Remembering Playland

This summer, Bitter Lake Community Center is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the opening of Playland, a 12-acre amusement park that operated for three decades where the community center now stands.

After surviving several fires, the Great Depression, World War II and the growing popularity of television, Playland closed in 1960. Bitter Lake Community Center, 13035 Linden Ave. N., is marking the park's anniversary with a temporary exhibit, a lecture next Tuesday, July 19, and a concert and picnic on Aug. 13.

"It's really neat that we're here offering recreation and community, just as Playland did," said community-center coordinator Barbara Wade.

A passionate following

The exhibit, on display through the summer in the Bitter Lake Community Center's lobby, contains pictures, news articles and miniature models of many of Playland's attractions. Also at the center, on Tuesday, July 19, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Kay Schlegel, curator of the Playland Exhibit for the Shoreline Historical Society, will present a free lecture with old photographs and film reels on Playland's history and impact on the Bitter Lake community.

"[Playland's] been a passion of mine since I [started] researching it in 1980," said Schlegel, who also co-edited the memory book "Once Upon a Time in Playland" with Victoria Stiles, director of the Shoreline Historical Museum. The book was just released in June and is available at the museum, at 749 N. 175th St. in Shoreline.

"We're already thinking of Volume Two," Schlegel said.

The Shoreline Historical Museum also houses a permanent exhibit on Playland.

"[Playland] is very dear to the hearts of many, many people," Stiles said. "It brings back a lot of happiness for people to remember this great place."

Seattle's answer to Disneyland

One of Playland's first co-owners, Leo F. Smith, was president of the Washington Amusement Co. He had built other amusement parks at Columbia Beach and Jantzen Beach in Portland.

But, a year after Playland opened, it was sold to roller-coaster builder and designer Carl E. Phare, who successfully operated the park for most of its 30 years. The park offered all types of entertainment over the years including dance marathons, flagpole-sitting contests, a log ride, merry-go-round, mystery house and rollerskating rink.

"It would be the equivalent to Disneyland in L.A.," Schlegel said.

Phare designed the park's biggest attraction, The Dipper, one of the largest roller coasters on the West Coast, soaring 85 feet in the air, with 3,400 feet of track and one virtual somersault.

At the time of its operation, the park was located outside of the city limits. Visitors came from all over the Puget Sound area and as far as Eastern Washington and Portland, Ore. Many Seattleites came via the Interurban trolley, for a 25-cent fare that included admission to the park.

Playland also hosted a variety of special events, including Fourth of July fireworks shows, special nights for city workers and other local employees, as well as a Memorial Day balloon launching.

The park also honored school-patrol children with a free day at the park, sponsored by the Washington State Patrol. Kids were treated to lunch and a handful of ride tickets.

"It was really something to be recognized," said Ronnie Pierce, captain of the schoolboy patrol from 1940 to 1942 at Lake Forest Park grade school. As a boy, Pierce enjoyed driving the bumper cars and watching the car races at the Aurora Speedway.

Stiles visited Playland herself as a child, just before it closed. "There were a lot of rides, that as a 6-year-old, I was not allowed to go on," she said. "It seemed like a huge place."

Schlegel has her own memory of visiting the amusement park in 1957 when she was 4 years old. "The lights were so mesmerizing," she said. "It was like a fairyland, like nothing else I had experienced before."

Schlegel was disappointed to find that there was no trace of the park left when she took her own kids to the site years ago. "It was sad not having anything left of the park," she said.

A continued presence

Playland has continued to make an impact on Schlegel's life. She met her husband, Hal Schlegel, a former Playland employee, while working on an exhibit about the amusement park for the Shoreline Historical Museum.

Hal worked at Playland as a teenager for a few years in the late '50s, living a half-block away from the park at the time. He ran many of the rides and games. "It was a magical place to work for as a kid," he said.

Hal often found himself enjoying Playland's rides on his breaks and even on his days off.

He was a regular patron of Playland, from 1945 until the park closed in 1960. Playland likely closed due to the demand of its valuable lakefront property and the upcoming threat of the Seattle World's Fair of 1962, Stiles noted.

"Those are my fondest memories," Hal said. "I wish everyone had been able to see it. Maybe we could've been able to save the park in some way."

The community center will host an outdoor concert and picnic in recognition of Playland from 4 to 6 p.m. on Aug. 13. The concert, featuring the 18-piece band Route 66, will help raise funds to improve the Bitter Lake shoreline. For more information, call Bitter Lake Community Center at 684-7524, or visit

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