Step Into Another Era at San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique

There is a little-known museum visiting tourists probably know more about than most San Franciscans living in the city. It’s called The Musée Mécanique at San Francisco’s Pier 45.

It houses machines from another era, a collection of about 300 antiques from the World’s Fair in 1915, and from the old Playland at the Beach, which was once situated at the edge of Golden Gate Park. Playland at the Beach was the joy and fun of working-class San Francisco back in the ’70s that newer generations of San Franciscans today never got a chance to experience as the city had closed it down back in Aug 17, 1972. Some other machines preserved were from boardwalks, sideshows, “amusement arcades,” which are the precursors to video arcades, cinemas, bars, or roadside tourist traps.

Here are some photos of Playland at the Beach – a San Francisco amusement park demolished back in September 1972:

The collection of antiques now housed at The Musée Mécanique consists of hundreds of items ranging from miniature robotic orchestrions, coin-operated pianos, antique slot machines, and animations, down to small bird boxes. “Most of the items are displayed at the Musée Mécanique…although I keep some of the more fragile and collectible items in my home,” said Edward Galland Zelinsky, the late founder of Musée Mécanique. Zelinsky was a fifth-generation San Franciscan who passed away peacefully in September 2004.

Zelinsky originally housed his private collection at the Cliff House where they were displayed and operated for 40 years until the Cliff House’s remodel in 2002 had almost left the contraptions homeless and the city stepped in and helped Zelinksy secure a locale at Pier 45.

While today’s AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics technology sometimes clashes with San Francisco’s reputation as a center of cultural individualism, at Musée Mécanique, one true San Franciscan’s love for the weird, uncanny 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.
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,” said SF Curbed.

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

The Carnival

The Mechanical Farm

The Ferris Wheel


The Mouth of Truth

Arm Wrestling

Boxing Robots


The Drunkard’s Dream

The Opium Den

English Execution

End of the Trail

The Thimble Theater

Death Race

The Mighty Wurlitzer

Source: SF Curbed, Musée Mécanique, SF Chronicle

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