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On Sunday, Aug. 5, a special screening of two of writer/director Tom Wyrsch’s documentaries at the Crest Theatre offered history, laughter and memories for those who had spent time in the Fun House, sampled enchiladas at the Hot House or had experienced indoor saltwater swimming. Both “Remembering Playland at the Beach” and “Sutro’s: the Palace at Land’s End” were shown.
Wyrsch was on hand before and after each film to answer questions from the audience that ranged from whether the Hot House ever reopened to why he shot the film in 4:3 instead of widescreen.
He was also asked whether he used film or digital. Digital was used for the shooting of both films, he explained, and he then spoke about a great loss.
“Most film from the 1960s and 1970s was tossed out or given away because there was no way to support the libraries,” Wyrsch said.
There was also a question about Ernie Fosselius, an actor who kept the audience laughing throughout the film about Playland and returned for a cameo in the second film. He makes parody films and has been in all four of Wyrsch’s documentaries. Many said they hope that he'll appear in Wyrsch's fifth documentary, "The Cliff House Story," which began production in July.
Many in the audience recalled childhood fun at Playland through the documentary that included still shots; film; and interviews with historians, former employees and visitors, and representatives from The Playland-Not-at-the-Beach Museum in El Cerrito.
The either non-frightening or very frightening Laffing Sal whose laugh could be heard for blocks, the Fun House platter that would spin kids off from the middle out and the giant slide were also discussed.
The longer documentary, “Sutro’s,” was also a great hit as many in the audience said they never realized the scope of what is now protected ruins waiting to be explored. Many said that they had seen the ruins but did not know what was there, that they believed that it must have been big. The film opened with a history of Adolph Sutro, moved into the famous baths and ended where it should, with the fire on June 26, 1966.
The audience was clearly engaged with both films, and no matter their reason for attending – memories, history, curiosity – left after the double-feature with no complaints.
Some audience members voiced that they had never been to either location. Another had lived in San Francisco for many years but had also never been to either location. Each echoed the sentiment that they wished they had been able to visit Playland or Sutro’s.
One audience member had visited both as a young girl, and she recalled the feeling of being in the saltwater pool and of making her way through the Fun House barrel.
These films, whether viewed individually or together, provide a look into San Francisco’s past, offer the chance to experience a type of sideshow museum history and a peek at a simpler time when spending the day in the Fun House was all a kid really needed.
The next stop for Wyrsch's films will be the San Francisco Public Library on August 22.