Worth Every Quarter
Nobody who lives in San Francisco goes to Fisherman’s Wharf. Well, not by choice that is. So when my girlfriend, Lindsey, suggested we swing by there before dinner on Wednesday night, I was a little apprehensive. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to see along the piers—seals, Segways, Alcatraz, overpriced hoodies with oversized lettering that shouts “LOOK AT ME! I’M A TOURIST AND I DIDN’T REALIZE IT’S COLD AND FOGGY HERE IN THE SUMMER!” If you’re in the mood for food, you can snag a $12 hot dog, wash it down with a $14 beer, mosey on over to the city’s only Applebee’s or check out the world-famous Alioto’s with their fresh fish (and big neon fish on the roof). But none of that was on our agenda.
After dodging some seagulls on the ol’ motorcycle and making only one wrong turn, we rolled up to Pier 45, Shed A and parked the bike next to the bike rack. We stared at the mass of glass and concrete in front of us. I looked up. A sign indicated we had arrived at the “Musée Mécanique.” The name quite literally translates to mechanical museum, and Lindsey had a feeling I would be interested in what was on the other side of those double doors. She was right.
Walking in, I was greeted by ringing bells, blinking lights, the voices of fortune tellers, ragtime music and the smell of old furniture. My eyes darted from one attraction to the next. There was “The Thimble Theatre,” “The End of the Trail,” “The Magic Hat,” and a mechanized model of a horse in full gallop. There was the pre-war version of bubble hockey and a strange game of baseball where you controlled the batter with a heavy, chromed pistol. I saw boxers in a ring and a roller coaster made of toothpicks. Uncle Sam told you what kind of lover you could be, and there was an open invitation to arm wrestle with the Devil. That is, after you had the chance to figure out “What the Belly Dancer Does on Her Day Off” (I never learned). Player pianos played and pinball paddles flipped, all as I floated by with my mouth agape.
The museum is loaded with more than 300 penny arcade games and animatronic oddities dating back more than a century. They’re part of the late Edward Galland Zelinsky’s collection, and many of them used to reside in the original Musée located at San Francisco’s now-defunct Playland by the Beach. Some of the games are free standing, while most fill what look like old dressers I’ve seen on “Antiques Roadshow.” They have intricate carvings, hand lettering and a whole lot of vintage charm. The majority are fascinating—and others are just plain creepy.
As Lindsey and I wandered through the rows of machines, I spotted something familiar. It was a straight-axle Corvette plastered on the front of a game dubbed “Death Race.” The designer was heavily influenced by Ed “Bid Daddy” Roth, as witnessed by the Weirdo-style grim reapers and their fire-belching hot rods. As an added plus, the game used a pair of Superior “500” three-spoke steering wheels that brought me back to my vintage Go-Kart days. I put in a quarter and gave it a shot. I wasn’t very good.
For the next hour, we tried our hand at a wide range of games, feeding them coins one, two and occasionally three at a time. We laughed at the “moving” Wild West dioramas, took pot shots at uneasy metal clowns and Lindsey even got to continue her family legacy of flying helicopters in high-pressure situations. About halfway through our stay at the Musée, I came to a realization. “There are a lot of racing games here,” I said.
Even though I didn’t think about it going into the Musée, the games and attractions inside that building were produced during the Golden Age of the automobile. Hot rodding and racing were on the rise, and kids who were building models, racing slot cars and reading magazines would naturally gravitate towards games like “Road Racer,” “Death Race” and others. Truth be told, those were the ones I put my quarters in too.
As a kid, I dreamt of driving. I launched Hot Wheels across the floor, drove remote control cars, built a lifetime’s worth of models and played racing games whenever I had the chance. And when the time came to get behind the wheel when I was 15, I knew a little about the do’s and don’ts thanks to those childhood experiences. I’d like to think these games at Fisherman’s Wharf must have done the same for a different generation of hoodlums all those years ago. And maybe—just maybe—they’ll do the same for a select few kids today.
Near the exit, we came across a big wooden cabinet simply labeled “Auto Race.” There were two metal Midget racecars behind glass, one red and one yellow, that were controlled by a pair of wheels with handles. The background featured a grandstand jam-packed with fans and an intricate scoreboard. I picked the red car, while Lindsey went with the yellow.
With the drop of the coin and a push of the button, we were off, arms flailing as we watched our little cars lurch down the track. The cabinet shuttered. We cranked. I was in the lead and pulling away. Then, all of a sudden, the yellow car started gaining on me, faster and faster. A split second later, she passed me at full speed. I lost and looked over at her. She was grinning from ear to ear.
Our trip to the Musée brought us back to a different place and time, when the automobile was still a somewhat new phenomenon and arcade games were mechanized. We saw the wild. We saw the weird. We shot. We raced. And in the words of Lindsey, “It was worth everyyyyy quarter.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.