One of the last remaining links to San Francisco’s oceanside Playland at the Beach amusement park, the Musée Mécanique is a unique hands-on arcade of vintage coin-operated contraptions of all kinds.
The remarkable collection of Edward Galland Zelinsky consists of over 300 mechanical entertainment devices, ranging from full mechanical orchestras in which the instruments play themselves to antique slot machines. Vintage peep shows tittilate with flip books of hula dancers and other exotic treats, fortune tellers read tarot, and old-school photo booths still produce terrific black-and-white photo strips. In the center of the room, a huge diorama of a traveling carnival with ferris wheel and other rides has over 100 individual moving parts. A red, steam-powered motorcycle from 1912, built in Sacramento and possibly the only one in the world, is on display nearby.
Many of the machines are part of San Francisco history. The Royal Court diorama of dancing couples in a ballroom was a feature at the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition. Laffing Sal, the museum’s famously creepy larger-than-life laughing automaton was originally from the Fun House at Playland at the Beach. Some of the most interesting machines are the ones made by prisoners at Alcatraz, including elaborate creations of toothpicks.
With about 200 of the machines in the collection on display at Pier 45, the museum represents a lifetime of curiosity, and is one of the largest privately-owned collections of mechanically-operated machines in the world.
The collection began when Zelinsky was just 11, and he’s been amassing and trading machines ever since. Originally the museum was part of the attractions at Playland at the Beach, and then was relocated to the nearby Cliff House when the park closed in the 1960s. In 2002, a remodel at the Cliff House threatened the future of the collection, and a huge public outcry helped protect and move the museum to its current location in the tourist-soaked Fisherman’s Wharf area.
The museum is now run by Dan Zelinsky, the son of the original owner, who can be found on site most days. To keep them up and running amidst the crush of crowds, the machines require constant maintenance, and some have undergone major restorations. Locals miss the old atmospheric location, but the roomier pier site is not without its own charms.
Know Before You Go
Pier 45 is located at the end of Taylor Street.