The Musée Mécanique has been saved! I heard from Judith that the Park Service has been convinced by the outpouring of support to find a temporary home for my favorite place in San Francisco. The Musée is a collection of old penny arcade machines — love testers, fortune-telling gypsies, purportedly risqué moving pictures, hand-crafted minitatures dancing the minuet. Some photos are available online, including ones of the remarkable Laughing Sal, which surely terrified generations of San Francisco’s children. The Musée Mécanique grew out of Playland, a beachside amuseument park that closed in 1972. It’s in the Cliff House, on the site of the mansion of millionaire San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro, builder of the Sutro Baths. It’s a connection to an older, tackier, less classy and quite possibly more fun San Francisco. And it’ smore than that; the Musée Mécanique’s owner, 80-year-old Ed Zelinsky, finds, purchases, and restores penny arcade machines around the world; he claims to have the world’s largest collection, only a fraction of which is displayed at any given time. (Much of the restoration work is done on-site and in front of anyone interested enough to go look.)
The mechanical toys, the weight-and-fortune machines, strength testers, and foosball-like baseball games, are neat, but the peep shows are a real treat. After Edison’s triumph in creating the phonograph (which must have just been a jaw-dropping technological achievement to the people of the 1880s), Edison and his research staff began working on the kinetoscope. The kinetoscope, and rival technologies (such as the earlier tachyscope, which relied upon looking through slits at a series of pictures mounted on a spinning disk) were soon superseded by projection film and the rise of the nickelodeon.
But the older technologies were designed for single viewers, and that made them perfect for titilating film clips (or ones that just represented themself as same; "Totally Nude Female" usually means you’re about to see a tigress pacing in her cage or the like). Ninety years later, we’re no longer shocked by a woman in a diaphonous nightgown brushing her hair, which is how machines based on appealing to the public’s prurient interest ended up in a nice wholesome movie like The Princess Diaries. And thanks to this recent decision, with any luck you’ll be able to see them yourself (and drop a quarter in the baseball game, watch the mechanical circus dance, find out your fortune, and be creeped out by Laughing Sal) whenever you’re in San Francisco for years to come.