Wind Up Here
Here is a partial list of things I own: a typewriter, several records (but no player), a 35 mm SLR camera. Clearly, I am a sucker for what might be called the “manual arts”: machines that require human exertion (and not merely human interaction) to work. How satisfying it is to pound on a keyboard and hear the letter you have stroked reverberate through the machine, pressing ink onto paper.
My affinity for these dying arts led me to seek out the Musée Mécanique, which houses one of the largest privately-owned collections of coin-operated machines in the world. Perched at the edge of Fisherman’s Wharf in a converted parking lot, the free museum boasts hand-cranked music boxes, pre-video video games, and player pianos. I was excited to walk amongst 100+ year old machines, to admire the careful artistry and mechanics, and to feel that momentary delight of popping a penny into a game and watching the contraption come to life.
Arriving at Fisherman’s Wharf, my senses have gone hyperactive. I’m walking up Jefferson Street trying to ignore squawking seagulls, strolling by $10 San Francisco fleeces and 51 cent souvenir pennies, past the smells of Denny’s and sea food. In my book, you need a really good excuse to go to Fisherman’s Wharf. Friends come to town and I tell them the water’s prettier from Baker Beach; the 33’s a far more exciting bus ride than the trolley. I am more than ready to seek refuge in the large open doors of the Musée Mécanique.
I’m supposed to meet Dan Zelinsky, the owner of the museum, for a private tour of his collection. We’d played phone tag the week before, and when I finally did reach him, he sounded frantically busy with a broken photobooth. He was happy to meet but assured me there was nothing exciting to write about the museum beyond the machines themselves. Ready to prove his bashfulness wrong, I told him I’d be there the very next week.
Much like Fisherman’s Wharf, the museum causes its own sensory overload. As I search for Dan in the maze of machines, lights flash on and off as quarters are shoved into slots, motors of arcade games groan as they’re started, and piano players jolt into motion without warning. Finally, I see a man fiddling with a machine. He’s wearing a plaid shirt tucked into blue jeans with a white pin that exclaims, “I WORK HERE.”
It is true that I’m a short lady, but Dan towers over me not simply because he is tall, but because he is wearing rollerskates. I readily start my Peter Pan syndrome psychoanalysis: here’s a man, probably in his late 40s, who skates around his very own Willy Wonka factory of old toys. Dan explains that skating helps him get around the museum faster, and he’s rolled that way since 1975, just three years after he began helping his father, who started the collection, at the Cliff House.
“So what do you want to know?” Dan challenges. I ask him to show me his favorite machine. His eyes look concerned and I already know what he’ll later confirm: these are his babies. Every day, he operates on several of his 230 children – giving them oil, cleaning their glass, replacing a faulty spring. Each machine has its own demands (some are needier than others) and Dan is their caretaker. It would be most unethical for him to promote one above the rest.
After thinking, Dan points to the most expensive machine to play, the Regina Sublima from 1889, a delicate music box with a four quarter price tag so it won’t be played endlessly. Much to my surprise, the museum makes practically all its money from the coins people put into the machines, so Dan has become sensitive to the nuanced noises of quarters dropping into machines. As we talk, he interrupts himself to point out that a quarter was just dropped into Laffing Sal (a 6+ foot tall automaton with an eerie laugh from San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach).
Each machine has a rich history. The Cry Baby – a father in his nightgown burping a wailing baby – features the cries of Dan’s son, Connor.
The Cactus Gulch – a one-time advertisement diorama machine – was refurbished by Ken, who named each window storefront after a friend.
We're interrupted by Ken, a retired music mechanic who helps out a few days a week. Apparently, the Bubblegum Crane is stuck. Dan skates backwards and chats with me as we make our way over to the wounded machine. In the few hours we spend together, Dan whizzes off at least four times to attend to something broken or stuck. Sometimes Ken points it out, and other times he hears a part not catching correctly and ballerinas over to check.
The satisfaction of playing with these machines – of manually moving an airplane up and down with a lever – ignited Dan’s excitement for them as he grew up around his father’s collection. Now, working with his hands to lovingly mend their broken parts keeps him engaged. In his “office” – a space that houses cabinets full of hardware pieces – he can make any part needed. “I know a shitload about a little bit of everything. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know,” he humbles.
Dan’s visitors are almost as important to him as the machines themselves. For them, he’s changed a “Measure your Sex Appeal” arcade game to “What Do Your Friends Call You Behind Your Back” after a father was forced to explain to his young son the meaning of sex. For his guests he will keep admission free: “It has to be free. It allows everyone to come and at least see what’s here and hear the music from a machine someone else paid for. You can have a school field trip and 30 kids can hear one piano for 25 cents.”
It turns out there are several questions Dan gets asked a lot:
1. “How do I work this thing?” Apparently, plenty of people haven’t seen a coin slot before and don’t know to put coins in it. Dan thinks this is very funny.
2. “Where are the bathrooms?” They don’t have any. Go outside, right behind the Boudin stand.
3. “Where’s the machine from Big?”
I ask him #3. Turns out the museum does not have the Zoltan, but Dan mentions The Princess Diaries, which shot a scene there over several days.
Apparently, Julie Andrews tried to beat the Arm Wrestler, and when she couldn’t do it on the first shot, she took off her scarf, readied herself, and beat the machine on round two.
Arrogant and eons younger than Ms. Andrews, I prepare to take down the Arm. The machine grumbles to a start and easily beats me twice in a row. I’m feeling dejected and weak, but Dan assures me he’s only able to take on the machine after much practice and some torn ligaments.
I explore on my own before leaving. I test my sex appeal and find I’m both “irresistible” and “sizzling”. I have my fortune told on the Magic Typewriter (it’s impressively accurate). I watch a beheading at the French execution. Finally, I test out one of the infamous photobooths, whose orphaned photos Dan compiled into a book for sale. The photograph ends up spotty and Dan sets out to fix the developer, rolling to the backroom to grab a hefty canister of chemicals. He graciously returns my money so I can have another go before I depart.
Outside, it’s sunny and noisy and smelly. A street performer sings a terrible rendition of “Save the Best for Last” and a homeless guy talks and then screams at himself. My senses are no longer pleasantly engaged, and I am ready to get the hell out of Fisherman’s Wharf. But for a brief period, in the northernmost and touristmost section of San Francisco, I was more than content.
Images courtesy of
The Musée Mécanique is located at Pier 45, Shed A at the end of Taylor Street on Fisherman's Wharf. To contact the museum, call (415) 346-2000 or email email@example.com. While sauntering about, if a machine breaks and Dan Zelinsky doesn't immediately whiz by to fix it, head to the back of the museum and ring the doorbell. Be sure not to miss the praxinoscope, an early animation device and the museum's oldest machine, and the ever-risqué Naughty Marietta peep show.