A century ago this week, locals and out-of-towners came by the thousands to Ocean Beach on the Fourth of July to take a gander at the grand new $300,000 amusement park by the sea and its “1,000 New Thrills and Gayeties … Nothing but Motion, Mirth and Melody.”
Water slide, roller skating rink, carnival games, bowling alley, a zoo with 350 monkeys and the West Coast’s biggest roller coaster — Wonderland had it all.
Dancers in the Waldorf Ballroom had to keep their hands to themselves. Turkey-trotting, bunny-hugging and ragtime dancing were outlawed, and the rules were enforced by a chaperon from an association known for its skill at “suppressing vulgar terpsichorean exhibitions.”
No hanky and definitely no panky. Just good, “morally clean” fun. Like, say, joining 6,000 others to watch a man and woman get married in the zoo’s lion cage in 1913.
“The couple was in there with the lion, the lionkeeper — who only had a whip — and the justice of the peace. And they made it out alive,” said Jonnie Wilson, a board member of the Ocean Beach Historical Society.
More than a decade before Mission Beach’s Belmont Park opened, Wonderland represented the height of summertime entertainment in the up-and-coming city of San Diego. “It was like one endless county fair,” Wilson said. “This was when Mission Beach wasn’t anything. It was a daring thing to do. It was ill-timed, but it just shows you that somebody’s always willing to take a gamble.”
The amusement park was indeed ill-timed, opening just two years before the much larger Panama-California Exposition would debut in Balboa Park. But it still made quite the splash on July 4, 1913.
“When Mayor Charles F. O’Neall threw the switch precisely at 7 P.M., 22,000 tungsten lights outlined the buildings of the new amusement park at Ocean Beach. The entrance gates, framed by towering minarets, opened and the waiting throngs poured in, accompanied by a band playing ‘America.’ Admission to the park’s grounds was ten cents — rides and attractions were extra. San Diegans had never seen anything like it,” writes historian Jeffrey Stanton on a website devoted to lost amusement parks. (You can check a nifty nighttime image of the park here.)
The 9-acre park was perched next to the sea where Dog Beach is now. It was a trek to get to Ocean Beach from downtown — streetcars helped — but the park still managed to draw 22,000 people on its first official day of business.
“Big Otto,” Wonderland’s “wild animal proprietor,” was thrilled by the crowds, especially the hundreds of visitors from Los Angeles and other parts north. “Three years ago, if a man said he was coming to San Diego to pass a holiday, you’d call a policeman and ask to have him locked up as insane and a menace to the public. That shows what real business will do,” he said, according to a newspaper account.
The fun times didn’t last for long. Wonderland would close by 1915, an apparent victim of the festivities across town at Balboa Park. Then, in a final ignominy, its seaside rides would be swamped by San Diego’s massive killer floods of January 1916, which some blamed on a rainmaker who did his job too well.
Wonderland was gone, but not its menagerie of 56 varieties of monkey, two bears, five lions, a hyena, wolves, baboons, raccoons, bobcats and more. “The most enduring legacy of Wonderland would be its small zoo. When the Panama-California fair began in Balboa Park, the menagerie was rented to the exposition company for $40 a day,” historian Stanton writes. “Housed in a series of cages near Indian Village on Park Boulevard, the collection of animals was eventually sold to the city for $500. The well-traveled animals would appear again when the San Diego Zoo opened in 1922.”
There’s no word about what happened to Sally, “the world’s greatest chimpanzee” and “a simian actress of rarest talent” who wore a dress and a lovely lady’s hat.
And what of the young couple — “aviator” Charles B. Sanders and Miss Helen Shaw — who were wed in the lion’s den in August 1913, a day after they were introduced to their “savage best men and bridesmaids”?
Well, there’s more to the story. A few years later, in 1918, the groom would have a job training wild animals for the circus.
A 1913 newspaper account of the wedding describes him as an aviation daredevil and mentions nothing about him being an animal trainer who’d be comfortable around lions. Was the marriage an inside job? Or even a stunt by a gang of carnival performers?
Sounds like we’ll never know. All the participants, alas, are forever holding their peace.
Bonus History Flashback: Forbidden Dance in Del Mar
The San Diego Union could barely withhold its chortling on its July 4, 1913, front page: “Now Who Knows! Did Sedate Members of University Club Rag in Del Mar? No, They Cry!”
Translation: Were the swells engaging in dirty dancing, 1913-style, in Del Mar? They deny it, but … Oh my!
According to the story, “at least two generations of conservative society” were enjoying their Saturday evening at the first annual University Club dinner at Del Mar’s Stratford Inn. Several couples started to dance, and — opinions differed on this — some may have engaged in “naughty” “rag”-style dancing instead of the more elegant and acceptable “Boston.”
An observer was unamused. “The dance that I objected to seemed to me a rough and tumble scramble with nothing pretty, dainty or graceful about it.”
Others strenuously denied that any “ragging” occurred. But, one said, one thing was clear: The Stratford Inn was quite the kill-joy about such things.