story and photos by Kayte Deioma
The Musče Mčcanique is a great place to entertain yourself and the kids for a rainy hour or a day depending on how many quarters you’re willing to part with. Even if you’re not a fan of the usual arcade games, you can admire the craftsmanship of the antique mechanical wonders and read up on the history of carnival and beach boardwalk culture.
Ed Zelinsky started collecting coin-operated games and machines when he was just 11 years old. His first was a penny skill game that he bought for a nickel. He soon discovered that he could get a quick return on investment by having his friends and family put in their pennies to have a try. Over the years he has amassed a collection of over 300 mechanical games, musical instruments and carnival attractions. Most of the collection is on display in the Musče Mčcanique in San Francisco. Visitors to the city prior to 2002 would have found the Musče Mčcanique on the lower level of the Cliff House Restaurant a couple miles down the coast. When the Cliff House remodeled, the Musče relocated to its current home at Pier 45, Shed A at Fisherman’s Wharf.
You can have your fortune told by a wizard or a carnival gypsy, have your palm read by the Mystic Ray or let the Kiss-O-Meter tell you just how hot you are in a range from blah to burning to uncontrollable. For a quarter, the Mystic Ray tells me “You are very prudent, never taking a move without lengthy deliberation ”
I probably should have deliberated longer before investing a quarter in the nearby End of the Trail tableau. It showed a western desert scene with a broken down and tattered wagon and miniature skeleton parts sticking out of the sand. It didn’t look like there was much that could happen mechanically, which made me curious to see what my quarter would do. As the coin clinked, a light came on and lit up the scene and a fan blew gently so that the tattered fabric on the wagon moved ever so slightly. Got me on that one.
Most of the mechanical tableaus were much grander and had lots of action going on. A carnival scene has hundreds of moveable parts that come to life with the insertion of a few quarters. The Ferris wheel turns; sideshow characters come to life and jungle animals perform. The Unbelievable Mechanical Farm is even more complex with farm animals, a saw mill, hay barn and dozens of characters doing everything from plowing to shoveling coal, from baling hay to reading the newspaper with lots of folks just sitting around chatting.
Puppets in glass cases dance, sing and ring bells. A whole array of mechanical instruments and music boxes from the turn of the century play a wide variety of tunes – so many in fact that there are three CDs of tunes played on these instruments available in the gift shop or online. Some are straightforward player pianos, others, like the Orchestrion, include a multitude of instruments within a single case.
There are old fashioned tests of skill and strength. The 1928 National Novelty Knockout Fighters pit two opponents against each other operating a precursor to Rock’em Sock’em Robots. In the Marathon Cycle Race, two players race bicycles around a vertical track. In Zelinsky’s own 1989 creation, The Hammer, two people can match strength by trying to use a lever to lift a heavy hammer and ring a bell. An Arm Wrestling machine warns of the mechanical arm’s “superhuman strength” and gives you two tries to best the machine for a quarter. There are also more modern games of agility, speed and ingenuity from a Pirates of the Caribbean pinball machine, to early Atari arcade games and Super Chexx table hockey.
A lot of the machines are too tall for little kids to play easily, but the traditional mechanical horse is always popular and there are step stools around to give the little ones a boost. Some of the machines are definitely PG – especially the giant Laffing Sal and her smaller laughing buddies who have been giving kids nightmares and inspiring horror films for generations.
Musče Mčcanique – Mechanical Museum
Pier 45 Shed A at the end of Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Tel: (415) 346-2000