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Musee Mecanique © Piotrus/Wikipedia
Musee Mecanique © Piotrus/Wikipedia

Musée Mécanique: San Francisco's Antique Penny Arcade

Picture of Courtney Holcomb
Updated: 27 September 2016
If you’ve ever visited Fisherman’s Wharf or have watched The Princess Diaries, you’ve likely seen the lively little penny arcade tucked away into a corner of this tourist district. This gem is known as Musée Mécanique, one of the most beloved San Francisco spots to stop by for locals and visitors alike.

 

Musée Mécanique is an interactive museum filled with over 200 20th-century antique penny arcade games and artifacts. The collection was started by Ed Zilinsky, who began collecting at the age of 11. His collection was first displayed in the 1920s at Playland at the Beach, an amusement park housed from 1913 to 1972 near today’s Cliff House Restaurant on the west coast of San Francisco. After Playland’s closure, the collection became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and was moved into the Cliff House basement, where Dan Zelinsky, Ed’s son, took over maintaining it. When renovations began at the Cliff House, the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area allotted $14 million to move the museum into the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. Despite a surge of protests from locals, including an online petition featuring over 12,000 signatures, the move was made with the support of the Zelinskys.

Although there were originally plans to return the museum to its former location in 2004, it remains standing in its Fisherman’s Wharf location at Pier 45 today. According to Ed Zelinsky himself, the collection includes artifacts ‘ranging from orchestrions, coin operated pianos, antique slot machines and animations down to small bird boxes.’ Other pieces include fortune tellers, pinball machines, modern video games, interactive love tests, peep shows, hand-cranked music boxes, photo booths, Mutoscopes, machines made out of toothpicks by Alcatraz prisoners, an arm wrestler, a large diorama of a traveling carnival, a Royal Court diorama with tiny couples ballroom dancing, a creepy 6-foot ‘Laffing Sal and the only known steam-powered motorcycle in the world. While over 200 pieces are displayed in the museum, still more fragile or collectible pieces remain in Zelinsky’s home. The full collection totals over 300 pieces, making it one of the largest private collections in the world.

Not only does the museum house these artifacts from the past, but they are all in pristine working condition, meaning that the public can play with them exactly as they were originally intended. Admission to the museum is free, so visitors can easily stroll through to enjoy the vibrant atmosphere, or they can spend a few pennies to have some more interactive fun. Game prices range from one cent to one dollar, and change machines are available in case you need to break a few bills. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., including weekends and holidays, but will remain open later if there is still a crowd playing.

By Courtney Holcomb