Musée Mécanique – San Francisco’s Antique Coin Operated Arcade
Located amidst the loud noises of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, California, the Musée Mécanique is a hidden gem. In English, the name translates to Mechanical Museum. A fitting name, considering the museum, consists of musical instruments of mechanical nature as well as antique arcade artifacts. There are more than 300 mechanical items in the museum, which can still be operated by the use of coins.
A privately operated family venture since 1933, Musée Mécanique should be on the list of must-sees for anyone visiting San Fransisco. If you have kids, plan to spend a few hours here, they will be mesmerized by the old arcade games.
The owner of Musée Mécanique was Ed Zelinsky; sadly, he passed in 2004 due to pancreatic cancer. His family continues to own and run the museum.
At age seven, Ed began making a collection of coin-operated music instruments, bird boxes, and slot machines of the antique kind. Now, most of the items he has collected throughout his life are part of Musée Mécanique. By his admission, Ed kept a small piece of his collection at home. The private machines are the ones Ed thought could not stand the test of time and would likely break under the hands of an overexcited child.
Ed shares how his fascination with arcade games begun:
“I went to the Ellis Theatre on Fillmore Street, and during the intermission, they had a Bingo game. My number was called, and I ran on stage. They had a big wheel. I spun the wheel, and believe it or not; I won the grand prize! No, I didn’t win a slot machine or a music box; I won five quarts of motor oil”. – Ed Zelinsky
The young eleven-year-old did need motor oil in the absence of a car, so he sold the oil to his teacher in exchange for 75 cents. It’s these 75 cents that he used to buy a penny skill game from Golden Gate Avenue.
Ed acquired many items from Golden Gate Avenue, an area where they sold slot machines and old jukeboxes. He also purchased items from Playland-at-the- Beach and other old-time San Francisco attractions.
His first exhibition was during the 1920s, where he went on to display the games he had collected. On public display for decades, first at Playland on Ocean Beach.
When Cliff House undertook renovation in 2002, the museum had to again move to Fisherman’s Wharf, as a temporary measure announced by the National Park Service. Among the money allocated for the renovation, about $14 million was set aside for moving the museum, something that Golden Gate National Recreation Area, National Park Service, and Zelinsky himself supported.
The locals of San Francisco didn’t take this news lightly. Initially, they were under the impression the museum might close permanently. Locals did not know about the money set aside to relocate it. Locals also simply did not want the museum to move to Fisherman’s Wharf because of nostalgia attached to it from when it was at Playland. To them, losing the museum to Fisherman’s wharf was like losing a part of their childhood.
Due to this, an online petition took off, which received 12,000 signatures. Many well-wishers even attempted to donate money to the museum, unaware it had a for-profit status.
Despite opposing sentiments, Dan Zelinsky, the manager of the museum, was happy about the move. He understood why people got so emotional over it, but he also knew it ultimately wasn’t going anywhere else. Initially, the plan was that the museum would return to the Recreation Area sometime in 2004, once Cliff House has entirely constructed again. However, Musée Mécanique continues to be an integral part of Fisherman’s Wharf.
The only time one had to truly fear the loss of everyone’s beloved Mechanical Museum was this year in May 2020, when a fire caught in Fisherman’s Wharf at 4 am. Fortunately, the fire stopped before it could get anywhere near the museum.
Why Visit Musée Mécanique?
Why visit Musée Mécanique or the Mechanical Museum? Well, for starters, the museum is heaven for anyone interested in the old times. Once you step inside the black carpeted museum, it feels like you have traveled back in time. Musical instruments and arcades games line up, one after the other.
Experience a special trip down the memory lane. Start with the music boxes that have to be operated by hand and then try your hand at earlier pioneers of modern-day video games.
Palm reading, execution re-enactments, various dancing ensembles, steeplechases, peeping toms, and tons of traditional games. The is something in here for everyone.
Before you know it, you will be standing in front of video-based arcade games, transported back to the modern world. There is a whole section of contemporary video games at the back of the museum.
As for your kids, they will enjoy experiencing something they never got the chance to, having grown up in a world full of advanced technology. It is an excellent way for kids to learn the history of mechanics and video games. My nephew loved it here and nagged me to go back. I was surprised, I expected him to snuff the antiques, and he had the opposite reaction. Landon spent lots of time playing the claw machines, a favorite of his:
We spent several hours in Musée Mécanique, and we will return!
Musée Mécanique Arcade Games
As the collection continued to grow, Dan Zelinsky Ed’s son bought Laughing Sal. Potentially the most recognizable mannequin that sets the tone for the experience ahead.
Laughing Sal – real name Laffing Sal is famous for its mechanical laughter that all could hear at the entrance to the Fun House at Playland. Laffing Sal’s were a popular attraction for carnival attraction owners during the 1940s.
There are so many games to choose from you will find it overwhelming!
What You Need to Know
Musée Mécanique is located at Pier 45 Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco.
The museum receives over 100,000 visitors every year.
Entrance to the museum is free, but if you wish to play games here, you will have to pay to play.
All of the games require quarters, and there is a coin machine on hand.
$20 will keep two people entertained for at least an hour, realistically longer.
The hours of operation are 10 am – 8 pm, seven days a week.
In some ways, the 20th-century lives on in the Musée Mécanique. The perfect place to revisit your childhood while on vacation. Perhaps, if you were a San Francisco Bay area kid, you would enjoy this museum more than anyone.
If you like playing games in general – you have already mastered today’s arcade games. The question is, are you capable of acing the antique ones? Musée Mécanique is one of the few places in the world where you can enjoy arcade games in their pure operating form. Lastly, it’s one of the largest collections you will ever get to experience!
Looking for more inspiration on places to visit? Start here:
Nikki Webster is a travel writer who covers how to travel while grinding a day job, how to travel without breaking the bank, hotels, cruising, and off-the-beaten-track experiences. She is particularly fond of Florida and writes extensively about the state. She flies around 60,000 miles per year and has visited 54 countries, 50 states, and six continents. You can read all about her travels at www.britonthemove.com.