San Francisco's Musée Mécanique
On the Edge of the Pacific Ocean, a Penny Arcade Oasis
Listen to Rick Karr's report.
View a photo gallery of the Musée Mécanique's unique antique arcade machines.
April 3, 2002 -- Just inside the door of the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco, youíre greeted by Laughing Sal, an animated six-foot mannequin in Gold Rush garb who, in a previous life, did the same job at an amusement park that stood nearby, Playland at the Beach.
The museum is cramped, noisy, damp and a little dingy. It feels less like a museum than an arcade at an old-time seaside resort. Dan Zelinsky, who manages the Musée Mécanique, told NPR's Rick Karr that San Franciscans have been amusing themselves in the general area since the turn of the last century.
The museum is housed in the basement of a Victorian landmark called Cliff House, which stands right in the middle of what was once San Franciscoís answer to Coney Island. There used to be an elaborate turn-of-the-century bathhouse nearby, as well as the Playland amusement park.
Those attractions are gone now -- but while they were popular, Zelinsky says, San Franciscans were pumping money into machines like the ones in the museum, which has been around for about 30 years.
The winding rooms of the museum are lined with odd devices, including some that look like industrial sausage grinders on legs, with a crank on one side and a sort of viewfinder on top. Theyíre Mutoscopes, made in the late 19th century by the American Biograph and Mutoscope Company. There are music machines, too -- player pianos and orchestrions, which combine a number of automated instruments in one box.
The old machines get a workout: 100,000 or so people visit the museum every year. That means Dan Zelinsky spends a lot of time fixing things. His father Edward started the collection almost 70 years ago, and besides the few dozen machines in the museum, he owns more than 100 others.
Dan took a temporary job maintaining his dadís collection in the early 1970s. It turned into a full-time obsession. In addition to arcane arcade lore, heís learned cabinetry, mechanics, machining, and leather working -- some of the old belts and pulleys are made of hides. And he tells Karr he loves his work. "Iím just lucky... What can I say?Ē
Zelinsky hopes his luck holds out through September, when the Cliff House closes for a major renovation. The National Park Service owns the house, first built beginning in 1909, and the Zelinskys rent space below. Park Service spokesman Rich Weideman says the Cliff House is getting old, and needs to be upgraded to better survive earthquakes.
Photo: Rick Karr, NPR News
However, the new plans do not include space for the Musée Mécanique. Instead, the Park Service wants to build a new structure just up the road with space for the museum and the neighboring visitorís center. But thatíll take two or three years, at least -- and in the meantime, nobody knows exactly what will happen to the Musée Mécanique.
The Park Service has suggested a couple of sites to which the museum might move. The Zelinskys are looking at others -- and even pondering the possibility of putting all of the machines into storage.
More about the Musée Mécanique at CitySearch.com