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.

From Vandalism to Art: Portugal’s Thriving Urban Art Scene

Portugal Embraces Political and Social Expression for All to See
(Even Seniors are Getting Into the Act)

Today Portugal is one of the hottest destinations for travel in Europe. But back in 2008 the country was hit hard by the worldwide recession. Portugal’s austerity measures had put people under tremendous pressure. Lisbon’s central district, the Barrio Alto, a magnet for youth because of the clubs and nightlife, was being hit hard by vandals with spray cans. Three hours drive north of Lisbon, Portugal’s second largest city Porto was also struggling with defacement of long-empty buildings.

(Story continues after the slideshow)

Trolley Urban Art, Lisbon

The graffiti problem was nothing new.  Social and political scrawls and illustrations abounded during the revolutionary period following the 1974 Revolution. And in the harsh economic times of 2008, it rose again. Recognizing that people needed a voice and the tremendous exposure a canvas of city walls could provide, eight years ago the city of Lisbon developed a special platform and dedicated team to address graffiti and street art. That same year, after successfully tackling the graffiti problem in the Bairro Alto, the city set up a legitimate space for artists to create urban art there, giving rise to GAU,(Galleria Arte Urbana) the Urban Art Gallery of the city of Lisbon.

It took some time and dialogue to legitimize and embrace public art, according to Ines Machado of the Lisbon City Council Department of Cultural Heritage: “After a first phase dedicated to winning over those who harbored resistance or distrust (both on the part of the artists and the general public), GAU began to be recognized for its work and took on the role of ‘facilitator’ in the world of street art, which permitted the Gallery to reach a growing number of interlocutors and projects, even becoming a notable reference as an urban art platform both on the national and international stages.”

Lisbon’s mayor, Fernando Medina commented on the platform that the city has provided, “It is that same capacity of merging visual language and political and social critique that, throughout the decades, has been distinctive to Lisbon’s street art. This perception has been one of the main reasons to establish the very peculiar project GAU (Urban Art Gallery). This project aims at promo

ting, protecting as well as adding value to street art as an artistic practice setting it aside from the mere acts of vandalism (those being destitute of meaning, empty).”

So successful were GAU’s efforts in converting mistrust into appreciation of street art and integrating and elevating it as part of Lisbon’s artistic and cultural heritage, that spaces have opened up around the city for street artists to show their works including many who are internationally known artists, though the vast majority of those featured are Portuguese. GAU has caught the world’s attention to promote urban art, exchanges, and networks, and has been invited to present at a growing number of urban art conferences.


Nuno Costah, Grafitti Artist, Porto, Portugal
Nuno Costah, Grafitti Artist, Porto, Portugal

A three-hour train ride north of Lisbon, we reached Porto, where one street artist’s works particularly caught our eye. Nuno Costah, started doing classic graffiti in 1997 and street art, illustrations and wheat pasteup. Five years later, Costah is an independent artist and finds that throughout his many years doing street art he has not had a problem with Portugal’s police and finds they are not “hardcore”. We asked him some questions:

Ill Never Give Up - Nuno Costah, Porto Portugal
Ill Never Give Up – Nuno Costah, Porto Portugal

CT: Why do you do street art?
NC: I do it because I love to create in a massive way that it’s almost impossible to have all the paintings in an atelier. In this way I hit the streets, and here in Porto we have so many old buildings that it’s perfect for doing this.

CT: Tell us about this particular piece, “I’ll Never Give Up.

NC: Almost all my paintings are about Life, Live and enjoying cool stuff. I like to find places and create cool and funny paintings….This piece it’s to show to people that even if you are not invited to some street art trendy fashion events, you still can do it and you must do it if you really want. Just never wait for others to give you the opportunity, just do it…DIY lifestyle.

More by Nuno Costah:

Nuno Costah Portugal Porto urban art

Granny with a spray can?


Everyone is getting into the urban art act even senior citizens. Lata 65 is a program of workshops for senior citizens in Lisbon, introducing them to the culture and techniques of urban art and then turning them loose with stencils and spray cans. The Lisbon Participatory Budget Program was facilitated by local councils. Here are some images. Talk about demolishing stereotypes!


Both Lisbon and Porto have turned random graffiti into a vibrant art form that has spawned art galleries, publications, art walks, festivals and even programs for young and old aspiring urban artists. This year in Lisbon a major urban art celebration took place midyear and is scheduled again. MUROLisbon Street Art Festival will take place in May 2017, combining concerts, discussions, street food, puppetry, film, theatre, and featuring the works of highly recognized urban artists. See a collection of images from the 2016 festival here.


Portugal is not alone in the urban art scene. There are festivals all over Europe and the world as urban art is embraced and celebrated. Thinking of going somewhere and enjoying art that is not necessarily housed within museum walls? When you’re planning your next trip, simply google your destination city and “street art tours” and you’ll find a whole new perspective on art and life.


Thanksgiving Cold Turkey: Heidelberg, Germany

Heidelberg Castle ©Russell Johnson
If you are over 18 you have probably spent some holiday season away from home. A few years ago I flew to Frankfurt, Germany the day before US Thanksgiving for a 1/2 hour business meeting. The meeting was a bust and alone, in a terrible mood on a bone-chilling afternoon, I boarded a train for Heidelberg, where the Student Prince was alive and quite drunk.


A Stroll From Minnehaha Falls to the Mississippi – Video

It is a sacred ritual, a religious experience. If you grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota as I did, you probably make the pilgrimage to Minnehaha Falls time and time again. Your parents took you there when you were a child. You had picnics there. You found a hiding place to steal a kiss with your first date, you crawled through the caves on the nearby Mississippi riverbank. Long after I left Minnesota for California, I went there to present my wife with her engagement ring. Now I’m back on our anniversary.