Musee Mechanique

Image loaned with kind permission from Mister SF

The Musee Mechanique at Cliff House in San Francisco is a wonderful museum of mechanical games, toys and musical instruments dating back to the 19th century. Many of the machines here came from the old Playland At The Beach. Owner Ed Zelinsky purchased some of the collection from George Whitney.

The jewel in the crown of the Cliff House is the clever and stunning Musee Mechanique. Amuse yourself endlessly with this collection of antique player pianos, turn-of-the-century music boxes and puppet dancers, penny (now quarter) arcade viewing booths, and other classic electronic amusements like Miss PacMan and Pole Position. The sublimely cheap can wait for others to drop change into the slots to enjoy old Steinways, Laughing Sal and Toothpick Town.
Karen Solomon

You can read more about the Musee and related San Francisco treasures at Mister SF’s page on the Musee. Another general info page is available at Digital City.

Unfortunately, the Musee’s existence is threatened by upcoming rebuilding work the National Park Service has planned for the Cliff House. Carl Nolte wrote an article for the San Francisco Chronicle called Old and in the way: The Musee Mecanique will soon be history which provides the background on this sad news for the museum. Merilee Enge gives an overview of the renovation work (and holds out hope of an eventual home for the Musee) in her article, Edge of Time: San Francisco’s Cliff House is in line for a well-deserved face lift, for the Press Democrat.

A petition is available to request that the Golden Gate National Recreation Area keep the Musee open. (This petition was started by Ryan Clifford)

KFOG‘s morning show is also campaigning to save the Musee. They had Ed Zelinsky, owner of the Musee, as a guest at 7:50am, Monday, March 4th, 2002. Ed said that storing the machines during the renovation is not a viable solution: “They would not hold up in storage. They would break down…There’s a lot of maintenance involved.” He is meeting with the Park Superintendent this week to discuss options, but since an earlier possibility of moving the Musee up the hill fell through, Ed sounds as though he’s not counting on the Park Service coming through with an immediate solution. The KFOG team asked if Ed would be willing to work with the private sector and he said he’d be delighted to. He said ideally he’d like to keep the Musee at Cliff House or nearby (e.g. at the Merry Way site where that parking lot is), but it is clear his first priority is to keep the collection on display somewhere.

On March 7th, I spoke with Rich Weideman at the National Park Service and he kindly took the time to fill me in on some history. The NPS is actually about to do a major amount of work on the whole Sutro area. I’m looking forward to the meeting in April when they give a presentation on all that will be happening. What Rich summarized sounds quite exciting (and necessary given the poor repair of some paths & other fixtures out there). This plan has been brewing for a long time actually and parts of it date back to the early 90’s, so the Zelinskys have had warning that they would need to work out at least temporary relocation during the construction. Rich said some folks have asked why a solution was not found for the Musee in the intervening time and he said the main reason is Crissy Field; all the NPS’s energy has been focused there on what I think he said was the biggest (or most expensive?) urban project since the Statue of Liberty. (Certainly the incredible results they achieved are worth the distraction!) Another factor, though, is the fact that the Musee is a privately held concession, not a non-profit. Under new bidding rules, the NPS cannot give preference to a private vendor just based on long-time presence on the site. What this means is that the Musee is not guaranteed to be the (or the only) concession of this kind in the new center. I think the Zelinskys will seriously need to consider other options (e.g. forming a non-profit organization or donating their collection to the NPS & then curating it) if they wish to receive funding and donations. One possibility that has been mentioned is that there would be space for the Musee in the new visitor center to be built in the Merrie Way area. Unfortunately, the coast of relocating the museum in temporary trailers would be extremely high, apparently around $750,000, which I can’t help but think would be better applied to a long-term solution. Rich said that it would probably be two to three years before this new center would be ready and even then it’s only currently approved to be a total of 9000 square feet, a lot of which would need to be devoted to acting as a visitor center for the Sutro area. That could mean that even if the Musee moved there it would have only the presently displayed collection or fewer items available to the public. One interesting thing I learned from Rich is that not only do the Zelinskys have more items in storage, the majority of their items are stored and, based on a full survey of those items which the NPS was involved in, he said that the stored items are actually in better condition than those on display. That’s hardly surprising given the salt spray and leaky roof in the current place. This reinforces my feeling that what would really be best for fans of the Musee Mechanique is the creation of a significantly larger museum of indoor entertainment machines. Such a facility would allow the display of far more of the Zelinskys’ growing collection and could become the premier museum of these items worldwide. Okay, so maybe I’m dreaming big, but why not? San Francisco certainly has the tourism to support another great museum. I’m looking forward to hearing more ideas from other folks and to talking to the Zelinskys about their hopes. Rich said that he thought the Presidio Trust had offered to assist, as had a site near Fisherman’s Wharf. I keep thinking of the vacancy rates in SOMA and how well such a museum would fit with a trip to the Cartoon Art Museum or an afternoon at the baseball park.

Good news this morning, March 19, 2002, from the folks at KFOG:

Thanks to the dozens of Fogheads who participated in the morning show field trip to Musee Mechanique in San Francisco last Friday. The news is good. Musee owner Ed Zellinsky, Rich Weideman with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and San Francisco Supervisor Jake McGoldrick all showed up Friday. They told us that a deal is close under which the Musee will be given a temporary home until it’s final location is ready to go. Zelllinsky says its just a matter now of finding a location with plenty of foot traffic. Stay tuned.

Even though this is a step in the right direction, the fight is NOT over. We’re still in need of signatures for our petition.

I’m glad to see things moving in the right direction and I was very sorry not to be able to make the KFOG field trip to the Musee. After taking the first half of the week off to be out of town for SXSW, I couldn’t really justify taking the Friday off too.

Another good news story has come out from Shawn Hubler of the Los Angeles Times, this time containing more good news and highlighting in a more balanced way some of the issues facing the Musee: Time Machines: Fans rally to save an offbeat museum of antique devices that has attracted Bay Area tourists for nearly four decades.

I spoke briefly with Ed Zelinsky on March 21st, 2002. He was about to leave for London and is hoping to locate more great old machines. He said they are still in the talking stages with the Park Service, but he emphasized the importance and progress inherent in that “we’re talking”. He echoed my concerns about the amount of size allocated in the new visitor center – the center has only been approved to be 9000 square feet and increasing its size would certainly have an impact on the area there at the Sutro site. I expressed my hope that a much larger facility could be found so that some of the great stuff he’s got in storage could come out and be enjoyed. When I asked about why the Musee is not a non-profit organization, he said it’s something they just now have begun to consider. The main issue for Ed is that he wants to be sure to be able to leave the collection to his son. (If someone is interested in volunteering experienced assistance with this question of NPO formation, please email “musee@[this site]” and I’ll pass your contact information on to Ed when he gets back at the beginning of April.

BoingBoing has a QuickTopic discussion board on the subject of the proposed closing.

Good news as of July 10, 2002. Musee Mecanique finds new home at the Wharf: Museum to share temporary site [with San Francisco Museum and Historical Society]. Though there will be additional wear and tear on the machines, I think this is a great move. It allows the Musee to get additional public awareness and demonstrate its attractiveness to a broad audience. Personally, I would still prefer to see the full collection (much of which is in storage) housed in a large facility near other museums, perhaps near Metreon, rather than have it move back to a small space on the edge of town, but maybe we’ll end up with both: one at Sutro where its history and smell of salt air are and one true treasure amid the crap in Fisherman’s Wharf.

If you are concerned about the condition of the machines under increased traffic, as I am, I suggest contacting the Zelinsky’s regarding acting as a docent in the new facility. If I hear more information about such possibilities, I’ll post it here.

Image loaned with kind permission from Mister SF

More Musee Mechanique links:

Magic Studio portraits
Beautiful photographs of some of the faces of the Musee. Created by Michael Maggid.
San Francisco Stories postcards
Great, beautifully colored images you can send to a friend. Created by Derek M. Powazek.
Mirror Project portraits taken at the Musee
People get inspired to capture themselves in the reflective surfaces of old machines.

Image loaned with kind permission from Mister SF

Other Related Links:
Bob Butler’s online Coin Operated Machine Museum
Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum near Detroit.

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Dinah from Kabalor

Author. Discardian. GM. Current project: creating an inclusive indie fantasy ttrpg

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