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We saw a lot on our family vacation to California this summer: epic coastline views, acre after acre of almond groves, forest fires, and Venice Beach, to name a few things. Thanks to friends and colleagues, we had a long list of sites to see. One such place, suggested by Cyrus Farivar, was Musée Mécanique. Located on San Francisco’s historic Fisherman’s Wharf, the Musée Mécanique bills itself as one of the largest privately owned collection of antique arcade machines in the world.
For Gen Xers like me, vintage arcades conjure up images of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Tempest, and Crazy Climber. I make regular pilgrimages to Galloping Ghost, a suburban Chicago arcade that has over 400 playable classic arcade games and pinball tables.
Musée Mécanique has some classic video games, but the focus of the collection is primarily on coin-operated mechanical arcade machines and musical instruments. According to the Musée website, most of the machines are from the private collection of fifth-generation San Franciscan Edward Zelinsky. The collecting bug bit him as a child, and he made his first purchase—a penny skill game—in 1933 at age 11. By the time he passed away in 2004 at the age of 82, he had amassed well over 300 antique coin-op machines.
Getting to the Musée was just a matter of hopping on a cable car and riding it to the end of the line near Fishermans Wharf, which is a bit of tourist trap these days. Walk through the doors, however, and your senses are assaulted. There’s the taste of the salty ocean air mixed with the scent of old, stained wood. Throw in beeps, boops, and bells of the antique machines, vintage arcade games, and pinball tables, and you’ve got five senses working overtime.
As the Musée is a for-profit venture, there are change machines located around the building so you can try your hand at the games. I turned a pair of five-dollar bills into quarters and distributed them to the family, and we split up to see what the Musée had to offer.
For the most part, the vintage machines fell into one of five categories: animated dioramas, peep shows, skill games, tests of strength, and love testers. I was drawn to the dioramas, which to my 21st-century eyes were incredibly cheesy. Among the dioramas were the Opium Den with rude caricatures of Chinese drug addicts, The Old Barn Dance featuring dancing marionette puppets, and The Inquest which I couldn’t make any sense of aside from the fact it involved bison and a dead native American in full regalia.