Game not yet over for SF’s Musee Mecanique

By Paul Glader The Associated Press
Wednesday March 20, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — For decades, the Musee Mecanique, a beloved collection of mechanical games once played in saloons, carnivals and boardwalk arcades, has been one of the most authentic and bizarre tourist attractions on the West Coast. 

Seranaded by 15 player pianos, visitors to the dark, crowded basement of the historic Cliff House dispense fistfuls of change as if they were in Las Vegas, buying cheap entertainment from the 160 antique, coin-operated machines. 

A couple of quarters can activate a mechanical baseball game, pick a fight against a chain-driven arm-wrestler or induce a mighty, half-crazed belly laugh from Laughing Sal, a giant female figure that stood near the Fun House at the city’s long-gone Playland-at-the-Beach from 1940 to 1972. 

“We wanted to come here before they close,” said Eulos Horn, who challenged his girlfriend to a hand-operated boxing game, National K.O Fighters, a crude pugilistic ancestor to Mortal Kombat and other video games. 

Attendance has tripled on weekdays and quadrupled on weekends in the month since the Musee’s owners, Ed Zelinsky and his son Dan, announced that they’ll have to find a new home or close down by September, when renovations begin on the seismically flawed roadhouse restaurant upstairs. 

The repairs have been delayed for years. “There is asbestos and the roof is falling in on them as we speak,” said Carrie Strahan, who is managing the renovation for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. 

Eventually, the Musee will be housed in a visitor’s center to be built just up the hill from Ocean Beach, where Zelinsky, 76, will be able to display more of the 300 machines he began collecting at age 11. 

Meanwhile, they’re hoping to move to a temporary home without damaging the fragile machines, which are full of gears, pulleys and wooden parts. Dan helps keep them in working order, using tape to patch tears in the brittle rolls of piano music and quietly seething when visitors occasionally take out their anger on the games. 

Will it soon be Game Over for this accumulation of Americana? Nostalgia-lovers hope not. They’ve rallied with petitions, and local media have campaigned to save the Musee. 

“The future of the world’s greatest museum of two-bit machines — player pianos, fortunetelling, hockey, race-car and other games — is indeed uncertain,” the San Francisco Chronicle said. “If this hands-on chunk of history is lost, the entire region will be the poorer.”