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The wonderful miniatures and oddities of Musée Mécanique

It really is a small world after all

Photo by Geof Wilson

It’s Play Week at Curbed, which is the perfect excuse to pay another visit to Musée Mécanique, the most curious and endearing of all tourist traps on Fisherman’s Wharf.

Late founder Ed Zelinsky opened the original Musée Mécanique more than 40 years ago at the Cliff House. Ed’s contraptions—more than 300 in all—almost ended up homeless after the Cliff House remodeled in 2002, but the city stepped in and helped Zelinksy secure a locale at Pier 45.

Whereas the technology of tomorrow sometimes clashes with San Francisco’s fringe weird reputation, at Musée Mécanique, one true San Franciscan’s love for the weird, kitschy tech of the past created a landmark unlike any other.

Zelinsky’s specialty was coin-operated dioramas. These works of carnival ingenuity invited the curious to plug in a dime and be treated to a tiny animatronic drama under glass.

Some of the machines are part of San Francisco history, first coming to town as part of the old Playland at the Beach or World’s Fair in 1915. Others are refugees from boardwalks, sideshows, “amusement arcades” (the precursors to video arcades), cinemas, bars, or roadside tourist traps.

Few of the machines sport impressive animation by today’s standards, and many (like the downright terrifying Santa’s Workshop diorama) look bizarre or ghoulish.

But they provide a tiny window into ages past, when digital media barely existed and our immediate forebears paused to glance at something new, exciting, exotic, or just plain weird enough to be worth ten cents a gander.

Laughing Sal: Laughing Sal (sometimes “Laffing Sal”) is Musée Mécanique’s most famous piece, either despite or because of the monstrous quality of her laughter. She also illustrates the most common theme in carnival novelties: People having a good time seemed to like recreations of other people having fun as well.

The Carnival: This elaborate piece continues the good times theme, as tiny rides runs round, a tiny band plays, a mermaid splashes in a pool at the sideshow, and an ape shakes the bars of its cage in the zoo. The label on the machine claims it was created by a retired carnival worker trying to recapture his old haunts, but you never can trust a carnival pitch.

The Mechanical Farm: Similar to the Carnival, the farm is a larger and even more elaborate toy world with (so the piece itself claims) some 150 moving figures.

The Ferris Wheel: Supposedly, this and a couple of the other toothpick reconstructions of carnival rides are the result of San Quentin prisoners’ labor.

Grandma: Other than scenes of mirth and rural living, fortune telling machines are probably the most common sorts of carnival clockworks, and you can still occasionally find them at modern amusement parks. Grandma here is a 1929 design, and whereas most Musée pieces feature primitive animation at best, her head movements and facial expressions can be disconcertingly convincing.

The Mouth of Truth: This fortune machine reproduces the startling visage of a marble piece in Rome, along with the accompanying legend that the mask of an anonymous marble god that will bite the hand of any dishonest person who places it inside. Atlas Obscura says no one knows what the Rome Mouth’s original intent was (it may even have been a manhole cover of all things), but this one of course was designed to accumulate coins.

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Arm Wrestling: The classic arm wrestling machine is a favorite on Instagram. It’s also punishingly unfair. Among its many competitors—Julie Andrews who, along side Anne Hathaway, battled the arm in The Princess Diaries..

Boxing Robots: The old Rock ‘Em-Sock ‘Em Robots game, circa 1964, had a number of old-time carnival precursors. Controlling the boxers is difficult, but interactivity made the machine novel relative to most of its peers.

Football: Similarly, this football (that is to say, soccer) machine predates home Foosball tables. The ball tends to get stuck in odd places, but the game goes on until someone scores a goal.

Adam L Brinklow

The Drunkard’s Dream: In contrast to the usual mirth, many of the machines feature grim or sinister themes. “The Drunkard’s Dream” animates a tiny morality story, in which an inebriated man passed out in a churchyard is haunted by spooks, and even the devil himself.

The Opium Den: This scene offers a similar moralizing tale, laced with anti-Chinese xenophobia in the form of an intruding snake and the monstrous faces of the opium parlor’s purveyors.

English Execution: Execution scenes are another common theme, possibly because they’re easy to animate—the condemned figure has few places to go anyway—but also because executions have always been a human spectacle in ages past. This one combines a relatively simple trick with a highly elaborate facade.

End of the Trail: Of all the death scenes, “The End of the Trail” is the simplest but also the most disquieting, as a pitiless desert wind rattles the remains of an ill-fated wagon train.

The Thimble Theater: This dancing trio will haunt your dreams.

Death Race: The collection includes a number of video games, some of them pretty obscure by today’s standards. “Death Race” dates to 1976 and encourages players to score points by running down civilians, who are dubbed “gremlins” by the game designers in order to sneak one past the censors.

The Mighty Wurlitzer: The museum also features a number of player pianos and other musical contraptions, including several by the Wurlitzer company, but none so impressive as the Mighty Wurlitzer Military Band Organ, which for two dollars (the priciest ticket to ride in the entire place) will play what’s billed as “The Happiest Music in the World”—in this case one of 20 popular tunes from the mid-20th century. Play us out, boys.