Recalling the once-imposing San Francisco attraction that offered myriad entertainment options from the fin de secle until its demise in the 1960s, “Sutro’s: The Palace at Lands End” plays like an extra-long version of the custom-made historical videos that play every half-hour in local museums. While the docu is unlikely to attract much interest outside the Bay Area, it figures to settle in comfortably at the city’s Balboa Theater, where Tom Wyrsch’s previous featurette, “Playland,” about another defunct S.F. attraction, played months to nostalgic natives.
Now just a set of ruins on a cliff near the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge, Sutro’s (better remembered as Sutro Baths) was once the splendid last word in fun emporiums. After making over the Cliff House, which had begun to attract a rough crowd, Prussian-born engineer and entrepreneur Adolph Sutro set his ambitious sights on adjacent land overlooking the ocean.
There he commenced building the world’s largest collection of bathing facilities, which held nearly 2 million gallons of water (pumped in from the sea, one freshwater tank aside) and were supported by 517 private dressing rooms. The 1896 grand opening was delayed until Southern Pacific gave in to then-mayor Sutro’s demand it provide direct streetcar service.
Twenty-five cents got you not only entree to the seven pools, but a towel and bathing suit as well. Olympic-style competitions were regularly held, observers seated in balconies that could hold thousands. Swimming was hardly the only diversion on tap, however. Among further amusements that set up shop in the huge complex were a wax-tableau Last Supper, a talking-bird show, an ice rink, kitschy museums and a “Musee Mechanique,” whose surviving player-piano-type gizmos provide the docu’s score.
Spectacular and popular as it was, the operating costs were a money pit for Sutro, who died in 1897. Its operation was taken over by his daughter Emma, who started to shutter and sell off parts of the superstructure. As it gradually fell out of fashion despite makeovers (notably one undertaken to compete with the 1939-40 World’s Fair on Treasure Island), time and neglect took their toll.
Surprisingly, there seems to be relatively little vintage film footage extant. We do get clips from Don Siegel noir “The Lineup,” one among few commercial features that used the colorful structure as a setting, and 1971 cult fave “Harold and Maude,” which deployed its subsequent ruins. On the other hand, there are a wealth of archival photos, many saved from the dumpster by a former gift-shop employee.
The mix of talking-head reminiscences and visual evidence, divided into chapters, is unimaginative and bare-bones, with stilted use of an occasional narrator. But what the docu lacks in polish, it will no doubt make up in nostalgia value for its target audience.