Road Trip to the Past with Laffing Sal

Last summer during 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 to 1950. I discovered her, still laughing, on display at the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California.Donna_Laffing Sal

Laffing Sal was the trademark of a bygone era; the waterfront amusement piers. The Laffing Sals, 300 of them in all, were the stout, gap-toothed figures who beckoned to patrons long before Disney’s animated characters were born. As a Venice, California beach kid, the waterfront amusement parks were my playground and Laffing Sal’s crazy cackling has never failed to turn on my giggle machine. I had not thought about her for years, until that chance meeting last summer.

I challenged my grandsons to bumping cars, where my long forgotten strategies of cruisng the outside lanes, then swooping in for the big bump, served me well. My boys were impressed by my prowess as they unsuccessfully tried to dodge me. Next we rode the antique merry-go-round horses and then frantically grabbed and tossed the rings into the clown face. The boys looked a bit surprised as they saw me morph into a fun zone maniac. I think they were wondering who is this grandmother, this queen of the fun zone?

Donna_bumpersAs we strolled down the midway, I recalled my seven year-old-self taking the boardwalk tram all the way from Venice to Ocean Park, for just a nickel. Once there, my little sister and I would find our grandfather playing checkers at a table at the base of the pier. He would reach into his dark suit pocket and pull out enough change to let us ride the merry-go-round for hours.

All over the country, waterside amusements have mostly disappeared, victims of storm damage and social change; but the one in Santa Cruz boasts that it is the only one on the entire west coast that has been in continuous operation since 1907.  Sadly, the Sals are mostly extinct.

As we walked, I lingered in memories of warm blueberry pie at Playland in San Francisco, Artic frozen creams at Ocean Park and rolling in the spinning tunnels at them all. I wish the tourists at the “scene” that is Venice today could have known the graceful pier that jutted out from the sand. It was the last stop for the Red Car (street car) that brough beach goers from Los Angeles and deposited them at the base of the pier. Of those, only the Santa Monica Pier remains today, and it has become an icon for Los Angeles. The Red Car is gone now, along with many other features, but how rich it is to appreciate our colorful American hisDonna_grandsonstory, especially when we have a chance to make some of it seemingly come alive for our young loved ones.

As I savored one last vision of the past, I could almost taste the yummy cotton candy, hear the raucous clatter of the roller coaster screaming down its tracks, and feel the thrill as I rammed my bumper car into another one! I think this Santa Cruz Boardwalk experience was a lot like the one I enjoyed 60 years ago, except that I no longer need to grab for that elusive brass ring, for surely I must have grabbed it, the reward of now being the gandparent and sharing this with my own grandchildren, getting to relive a slice of my childhood.

Do you have a Laffin’ Sal memory? Please share!

Donna Friess
Author and psychologist Donna L. Friess, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus in Communications Studies at Cypress College in Orange County, CA. Donna has been a social activist for children’s rights. She facilitates a “Loss of a Loved One” support group and is an active professional speaker.
Donna Friess

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