At the Musée Mécanique, every machine has a story.
Some, like “Old Marvel,” are almost too good to believe. According to Dan Zelinsky, who owns and operates the facility, the cumbersome player piano almost plummeted into the bay following a fire at a former Tiburon location. Safely rescued, it now sits ready to greet all who visit its current 9,300-square-foot home in San Francisco’s Pier 45.
Musée Mécanique — an all-ages treasure trove of antique games, rare musical machines and more than a few items that defy all description — is normally a big draw with tourists and locals down at Fisherman’s Wharf. With free admission (machines are coin-operated), the space normally attracts 100,000 guests a year. In total, the collection now includes more than 300 items, many of which were originally found and restored by Zelinsky’s father, Edward.
Close to “Old Marvel” is a rather unassuming game called “Little Whirlwind.” Lacking any eye-catching graphics, the simple maze device doesn’t rake in the quarters when compared with its peers. It was, however, the first machine Edward ever purchased.
As the story goes, a then 8-year-old Edward Zelinsky won a bingo game at school, which allowed him a spin on a prize wheel. He hit the grand prize, which was a case of motor oil. Edward sold this to a local piano teacher and used his subsequent 50 cents in profit to purchase his first penny arcade machine. When that machine had claimed enough coins from his friends and family, Edward went out and bought another one.
“On and on and on it went,” said Dan Zelinsky, now 67, in an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle at his currently boarded-up museum.
Musée Mécanique owner shares stories behind 3 of his favorite attractions
To be fair, growing up with a dad who collected crazy stuff had its perks too. Zelinsky recalls player pianos making him a popular party host as a child. And his first car? A 1922 Stanley Steamer, which he would drive to and from College of Marin classes in the early ’70s.
“Looking back now, that was probably the highlight of my childhood,” Zelinsky said, with a laugh. “We did not have a low profile. Let’s put it that way.”
Over the years, the Musée Mécanique has found itself in the news several times. In 2002, Zelinsky and his father were forced to scramble to relocate their collection when their longtime tenure in a space beneath the Cliff House Restaurant was abruptly terminated. This May, the Musée Mécanique had another close brush with fate when a fire came within feet of the building’s doors. The big blaze was a devastating blow to San Francisco’s fishing industry, but miraculously, Zelinsky’s arcade was spared.
“The fire stopped 30 feet away from us,” Zelinsky said. “One of the guys with the fire department said the only reason we didn’t go up in smoke is because we had an offshore breeze.”
Aside from that brief surge of sirens, however, for the past few months, a stretch of Fisherman’s Wharf normally subject to the wild and wonderful noises emanating from the Musée Mécanique has instead heard mostly silence. Public health restrictions have forced the business to close as the summer season, which covers traditionally rocky winter revenue, passes by.
Still, Zelinsky comes into work a few times a week to run the machines and do repairs, having taken over all operations for the Musée following the death of his father in 2004. Their delicate wiring and ancient parts (a few items in the collection are well over a century old) require that they get regular use. As a result, Zelinsky has taken to entertaining himself by sending the infamous cackle of Laffing Sal out into the largely empty streets through a loudspeaker.
Known as a fixture of San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach, there were a total of 500 Laffing Sal dolls produced by the Philadelphia Toboggan Coasters Co. Standing more than 6 feet tall, decked in freckles and sporting a chipped front tooth, her maniacal laughter could be heard for 16 hours each day before Playland finally shuttered in 1972.
It was then that Edward Zelinsky teamed with Playland’s George Whitney to combine their collection at the latter’s Ocean Beach arcade. That’s where the Musée Mécanique remained until 2002, when it made the transition to Pier 45 in a swift three-day move.
Today, Zelinsky reports that a
, which has raised more than $80,000 and counting, is the only reason his one-of-a-kind collection still has a home and hasn’t been sold to collectors.
“It’s been a total lifesaver,” he said. “Some of the comments that accompany these donations are really heart-wrenching. There are notes from people who grew up going here or who used to come with their grandparents and now they’re bringing their own grandchildren. This is a very nostalgic collection to a lot of people, and it needs to be hung onto for as long as possible.”
Radio host Angie Coiro, 58, of San Francisco agrees.
“There’s just no way to replace the museum if we lose it,” she told The Chronicle. “It’s history inside of history — all of these wonderful contraptions from around the world, in a collection made and maintained with love, coming through one challenge after another.”
Josh Fairhurst, 33, of Apex, N.C., says anytime he travels to the city for work, “the first thing I do when I get off the plane is head to the wharf for In-N-Out and to visit the Musée Mécanique.”
“It’s a staple of my trip and something I look forward to on a yearly basis. I would hate to see them have to close up shop due to the pandemic,” he told The Chronicle via Twitter. “I hope they can pull through and survive because I am anxious to visit again in the future.”
Former Bay Area resident Marisela Orta, 43, now lives in Austin, Texas, but still considers the Musée Mécanique to be a home away from home.
“Dropping a quarter into one of the slots does more than just bring one of those machines to life, it activates something inside us — a piece of our childhood lights up as well,” she wrote to The Chronicle in an email. “Those old machines remind us of the magic of our youth and for a moment you can lose yourself in the music, in the silly games, in the ingenious operations created with the sole purpose to entertain us. I can’t imagine Fisherman’s Wharf without the Musée Mécanique.”
So far, public donations have prevented Zelinsky from having to take any offers to buy certain machines. As far as he’s concerned, it’s all or nothing when it comes to the collection he and his father have dedicated their lives to sharing with the world. The appeal is international, with the operation receiving visitors from across the globe each summer.
Whenever customers are allowed to step foot inside the Musée Mécanique again, Zelinsky looks forward to having a few new treasures on display. One, featuring a boy and an elephant, has been waiting for its Musée Mécanique debut for 40 years.
On a recent socially distanced visit, while Zelinsky is answering questions, his longtime colleague, Ken Eaton, patiently applies layers of papier-mache to the elephant’s base. Originally made in Paris in the late 1800s, the machine’s date with the public was sidetracked by 30 years when the original person hired to repair the elephant stole it.
“We never heard from him again,” Zelinsky recalled. “We even hired a skip-trace detective to try to find him, but it didn’t work. Fast-forward probably 30 years, and I came across a guy who used to work at ILM (Industrial Light & Magic). I don’t know how I bumped into him, but he made a new elephant for me so now all we have to do is mechanize and incorporate it into the original machinery.”
It’s yet another machine with a story to tell. And Zelinsky is looking forward to making sure it gets told. Provided the public’s generosity continues, he is desperately awaiting the day when he can once more enjoy the sight of people bonding over his machines.
“One of my favorite things is watching grandparents come in with their grandchildren and they’re both enjoying the exact same machine,” Zelinsky said. “There’s not a lot that ties several generations together, so it’s great to watch. I truly do believe that this arcade ties generations together.”
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