By Katia Protsenko
Salty ocean air sprawls over Beach Street on a bright summer day. Locals and tourists alike ride bikes and walk their dogs. Cars search frantically for a metered parking spot.
The crowning point on this busy road is the Beach Boardwalk, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this summer.
The sounds, sights, and smells of the Boardwalk flood the senses, bringing up memories for everyone. The screams recall many first rides on the Giant Dipper, the scent of fried food recalls the taste of deep-fried twinkies and corn dogs, and the whirls and jingles of the arcade announce the obnoxiously large prizes being won.
The Boardwalk’s 100th anniversary celebration has been a long time in the works, and many events are planned for the coming summer. Reminiscing is already in swing for the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, owners of the Boardwalk, in form of a book and an exhibit at the Museum of Art and History downtown.
The kickoff celebration, held last Saturday and Sunday, featured majestic high divers, jumping into pools from soaring heights and awing onlookers.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg for this summer-long party. Planned events are numerous and varied, including movie screenings, weekly beach concerts, and even free shows by the Moscow Circus.
The Boardwalk, which opened as a public bathhouse in 1865, has been tied to the Santa Cruz community and its residents ever since. Many local families have grown and changed alongside the attraction, many of which have owned Boardwalk businesses for generations. These “boardwalk families” offer a valuable outlook on the 100-year anniversary; from childhood memories to historical perspectives, they share their Boardwalk insight.
Despite all the change and renovation the Boardwalk has undergone, it is still the same place in the eyes of its returning patrons.
“The Boardwalk has always been there,” said Janet Peabody, a resident of the area for 50 years. “It has changed, but it feels the same. There are still the same basic rides.”
Four generations of the Peabody family have gone to the Beach Boardwalk, starting with Peabody’s grandmother, who rode the Suntan Special train to the Boardwalk in the early 1900s.
Janet Peabody first went when she was 5 years old. As she got older, she developed a love of the Boardwalk’s coasters, screaming through the drops, spins, and sharp turns.
“I’d always scream—not screaming took the fun out of it,” Peabody reflected. “Roller coasters are meant to scream on.”
As she matured, boys took Peabody to the Boardwalk for unsupervised dates. As first dates go, something embarrassing always happened.
“I went on a ride with a date, and all the change fell out of his pocket and sprinkled on everybody,” Peabody said with a laugh.
When Peabody went to college, adulthood didn’t diminish her love of the Boardwalk. The college-aged population was into the bumper cars, one of the newly installed attractions.
After Peabody married and became a mother, she returned to the Boardwalk, this time as a chaperone for her three children.
“You’re more tense as a mother,” Peabody said. “You can never be sure where your kids are.”
The 1970s and 1980s marked a shift in the age groups frequenting the Boardwalk. When Peabody began visiting the Boardwalk with her family, others did as well.
After Disneyland opened in 1955, a trend of modern, corporate-owned, theme parks took over the country, and they took its teens with them. More adolescents were searching for that extra thrill, and theme parks brought unparalleled competition to the seaside boardwalks, forcing a majority of them to close in the second half of the 1900s.
But the Santa Cruz Boardwalk remained alive. It began catering its amusements and rides toward the whole family, rather than just teens. Its transformation into a family park was underway, and the Boardwalk continued to flourish.
Alongside the millions of tourists that visit the attraction annually, Neal Coonerty, 1993 mayor of Santa Cruz, always enjoyed taking his family to the Boardwalk.
Coonerty spoke to City on a Hill Press (CHP) about his mother, who worked in a game booth at the Boardwalk, and her love of coasters. A friend of hers would operate the Giant Dipper, and he would let her have the last ride on the historic coaster every night.
Coonerty’s son Ryan, currently vice mayor of Santa Cruz, reminisced with CHP about a memorable evening visit to the Boardwalk as a young boy.
“My class had a field trip to the Boardwalk,” Ryan Coonerty said. The only problem was that he was too scared to go on the coasters. Neal Coonerty, who says “it’s fun to go there and play,” took his son the night before the class outing and went with him on the famed coasters until Ryan was no longer scared.
Years after overcoming his childhood trepidations, Ryan worked on the Boardwalk while he was in high school.
“It’s like a rite of passage,” he said of his time spent making gyros at the Boardwalk.
“[It’s] great for kids. Their first job is often at Boardwalk,” added his father.
The Coonerties, with their close ties to the Santa Cruz community, see the relationship between the Boardwalk and the city as a symbiotic one.
According to Ryan, the Boardwalk is the largest job provider in the city, as well as the largest private taxpayer. The Seaside Company also makes contributions to schools in the community.
Ted Whiting III has also seen several generations of Whitings before him love the Boardwalk, watching it grow and evolve. The family has owned concessions stands at the Boardwalk since the 1950s. They are one of the “Boardwalk families” who have had multiple generations working at the Boardwalk.
“It’s not a job, it’s more of a lifestyle,” said Whiting of his work. “There’s something at the Boardwalk that grows on you. You get caught up with it. It becomes a part of your life.”
Whiting started working at the Boardwalk when he was six years old, helping his grandparents scoop ice cream and bag popcorn. As he got older, he ran errands and finally got on the payroll when he was in the eighth grade.
As he progressed through the ranks, Whiting began to understand what he calls “the bigger picture.” He is now the vice president of general services for the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, one of twelve Whitings currently working at the Boardwalk.
“[I’ve] walked about the same place for a number of decades,” Whiting said. “The same stairs, the same walkways.”
“I hear grandparents telling their grandkids, ‘This is where I came,’ [and] what rides they rode,” Whiting said of the conversations he’s heard while on the Boardwalk. “There are generational ties—it’s a feeling, an atmosphere of peace and nostalgia.”
Over the past 100 years, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk has become a visual symbol for the whole of Santa Cruz. Whiting says that people everywhere recognize the Boardwalk’s landscape.
“If Santa Cruz has a Golden Gate Bridge, it’s the Boardwalk,” Whiting commented. “When you see it, you say ‘I know where that is.’”
Whiting said that celebrating the Boardwalk centennial has been a milestone in his life.
“I have mixed emotions. On one hand, I never thought I’d get here,” he said. “[On the other hand], I never thought I’d get this old. My thinking hasn’t changed that much.”
And according to these local families, neither has the Boardwalk.
Despite the family-friendly atmosphere, the Boardwalk is still packed with groups of adolescents laughing with their friends at the arcade or sharing cotton candy with a date.
“It’s a place to hang out and do stuff without getting into a whole lot of trouble,” said Peabody of why she went to the Boardwalk as a teen, and why she continues to go. “Everybody can go—there’s everything for everybody.”
With the constant addition of new rides and a high return rate for visitors, the Boardwalk hopes to stay for another century, if not longer.
“It’s the perfect place to have an amusement park,” Whiting concluded. “We’ve got atmosphere and character. We’re small, but we cast a long shadow.”