For more than 90 years, San Francisco’s Musee Mecanique has been a cherished albeit quirky attraction in the city by the bay.
The Musee Mecanique (French for mechanical museum) traces its beginnings to the early 20th century penny arcades that offered a variety of coin operated pianos, pinball-style games, animated music boxes, fortune telling machines and other devices.
Originally located at San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach amusement park, which was demolished in 1972, the Musee relocated across the highway to the Cliff House, a popular restaurant located on the western edge of the city.
The arcade was safely nestled in the Cliff House basement until 2002, when the National Park Service, which had acquired the Cliff House in 1977, announced plans to renovate the structure.
The late Edward G. Zelinsky, longtime owner of the Musee (it remains one of the world’s largest privately owned collections of mechanically operated musical devices and antique arcade machines), decided to relocate to a 6,000-foot space on Pier 45 in the Fisherman’s Wharf area, where it remains today.
But while the setting is different—the old location was cramped, cluttered, loud and a bit rundown—the place remains great fun with its dozens of vintage coin-operated devices.
Put a coin in a machine containing a toy figure of an executioner and it chops off another doll’s head. Toss a coin into the machine with a giant, smiling, gap-toothed woman named “Laffing Sal,” and she begin bobbing back and forth, raucously laughing at you (she’s scared generations of small children with that laugh).
A visit to the Musee Mecanique is a chance to step back in time. Most of the collection’s 300 devices were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
And all of the Musee’s weird and wonderful devices, which are lined up inside waiting for coins to bring them to life, are in working order.
Strolling down the aisles of the museum is a chance to view mechanical amusement history. There are Gypsy fortune-teller machines, a Wurlitzer “orchestrion” (a piano-like device that actually plays nearly all the instruments in an orchestra), coin-operated movie viewers, mechanical oil fields, carnivals, farms and railroads that spring to life and a host of other amusement machines.
You can pop in a coin and watch a musical jamboree with square-dancing puppets, pick up a spare on the “Ten Strike Classic,” a cross between a pinball game and a bowling alley, or play hoops on the “Old Time Basketball” mechanical game.
One device that resembles a metal hand and arm challenges visitors to arm-wrestle while another is vintage baseball game machine that pitches little metal balls at a tiny bat that you control. Hit it hard enough and you could knock the ball over a fence for a home run. Small metal outfielders stand around daring you to hit one past them.
The Musee Mecanique is located on Pier 45 at the end of Taylor Street on Fisherman’s Wharf. The museum is open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free but bring plenty of change for the machines.
For more information call 415-346-2000 or go to www.museemecanique.org.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that Nevadans enjoy.