By Jeannie Howard
Preserving a part of Bay Area history through a hands-on museum of fun!
From the penny arcade machines and the side show exhibit to the hand carved wood circus and Santa’s Village, Playland Not At The Beach pays homage to all things fun and the innocent world of amusement parks from days gone by. This El Cerrito based center draws much of its inspiration from the beloved 1920s Ocean Beach park that was called Playland At The Beach, according to Frank Biafore, the chief operating officer and the fabulous fun facilitator of Playland Not At The Beach.
“We are a museum and family fun center,” said Biafore. “We have a nice mixture of things to see and do. There are a lot of places out there where the kids have fun and the adults are board, or the adults have fun and the kids are board. But this is a place where you will see a five year old and a 65 year old next to each other playing pinball and both are having a ball.”
While the nearly 9,000 square foot facility is dedicated to the joy of play, it also serves as a place to learn about amusement parks from the past—and for those who were fortunate to have experienced the seaside and land-locked parks of a simpler time, they are able to reminisce and share their stories with younger generations.
First time visitors are often underwhelmed when they first walk in, admitted Biafore. “This is merely because the building from the outside is not terribly exciting and our facility is broken up into a number of different areas and rooms,” he explained. “Many times people expect to be here maybe thirty minutes or an hour, but end up spending three to five hours exploring all there is to see and do.”
“We are not one of those places that are one huge room full of lights and noise that you cannot escape from—here guests can wonder through,” he said. “The carnival area might be noisy with all the people and lights, but then you wonder into the hand-carved circus and there may be just a few people there reading the information quietly with a little bit of the circus soundtrack in the background. There are no audio narratives at the exhibits so guests can hear others talk about their experiences going to Playland At The Beach or other roadside amusement parks.”
Keeping Playland Not At The Beach low tech is something Biafore and his fellow volunteers maintain on purpose. “Coming here is a chance for kids to experience games and not just playing at a computer,” he shared. “Sometimes I’ll ask kids if they have ever played pinball and they will often tell me they have on their computer—but that is not actually playing pinball.”
Touching the machine, feeling the vibrations as the ball rolls within, seeing the lights flash, and hearing the bells as you score points is all part of the experience of playing the authentic game, Biafore described. “It is a whole sensory experience that you just can’t get playing a simulated version on the computer.”
This is the goal throughout the whole facility, to give people a place to slow down and experience hands-on fun from a simpler.
In addition to their regular operating hours on the weekends and many holidays, private parties are very popular. From bar mitzvahs and baby showers to celebration of life parties and school field trips, Biafore said they’ve hosted a wide variety of events.
“We’ve even had two actual weddings and a divorce party—I’d like to mention that the divorce party was not related to either of the weddings,” he laughed.
With all the different parties, community groups and organizations they have hosted over the years, birthday parties are the most popular. “We’ve had a number of first birthdays, especially,” he added. “Families just love it cause we are great for family members of all ages.”
Approaching their eighth year in operation, Playland Not At The Beach actually began nearly sixteen years ago as one man’s desire to display and enjoy mementoes from his childhood. The late Richard Tuck, founder and the creative mind behind Playland Not At The Beach who passed away in 2011 from cancer, had a childhood full of memories from the original Playland.
“He had parties there when he was a kid,” Biafore shared. “We had this extra space in our building—we use to have a job placement company here—and Richard decided that he always wanted to have a space for fun.”
Starting with a few pinball machines and a juke box, Biafore said Richard and his fellow colleagues would call the space Richard’s warehouse or play space. “One night a friend of ours said to Richard, ‘Well it’s not your play space; it’s your play land.’ Then Richard said that it was, but not at the beach,” Biafore described. “The name stuck and word started to spread about this mysterious place.”
Once word of Playland Not At The Beach began to spread, Biafore said they started to receive calls and people showing up at the door wanting to give them Playland memorabilia. “That is when we got the idea to become a nonprofit museum and we kind of become a repository for all of this different Playland memorabilia,” he explained. “Becoming a nonprofit allowed people to take advantage of having a tax right off for the things they wanted to donate to the museum.”
As the amusement collection began to grow so did the space Playland Not At the Beach took up in their building, eventually taking over the entire building. “This whole place has really been put together organically and took on a life of its own,” Biafore said.
Unfortunately that same building and the entire Playland collection is in jeopardy. A decision Richard made many years back to help out a friend financially has come back, described Biafore, and the non-profit is being forced to sell the building they have occupied for nearly two decades.
“We are working on finding somewhere to move or looking for a buyer who appreciates the historical significance and will work with us as tenants in our current building. We want to build a bigger fundraising community to keep Playland Not At The Beach going and to preserve the fun parts of Bay Area history, which is what Richard wanted all along,” Biafore shared. “Richard’s philosophy was that we don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Playland Not At The Beach 10979 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito. (510) 592-3002;