Musee Mechanique Endures on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf

Written by Marc Ricketts. Posted in Features, Weekend Update

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Published on June 08, 2014 at 12:35 am with 17 Comments

The Zelinksy family’s collection of coin operated mechanical musical instruments and antique arcade machines, known as the Musee Mechanique, is one of the largest in the world. Most of the items in the collection are in their original working condition. Weekend Update contributor Marc Rickets shares the history of the collection and gives us a photo tour. ~~Rick


Historical Musee Mechanique Endures on Fisherman’s Wharf
by Marc Ricketts

From the early 20th century thorough the 1960s, the people of San Francisco would head to Playland At The Beach for a coaster ride, some time in the Funhouse, or a refreshing It’s It ice cream sandwich. Today condominiums stand on the site, with most of Playland’s remains rotting in landfills. For years after, many of the old arcade machines from Playland and elsewhere took up residence in the Musee Mechanique, located under the nearby Cliff House restaurant. That space was lost during a 2003 renovation of the Cliff House building, but tucked in the back of the city’s Pier 45 on Fisherman’s Wharf, a few of the old arcade machines still survive along with other old coin operated amusements in the current location of the Musee Mechanique.

You can drive to reach the Musee, but should understand that parking is all but illegal in San Francisco. If you see a space, grab it. If you don’t have a car, get one; you’ve done the equivalent of coming out ahead on a slot machine. So save some grief and have some fun; utilize a transportation system older than many of the machines that will soon eat your quarters, and ride in on a Cable Car. No point in traveling if it can’t be standing on the running rails of an archaic form of transportation hanging out into traffic while struggling up and down the insane hills of the City by The Bay.


You’ll want to board at Powell Street (where a slice of Blondie’s pizza is highly recommended). Sure, there’s no parking here, either, but it’s easy to reach by regional rail (BART) or SF Muni via bus, streetcar or subway. If your cable car ride ends at Bay and Taylor St, just keep walking towards the Bay. Every other car will go to Hyde St; if such is the case, follow the waterfront to the right.

However you arrive, just walk on in because there is no admission fee. You will need quarters, and it should go without saying that change machines are always convenient. A rare Playland relic is displayed near the entrance.


Also on display is a Laffing Sal.


There really is no the Laffing Sal. Although a figure such as this stood above Playland’s Fun House entrance with her incessant, maniacal cackle; the figures were mass produced. Sometimes they wore out and were replaced. Indeed, there are several of these figures displayed throughout the Bay Area.

But the main thrust of this space is evident in the dozens of coin operated machines of all types. There are the variations of ones you may have seen that tell your fortune, test your strength, or analyze your sex appeal. You may have viewed the images in one of the remaining mutoscopes on Main St. You know the ones; a crank is turned and a “movie” is watched, like the one in the background here.


Numerous sports are represented, like the golf game above. While the silver ball is limited to the pinball machine in the 21st century, it substituted for a baseball in the days of old.


This is The Rockola World Series, a game that dates back to 1937



Of course, you may find baseball too pastoral. Not everything here is ancient, as evidenced by the action on the bubble hockey table.


The Boy played ice hockey for a number of years; Uncle never had a chance.


While there is no organist at any of the baseball or hockey games, there are music players in the collection.


There is an interesting parallel when looking at the development of coin operated games and theme park attractions. In both there has been an evolution from practical effects to digital ones. There are still games for playing golf, baseball and hockey, but the action takes place on a screen. Pinball is the major holdout of the original era, and even that is often played on a tablet or phone.

But many of the machines here are, in fact, not games at all; and are more like miniature versions of theme park attractions, if not the entire park as seen below.


Besides having the rides come to life, you can also see what a highly motivated individual can accomplish with a large supply of toothpicks.


One of the larger tableaus is The Farm. An advantage here is that several people are able to enjoy the animations that are present throughout the scene.



While the inside of a modern arcade game is, to most, an indecipherable assortment of wires and circuitry; even those that aren’t mechanically inclined can eventually understand how the gears, belts and pulleys control the movements in these tableaus.


Not everything is a carefree day in the heartland, however, and here we see a demonstration of overindulgence (think pink elephants from Dumbo and you’ll understand how things will go in this “dream”).


And, naturally, one must beware of the consequences when the overindulgence is too extreme.


Wow! Who would build a machine that shows a figure being led to the gallows and publically killed? Apparently in the early 20th century, there were many. So if you want something with a more international flair:



But what if you hate the French, but love their execution technology? Well, let’s just take nationalism right out of the equation.


And it’s only after wading through this corpse strewn section of the Musee Mechanique that you encounter this.


Well y’all, they have my attention. And you think it’s worth a quarter to find out what inspired this dire warning? Alright, then, the curtain is rising, and….. I don’t want to spoil any endings, but remember when they ate those beans around the campfire in Blazing Saddles?


And that’s just a taste of the wonders that await at the Musee Mechanique. During the 1960s, when your humble narrator was a child in the Deep South, pinball machines were nowhere to be found.


But there was this mall arcade that had a cool game where you would use levers to control a small, motorized helicopter as it spun in a circle, with the goal of touching sensors along the way with a metal wand attached to your craft. And lo and behold, here’s one hidden away in the back.


And lo and behold it required more quarters than any other machine we played. But that’s OK. You can have a good time here for only a few bucks worth . It’s also easy to step outside the back door for some quiet time beside the Bay. And that teenager that embarrassed his Uncle on the Bubble Hockey table? Well, it turns out those skills don’t automatically transfer to Pong, and there’s a decent chance for someone over 50 to smoke the little snot!

More information can be found [HERE].

While you’re in the area!

In addition to Cable Cars, there is another way to travel to/from this area using transportation from another era. The SF MUNI F line consists of historic streetcars from around the world, including an authentic Red Car Trolley from Los Angeles. Click [HERE] for more information, including which streetcars are running at any given time.

We’ll be back soon for another Day by the Bay.

About Marc Ricketts

Marc Ricketts is a writer/photographer who has not yet outgrown roller coasters, and provides news and information about San Francisco Bay Area destinations. Mark's columns can frequently be found on MiceChat in our Weekend Updates.

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  • Marko50

    I LOVED playing the antique baseball game – the Rockola World Series – at the Penny Arcade on Main St, though as I recall, it was 5 cents for 3 outs, not 50. We’d play at least three innings while there.

    Speaking of Playland-at-the-Beach, I’m sure you’re aware of Playland-Not-at-the-Beach which I believe also has some machines from P-a-t-B. Might that be an upcoming article?

    • ralfrick

      There’s a good chance it will worm its way into something down the road. I’ve long been interested in the history of the Playland, Cliff House, Sutro”s Baths area, and may do a “now and then” if I can find some old photos along with permission to use.

  • Haven

    Girrrrl…All I have to say is that Laughing Sal needs to be in one of the SAW movies.

  • ayalexander

    I still don’t get what happened in the Drunkard’s Dream, you said it was like Pink Elephants from Dumbo… what happened, did a bunch of transparent elephants come trumpeting through the scene. Honestly, I’m really curious as to what happened in that machine. Tell me!

    • ralfrick

      It’s a tricky line between informing and giving too much away. In this one various creatures pop out around the scene as might be imagined by someone on the whiskey trail.

  • fnord

    Do they still have the large circus/carnival animated diarama??

    • ralfrick

      That is still there. Thanks for looking.



  • jcruise86

    There are a number of Youtube videos about this fun & partly creepy place. I hope to go.

  • Disneyfan58

    Everytime we visit San Francisco, we alway pay a visit to this place. Fisherman’s Wharf is filled with tourist trap offerings, this is not one of them. It is a great place to see and play antique games that are kept in meticulously great condition. A must see in San Francisco and Fisherman’s Wharf!!!!

  • ChrisNJ

    Thank you for this article. I LOVE this place. Strangely I didn’t know about it before seeing it from the street – and was just drawn to it. I went there twice that first day as I sort of felt like it was a dream the first time. And I needed more.

    Inside they also have a machine that sells souvenirs – especially interesting are the CDs with music from the machines! Their website sells the cds too (I just checked)

    Definitely worth a visit for any amusement fan.

  • eicarr

    I miss the old Cliff House location, but its a great addition to Fisherman’s Wharf. For a full day, its good to pair wharf attractions with the Disney Family Museum.

  • KENfromOC

    RICK & MARC:
    Dan Zelinsky, the owner of Musee Mecanique is my 2nd cousin. I grew up going to the Cliff House location and I remember going to his house when we were both young and there were several if these machines in the garage that were being stored or worked on.

    I saw Dan when we were up there last year. I went up to him and said “I think we are related!”
    I knew we were related somehow, but it took a bit conversation with him to figure it out ( it had been decades since I saw him, so he was unsure too if we were related and our last names are different) It wasn’t until I said by brother and dad live in Santa Fe until he got it- in fact he had talked to my Dad just days before and they keep in touch often. Dan’s grandfather was my grandmother’s brother.

    Kind of neat this place is still around and I have family ties to it!

    • ralfrick

      I just got a DVD about the Cliff House and Sutro Heights that showed him roller skating while working, cool that you were able to meet.



  • BlahBlahson

    I stumbled upon this place by accident, and was simply blown away by all that was housed there. I must have spent 20 dollars in quarters. My absolute favorite was the horrible old arm wrestling machine, after a few tries I put it on the hardest setting and it must have generated like 400 pounds of force because the whole machine moved when put my whole bodyweight into challenging it. Waaaay too much fun. I hope this place lasts forever, so amazing to be connected to the days of small local parks, ballrooms, grand wooden coasters, and the incredible lack of safety!

  • Conconhead

    This sort of reminds me of the miniature store at Knott’s Berry Farm. Is that still there, tucked away in Ghost-Town? I love dioramas.

    As for pinball, sport of KINGS. I wish someone would encourage more pinball machines in arcades over stupid win-a-ticket gambling machines.