on Eartha." Eartha Kitt was best known as a singer, but she was also an actress who portrayed Catwoman in the campy 1960s "Batman" TV series.

Sadly, the non-profit museum is set to close later this year, as the building is slated to be demolished for a condo development. The proprietors are seeking a new location for the collection, but folks in the Bay Area shouldn't miss a chance to see this place while it's still here.

The museum is open on weekends, and schedules "After Dark" hours for adults on Thursday nights. Admission is $15, or $10 for kids up to 14 and seniors 55 or older. It's also available for birthday parties and other special events. It's at 10979 San Pablo Avenue (between Manila and Potrero) in El Cerrito, phone (510) 592-3002.

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