Road Trip to the Past: Laughing Sals

Last week on a look-at-colleges road trip with my daughter and two grandsons, I was reunited with an old friend, an enchantress of my youth, “Laffing Sal.” She and her sisters were the iconic animated cackling figures that laughed and gyrated in amusement parks across the country from 1930-1950. I discovered her on display at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. She was the trademark of a bygone era; the water front amusement piers. The Laffing Sals, 300 of them in all, were the stout gap-toothed animated figures who beckoned to patrons long before Disney’s animated characters were born. During my childhood I enjoyed the Long Beach Pike, Venice Pier at the end of Venice Boulevard, the Ocean Park Pier which was south of the still standing Santa Monica pier, the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz and Playland in San Francisco. The Ocean Park Pier became Pacific Ocean Park (POP) in the 60’s and then was later torn down. There were two Sals greeting us at Ocean Park and all it took to turn on my own giggle machine as a child was to hear their crazy laughs.


Moving past the Sal exhibit we came to an original 1920’s carousel. As we climbed up onto our colorful carved horses, Sal’s cackle was still filling the midway, causing me to smile and maybe to giggle a bit inside. The organ music started up and our horses began to move, slowly at first, but gaining speed with each rotation. We were off, hoping to get the brass ring and a free ride. I watched as daughter Julie successfully plucked her first ring, then grandson James who missed his, then my turn. Out went my eager fingers but I missed. Around we went again gaining more speed; the others easily grasping their rings. My turn again and this time I nabbed it! I was so elated that I forgot to toss it at the waiting clown face. Around and around we went faster and faster. I managed to clutch another and as we were whirling and grabbing, smiling and laughing, my brain spun backward to my 7 year old arm stretching out as far as possible ready to grab the same kind of ring. It was the Ocean Park Pier of my childhood. The 1940’s, still the hay days of the water front amusement piers up and down the west coast. In full view of my memory, I could almost smell the cotton candy and hear the delighted squeals of the children mixed with the canned laughter of the two Laffing Sals. My sister and I rode the merry-go-round so often in those days that catching the magical brass ring and getting a free ride were frequent yet coveted events.


In my memory I vividly saw my sister and myself taking the boardwalk tram all the way from Venice to Ocean Park, for just a nickel, where we would find our grand father playing checkers at a table at the base of the pier. He would have reached into his dark suit pocket and pulled out enough change to let us ride for hours. Pulling myself to the present, I thought that this experience today is not so different from that of 60 years ago, except that now I am the grand parent and the children are my grandchildren, I am not going for a checkers victory, I still am after that brass ring! Silly Donna, I thought to myself, surely you have it. It has to be the brass ring to live this long, to raise a beautiful family and decades later to be playing the same kinds of amusements with them that you enjoyed.


The beach amusement parks have mostly disappeared across time, victims of storm damage and social change, but this one in Santa Cruz boasts that it is the only such one on the whole of the west coast that has been in continuous operation, since 1907. Sadly, the Sals have not been seen much since the 1950’s and they are mostly extinct. As we climbed off our carousel horses the kids spied the bumper car attraction nearby and we were off again. I lingered in a last memory of warm blue berry pie at Playland, the Artic frozen creams at Ocean Park and rolling in the spinning tunnels of them all. As I raced to get a good bumper car, I wished that the tourists at the “scene” that is Venice today could have known that graceful pier that jutted out from the sand. I thought how rich and wonderful it is to appreciate these little moments, our rich California history, and to share them with loved ones. I feel so joyful and why not? I got to revisit a delightful chapter of my past. Thank you Laffing Sal!