San Francisco has seen an influx of ultra-hip bar-arcade hybrids in recent years (Emporium, Brewcade and Coin-Op, just to name a few). But for amusement purists, there’s only one spot in the City to kick it authentically old school: Musée Mécanique.
Although it’s now located at Pier 45, the historic playroom originated in Tiburon before developing a loyal local following in the basement of the Cliff House. But long before Ed Zelinskyever set out to entertain the masses with his impressive collection of coin-operated games, artifacts, dioramas and more, he was just a city kid who got lucky.
“It was by accident,” says Zelinsky’s son, Dan, of his father’s eventual enterprise. “He was play-ing Bingo and had the opportunity to go onstage and spin a wheel of fortune. It landed on the grand prize — five quarts of motor oil!”
While the 11-year-old Zelinsky had little use for automotive equipment, he managed to sell his winnings to his piano teacher for 75 cents. He took five of those cents and invested in a penny skill game he purchased on Golden Gate Avenue. Once he taught friends and family to play, he accumulated a sizable fund from their pay-for-play deposits and invested his earnings in more game machines. “It turned into a hobby,” Dan says. “He really en-joyed watching people enjoy themselves.”
By the time the younger Zelinsky became a full-time Musée Mécanique employee in 1972, his father had amassed an array of vintage and current-day diversions. Many of the museum’s most storied attractions came courtesy of George Whitney Sr., co-founder of Playland at the Beach and onetime manager of the Cliff House and Sutro Baths.
“They grew up together and traded machines back and forth,” Dan says. “When Whitney was forced to sell Playland, my dad bought a lot of the machines and added them to the existing collection.”
One particularly personality-filled piece of machinery that made the move from Playland to Musée Mécanique is Laffin’ Sal. The six-foot, curly-haired, irrepressibly giddy character fills the museum with uproarious laughter for each coin deposit.
“Once upon a time, there was a company called the Philadelphia Toboggan Company that manufactured Laffin’ Sals — they made about 500 of them and sold them all over the country,” Dan says. “Playland had two of them, and when one came up for auction, my dad put in a silent bid. He was the only one bidding — she’s pretty tough to deal with and you can’t argue with her, but she’s really nostalgic. And she’s multilingual! No matter where you’re from, everybody’s laughing!” Today, Musée Mécanique continues to bring in swarms of Bay Area natives and out-of-towners seven days a week. Dan regards the controversial 2002 move to Fisherman’s Wharf as an upgrade.
“In my opinion, it’s better,” he says. “When we first moved to Pier 45, we had 160 machines and now we have more than 300.” And of course, the advent of a little thing called the internet has revolutionized the Zelinsky family business. “It’s been incredible for being able to find parts, and it makes it so much easier to get in touch and have lots of contacts,” he says. “It’s made all the difference — in a good way.
Dan says the admission-free museum remains a perfect field-trip destination and family-friendly outing (“you can get 60 kids to listen to one piano for 25 cents”). But when it comes to selecting his favorite item among the fortune telling, arm wrestling, music-making machines, he’s adamantly open-hearted. “If I had to only pick one, that would get old and boring really fast,” he says. “Why pick one when I have 300 of them?”