“A couple stop working every day. For 25 cents, people can get very upset, and I have to give them a refund,” says the owner and curator of Musée Méchanique, a museum and working arcade at Fisherman’s Wharf.
A big part of his job is maintaining the machines, which Zelinsky keeps in working order at all times, he says, “so my guests have as much fun as possible.” There’s even a machine shop on the premises.
Zelinsky also builds his own mechanical amusements, such as a strength game and a love tester called the Kiss-o-Meter.
Musée Méchanique has more than 300 amusement machines (many vintage), ranging from an early animation carousel from 1889 to the brand new, but deceptively old-looking, Zelinsky-built “Song of the Prairie,” a mechanical cowboy scene inspired by “Blazing Saddles.”
Prices run from a penny to $1.50 per play, the average about a quarter. The historic entertainment emporium is one of the last of these types of attractions still in business, as its proprietors call it “a collection of coin-operated amusements in a world where lots of people don’t even know what a coin slot is.”
Although the arcade has relatively modern staples such as skee ball and Reagan-era video games, what really sets it apart are its 20th-century mechanical dioramas, once common amusements built between the turn of the last century and World War II.
Faded figures of fortune tellers, can-can dancers and even an elaborate carnival scene come creakily to life from behind glass when players insert a coin. More morbid dioramas show scenes of executions and an opium den.
Another rare, old-timey feature, also popular in the past, are 1900s-era movie players, which operate like flip book scenes when a viewer inserts a coin and turns a crank. Subjects include animals, car racing, disasters or tame striptease dances.
Musée Méchanique employee Patrick Smith, a mechanic and rock musician, says the attraction’s guests are a mix of tourists, kids on school trips, San Francisco natives who remember the collection from when it was at the Cliff House, and occasionally the homeless.
“Everyone enjoys themselves,” says Smith. “Everyone says ‘you’ve got the dream job’ and it’s true.”
For Smith and Zelinsky, among their biggest work challenges is protecting the rare devices from a sometimes volatile public. One mechanical diorama was vandalized so many times, it was temporarily removed. Machines are also occasionally robbed for the coins inside.
Despite the downside, the Musée Méchanique caretakers won’t give up their unusual calling. “I love watching people interact with the machines,” says Zelinksy, “They just turn into kids again.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Pier 45 (at Taylor Street), S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays and holidays
Tickets: Admission free; game prices vary
Contact: (415) 346-2000, www.museemecaniquesf.com