Thrills to No End - Page 3

With its mix of fresh, over-the-top rides and perennial crowd-pleasers, homey Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk continues to amaze
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
At the entrance to the Fun House, 1953.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Giant Dipper on the way up, 1948.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Young girl today on the Looff Carousel.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Recent weekend crowd.

The boardwalk—well, okay, it’s made of concrete, and has been since the mid-1950s—stretches half a mile past the Cocoanut Grove, once a dancehall given over to big bands and today used for concerts, other events, and a Halloween ‘zombie bash.’

It continues on past several game arcades and some 35 rides, along with games, miniature golf, food stands, foot wash stations, historic plaques, and the Fright Walk.

The scene is hokey for sure, and noisy, especially in the arcades, where hundreds of raucous kids and adults who should know better drive Nintendo racers, hurl pucks, immerse themselves in violent video environments, and even play such relatively old-school pinball machines as Attack from Mars.

Throughout, much of the décor is fake Victoriana—even on the Giant Dipper—though some retro mid-century-styled buildings stand out, including one with Googie-style roof projections and a food stand with a folded-plate roof.

Still, and unlike its hyper-corporate theme park cousins, the Beach Boardwalk comes across as altogether authentic, a bit of small town Americana alongside what Whiting, a vice president of the Seaside Co., which owns the place, brags is “the best swimming beach in Northern California.”

“It’s not a chain,” Chesta points out. “In this day and age, they all get bought out by the big guys.”

It helps that the Beach Boardwalk is just 15 minutes walk from a real town—Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz has restaurants, a bookstore, an Art Deco cinema, you name it.

Across from the Boardwalk are a line of shops and eateries, motels, a historic Spanish Revival apartment house, and acres of parking. We’ll soon hear more about those acres of parking.

And mere yards away, jutting almost half a mile into the Pacific, sits the Municipal Wharf, home to restaurants, a fish store, fishermen, and hundreds of barking sea lions. And then there’s the beach. Asked about the Boardwalk, many fans answer first by talking about the beach.

How they used to swim at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River, banned now due to pollution. The immense sand castles. The rafts anchored offshore where swimmers could laze back or dive. The flock of killer whales that arrived in the summer of 1955 to feast on sea lions.

They remember, too, the surfers who flocked to the sands in the early ‘60s. Some even recall Marilyn Matthews, a local girl who, serving as the Beach Boardwalk’s official swimsuit model, appeared one Sunday afternoon in 1957 in a bikini.

Risqué indeed for Santa Cruz!

“Nobody wore bikinis back then,” she recalled 50 years later. “It showed off my belly button and everything. [My father] had a fit.”

Whiting recalls how the beach changed its look from the ‘50s, when it appeared from the boardwalk to be a sea of umbrellas, to the ‘60s, when the umbrellas disappeared. “Coppertone, Sea & Sky,” he says, naming two trend-setting suntan lotions, “so people were out getting suntans. The beach became a more relevant piece of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk.”

So much so, he says, that in 1963 the famous indoor Natatorium finally closed.

Performers were also part of the scene. Local bands welcomed tourists arriving weekends on Suntan Special Trains from San Francisco and Oakland in the 1950s. The Honolulu Girls Glee Club appeared in 1951, and Nancy Long, “a petite artist of acrobatic control,” in the words of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, performed in 1955 at the Beach Bandstand along with Dwight Moore’s Educated Dogs.

Surprisingly enough, for a surfer town, neither Jan and Dean nor the Beach Boys played the Boardwalk, Whiting says. “There were some teenage concerts, but they tended to get a little too rowdy so the company shied away from those events.”