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This arcade is really vintage: Visiting San Franciscos Musée Mécanique

Enlarge / Look through the window and see your future!Marlowe Bangeman

We saw a lot on our family vacation to California this summer: epic coastline views, acre after acre of almond groves, forest fires, and Venice Beach, to name a few things. Thanks to friends and colleagues, we had a long list of sites to see. One such place, suggested by Cyrus Farivar, was Musée Mécanique. Located on San Francisco's historic Fisherman's Wharf, the Musée Mécanique bills itself as one of the largest privately owned collection of antique arcade machines in the world. For Gen Xers like me, vintage arcades conjure up images of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Tempest, and Crazy Climber. I make regular pilgrimages to Galloping Ghost, a suburban Chicago arcade that has over 400 playable classic arcade games and pinball tables.

Musée Mécanique has some classic video games, but the focus of the collection is primarily on coin-operated mechanical arcade machines and musical instruments. According to the Musée website, most of the machines are from the private collection of fifth-generation San Franciscan Edward Zelinsky. The collecting bug bit him as a child, and he made his first purchase—a penny skill game—in 1933 at age 11. By the time he passed away in 2004 at the age of 82, he had amassed well over 300 antique coin-op machines.

Getting to the Musée was just a matter of hopping on a cable car and riding it to the end of the line near Fishermans Wharf, which is a bit of tourist trap these days. Walk through the doors, however, and your senses are assaulted. There's the taste of the salty ocean air mixed with the scent of old, stained wood. Throw in beeps, boops, and bells of the antique machines, vintage arcade games, and pinball tables, and you've got five senses working overtime.

  • The entrance to Musée Mécanique on San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf. Wikimedia Commons
  • Some of the vintage games aren't quite as vintage. Eric Bangeman
  • Insert coin and the carnival comes to life. Eric Bangeman
  • Smaller machines, including some peep shows. Eric Bangeman
  • There are player pianos, games of skill, and games of chance to be found. Eric Bangeman
  • A view of some of the coin-operated machines at the Musée Eric Bangeman

As the Musée is a for-profit venture, there are change machines located around the building so you can try your hand at the games. I turned a pair of five-dollar bills into quarters and distributed them to the family, and we split up to see what the Musée had to offer.

For the most part, the vintage machines fell into one of five categories: animated dioramas, peep shows, skill games, tests of strength, and love testers. I was drawn to the dioramas, which to my 21st-century eyes were incredibly cheesy. Among the dioramas were the Opium Den with rude caricatures of Chinese drug addicts, The Old Barn Dance featuring dancing marionette puppets, and The Inquest which I couldn't make any sense of aside from the fact it involved bison and a dead native American in full regalia.

  • The End of the Trail is a place of death and misery, apparently.
  • The Barber Shop "Quart" is comprised of mutant nutcrackers. Eric Bangeman
  • The Opium Den is truly a den of inquity. Eric Bangeman
  • When the Opium Den is activated, a snake pokes its head out of the opening at left and the addicts move a bit. Eric Bangeman
  • Head down to the Cantina de Rosa for a rip-roarin' time. Marlowe Bangeman
  • A scene from the American West? Eric Bangeman
  • Insert your coins and the hoedown starts. The Mountin Boys play a merry tune. Eric Bangeman
  • A close up of some of the dancers. Erc Bangeman
  • Come on down to Cactus Gulch and have a slug of whiskey at the First & Last Chance Saloon. Eric Bangeman
  • A tisket, a tasket / a head in a basket. Eric Bangeman
  • I would've been more impressed if the condemned was half-hanged, drawn, and quartered in the true English style. Marlowe Bangeman

If 19th- and early 20th-century titillation is more your speed, Musée Mecanique has a handful of peep shows, too.

  • This one's pretty awesome—she actually shows a bit of ankle. Eric Bangeman
  • Actually, she does some yoga and heads to Starbucks for a latte. Oh, and she also changes clothes. Eric Bangeman
  • To no one's surprised, the sultan's harem is filled with scantily-clad women. Eric Bangeman
  • Have your foot circulation stimulated and then gawk at pictures of the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Eric Bangeman

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