The Old Game Arcades
San Francisco tourist sites are aplenty and there’s never a shortage of unique things to see. One of these is located right at the San Francisco pier 45, Fishermans Wharf.
It’s the world famous Musee Mecanique and it’s an enjoyable and fun trip to San Francisco’s past. It is one of the finest collections of old arcade games and devices that take you back to the 1920’s and before. The museum features hundreds of quarter operated games and exhibits from the turn of the century. Penny arcades were very common at venues like county fairs but by but by the 1950’s many of these arcades were replaced by modern machines. Back in the time of the penny arcade the video games played today of course were not in existence.
Many of the early games included pinball and fortune telling devices. Others were elaborate models of frontier towns, Ferris Wheels, a pinball version of an old baseball game and many other quite interesting novelties. Another popular machine found in old penny arcades were the peep show devices. where d the viewer could see views of various objects and later to actually see moving pictures. In the 19th century and very early 20th century this type of machine was one of the most popular.
You will experience the shooting galleries of the pre-video era. There are other great games of skill dating back to the 1920’s.
When you have a chance to view or play these antique games at Musee Mecanique you will probably marvel at the engineering that made them operate. In a way the technology involved with these devices is quite simple compared to the electronics of today, but this is what makes the machines so charming in the first place.The name penny arcade was derived from the fact that the penny was the common coin used to play them.
The Old Time Arcade Equipment
One of the most popular of the Musee Mecanique old machines is Laffing Sal. She and others like her were built in Pennsylvania during the 1920’s and shipped to amusement parks around the country. To give you an idea of the cost of these machines, when built Laffing Sal would have cost around $360. In 1940 the machine would have cost around $5,700. Laffing Sal was seen in the 1950 movie “Woman On The Run” and in the 1953 movie “Man In The Dark“.
Other fully working exhibits at Musee Mecanique include a fortune teller, sex appeal meter, Regina Sublima original music box, Wurlitzer Orchestrion and an ancient Chinese royal courtyard.
These exhibits are still putting out music nearly 100 years later. While you’re there don’t miss the movie machines featuring footage from the aftermath of the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Another one of a kind machine is the one to test your strength. It’s a mechanical hand whereby you set it to a certain level and essentially arm wrestle with it. Unfortunately I lost each time I tried.
What other arcade can you have a Wild West scene play out before your eyes for only a quarter. After this, spend a quarter to listen to the unique player piano with it’s own drums and mandolin. You may also enjoy the handmade carnival scene with actual moving parts. This museum is probably the best old arcade exhibit under one roof and is the product of a lifetime of collecting. Where else can you have this much fun playing with arcade machines that are almost a hundred years old and only spend a quarter on each. This opportunity at Musee Mecanique beats the modern day arcades where many games will cost you one dollar each time you play. Where else in such a scenic locale as San Francisco Pier 45 at Fishermans Wharf can you play such unique antique games and enjoy hours there for only ten to twenty dollars total.
Links to two additional nearby attractions in San Francisco that we’ve highlighted on our Western Trips site are the Cable Car Museum and the U.S.S. Pampanito World War Two submarine. You will also enjoy our photo article on the historic Santa Cruz California Boardwalk.
The History of Musee Mecanique
There’s a lot of history with Musee Mecanique and the arcade industry in San Francisco. This venue alone features a world class collection of over 200 antique arcade games all under one roof. Game historians who frown on today’s digital presence look at the total display of these old machines as the evolution of arcade entertainment.
Most of the machines at Musee Mecanique were scavenged from the old “Playland at the Beach“, a venue that was located for years near San Francisco’s Cliff House on the Pacific Ocean. When the Cliff House was being remodeled the collection needed to find a new home. Indeed, the San Francisco public wanted these machines kept on display.and this led the museum to its current location in the Fisherman’s Wharf area at Pier 45.
The Musee Mecanique is truly one of San Francisco’s treasures.The collection was owned by Edward Zelinsky who actually started his collection at eleven years of age. The collection just grew and grew with acquisitions being made throughout Zelinsky’s lifetime. He collected the old games prior to World War Two and continued when he arrived back home after the war. One of the most unique displays at the museum is the “Steam Flyer” which is not a game but a fully and beautifully restored red steam motorcycle built in the 1920’s by a man in Sacramento California.
There was a lot of experimenting with steam motorcycles during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and this exhibit is one you don’t want to miss. This particular motorcycle, which could be the only one of its kind in the world, and it’s still in working condition, is estimated to be worth over $250,000.
All of the machines on display were collected over a long period of time by Edward Zelinsky who recognized their historic value at the time. To amass such a collection today would take an astronomical amount of money.
A Lifetime Collection
Dan Zelinsky, the son of the original owner, now operates the museum. As you can imagine, these antique machines require constant maintenance.and several have had major restorations. Old San Franciscan’s may miss the fun atmosphere of the old Playland on the Beach location, but the larger Pier 45 location is ideal for introducing the tourist crowds to this unique display.
When your travels include a San Francisco vacation I would highly recommend a stop at Musee Mecanique. It’s right at Fishermans Wharf, near many other popular attractions, and it’s free to enter. Musee Mecanique is open 365 days a year, from 10 am to 7 pm weekdays and 10 am to 8 pm weekends and holidays From 1930 colorful marionettes to penny stretcher machines to fortune tellers, Musee Mecanique is a vintage arcade museum second to none.
Also, adjacent to Musee Mecanique on Pier 45 are two restored World War II vessels. One is, the submarine USS Pampanito and the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien. Both vessels are open for tours. I have toured both vessels and Musee Mecanique and I would recommend all of them.
(Photos are from author’s private collection)