Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Cliff House & Sutro Heights

Tom Wyrsch has had a strong run of locally focused documentaries in the past few years.  First, he directed Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong!  That documentary spotlighted the local television show Creature Features which ran for 14 years.  It was off the air by the time I moved to the Bay Area but I have heard about it from many viewers, particularly people who were teenagers during its run, 1971 to 1984, which is the same age demographic as me.  I have yet to see Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong!

Wyrsch folowed that up with Remembering Playland at the Beach which I saw at the Balboa in 2010.  Again, I moved to the Bay Area long after Playland at the Beach closed but have heard stories about it.  The demographic is a little older since Playland closed in 1972.

I guess the success of Remembering Playland at the Beach inspired Wyrsch to move up the road to make his next film - Sutro's: The Palace at Lands End which is about Sutro Baths.  That establishment burned down before I was born and I have yet never heard anyone I know talk about going to the Baths.  I saw Sutro's: The Palace at Lands End at the Balboa in 2011.

Wyrsch's latest film is screening, not surprisingly, at the Balboa.  This time he has focused his lens on the Cliff House as can be gathered from the title of his latest film, The Cliff House & Sutro Heights.

The Cliff House & Sutro Heights; documentary; directed by Tom Wyrsch; (2013) - Official Website

The Cliff House is still in existence.  I've been there to dine, play the old time arcade games at the Musée Mécanique when it was there (it was relocated to Pier 45 in 2002) and see the Camera Obscura.  I think that makes The Cliff House different than the previous films I have seen by Wyrsch.

First, the Cliff House loses the nostalgia and for me, the shroud historical importance which comes from not having ever been there like Playland or Sutro Baths.  My memory of dining at the Cliff House 15+ years ago is that of a slightly overprice meal of mediocre quality with a view of a fogged in Pacific Ocean.  Not much to write home about.  Sutro Heights Park was, in my mind, the wooded and grassy area with statues around the corner from the Cliff House.

Putting aside my opinions of the Cliff House & Sutro Heights Park, The Cliff House feels like Wyrsch has gone to the well one too many times.  Many of the locals interviewed in The Cliff House appeared in Playland and Sutro's.  To a viewer who has seen all three documentaries, Wyrsch seems to be repeating himself.  Indeed, some of the interview subjects mentioned they would spend the day shuttling back & forth between Playland, Sutro Baths and the Cliff House.  It seems like a child's paradise.  I would likely have been doing it if I grew up in the area at the time.  The problem is that Wyrsch has covered this ground before and adds some background scenes regarding Playland and Sutro Baths which I recall from the previous films.

Not putting aside my opinions of the Cliff House & Sutro Heights Park  I wonder how much of nostalgia I would have agreed with if I had experienced Playland and Sutro Baths.  If Wyrsch can wax poetic about the current Cliff House, an establishment I am neutral about at best, what does it say about Playland and Sutro Baths.  Indeed, Wyrsch's documentary and conversations I have had indicate Playland was run down and somewhat seedy at the end.

Ultimately, who am I to challenge another man's nostalgia?  I'm the guy paying the admission price.  It was interesting to learn about the Victorian Chateau Cliff House which is the most grandiose of the four or five versions which have existed.  Gone for more than 100 years, that version only existed for 11 years before one of the many fires on the site destroyed it.  A freighter carrying gunpowder or some explosive ran aground nearby and exploded thus raining fiery debris on the Cliff House.  It was interesting the current Cliff House superimposed on the Victorian Chateau to get a sense of how much larger it was.

I don't know if I'm going to see anymore of Wyrsch's films if he continues documenting the Sunset District.  I say that but I'm always interested in San Francisco history.  Some of the interview subject mentioned the Merrie Way Stands which I was completely unaware of and sounds intriguing.  Also, I've always wanted to learn more about Fleishhacker Pool.

The Sutro Cliff House (aka Victorian Chateau, aka Gingerbread Palace)

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