Laffing Sal, San Francisco’s Creepiest Tourist Attraction

I moved to San Francisco, way out near the ocean, in 1972. Just a short walk from my house was a rubble strewn, abandoned theme park called Playland at the Beach. I wandered through just before the wrecking ball smashed it to smithereens. Playland had a roller coaster, a fun house, a replica of Noah’s Ark, a diving bell. Its creepy ambience costarred in Orson Welles’ “Lady From Shanghai,” “The Princess Diaries,” and many others, some of dubious distinction such Roger Corman’s “X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes.”

The Big Dipper - Playland at the Beach, San Francisco

Playland may be gone, but one attraction remains undead, a wire, fabric and paper mache’ mechanical action figure, a woman the size of a horse with a horse-like laugh, a recurring childhood nightmare named Laffing Sal.

When Playland was torn down, someone ripped off Sal’s head, but the man who developed the condos that replaced Playland commissioned a new one. There were probably dozens of Sals and variations herof around the country. They were produced by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company during the 20s and 30s. Sal’s voice was originally provided by a stack of 78 RPM records played on a turntable concealed in her base. That was replaced by a cartridge tape and now, like everything else, she’s gone digital.

One Sal was purchased by the Santa Cruz Boardwalk for $50 thousand dollars. Sal also still lives at a museum of Playland artifacts in El Cerrito, California called Playland Not at the Beach. Playland’s carousel was restored and is operating at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center.

One Sal is still creeping out children and adults alike at the Musée Mécanique, an historic collection of carnival games, player pianos, automaton fortune tellers and the like at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. We bribed her to “laff” by inserting some quarters.

So give the old girl a watch…and sweet dreams.

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