Noe Valley Voice February 2004

Family Adventures Close to Home:
Magnificent Musee Mecanique

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

It's raining so hard that the windows look like someone's training a hose on them. We're extremely bored. Even the action figures that Miles is playing with on the livingroom floor appear fatigued. We're desperate for activity. I suggest a trip to Fisherman's Wharf.

"You're joking, right?" Miles responds. He's just turned 8, but he knows that San Franciscans only visit the Wharf when we have visitors from out of town, and even then we complain about it.

I remind him that his favorite weird museum, the Musée Mécanique, is now smack in the middle of our city's tourist mecca, and within seconds we're umbrella-ed and raincoated, and rushing down to Castro and Market to catch the F-train.

We find Musée Mécanique at the end of Pier 45, housed in the same building as the Museum of the City of San Francisco. The quirky attraction, which was located in the basement of the Cliff House at Ocean Beach for close to three decades, is billed as the world's largest privately owned collection of antique, coin-operated arcade games and amusements, some dating back to the 1880s. When renovations on the Cliff House forced its eviction a year and a half ago, thousands of San Franciscans feared that Musée Mécanique would go the way of Playland at the Beach, the amusement park that was the original home of the museum's mechanical wonders. Good sense prevailed, however, and the oddball arcade was resurrected at Fisherman's Wharf.

My favorite old-time game, the Auto Race, is positioned just inside the door. We pop in a quarter and start cranking the wheels to send our cast-iron roadsters to the finish line three feet away. We are still debating who won when a dignified older man in an expensive trench coat drops a few quarters into Laughing Sal. The Gold Rush-era mannequin looks like she's been spruced up for her new digs, but her laugh is still garish enough to embarrass her patron, who slinks away, glancing over his shoulder as if he's been caught doing something naughty.

We rush past the exhibits of San Francisco history to the back of the building, where the more current amusements are housed. It takes Miles only seconds to locate his favorite, Carnival King Big Top Shooter. He starts shooting down computer-generated whiskey bottles, an activity that seems less politically incorrect within the context of this historical arcade.

I drop a coin into the Toothpick Fantasy, a gigantic display of a roadside carnival crafted almost entirely from toothpicks, activating a pair of bikini-clad dancers who shimmy in front of the sideshow and a tiny rodeo rider who bounces on a cast-iron horse inside a toothpick corral. A train circles the display as a toothpick ferris wheel turns next to a toothpick roller coaster.

His trigger finger apparently exhausted, Miles joins me.

"Can you believe that someone actually built all this?" I ask him, marveling at the detail the artist was able to create with toothpicks.

"Amazing," he agrees, clearly humoring me.

"But look. It's all working now. The glass is so clean."

He reaches into my pocket, relieving me of several of my quarters and finds the row of circa 1980 arcade games. Miles manipulates a band of sword-wielding pirates in an attack against a Conestoga wagon as I try my hand at Centipede, a game I last played in my college's bar in 1981. I'm still terrible at it, and I lose quickly.

I wander over to the Orchestrion, a 1923 version of a jukebox, and select Hot Tamale Baby from the song list. A piano, a mandolin, a snare drum, castanets, a triangle, a tambourine, and Chinese woodblocks, all housed in the ornate oak cabinet, bang out the old-timey tune, and I embarrass my child by bobbing my head along with the music.

We get our fortunes (mine is "Be Careful"; Miles' remains top secret) from the Gypsy Woman with scary moving eyes, and watch as a muscular guy in a leather jacket loses a test of strength against the masked Arm Wrestler.

Miles challenges me to a round of Ten Strike Classic bowling in which levers are used to manipulate a snappily dressed metal bowler. I roll three gutter balls in a row before I realize that my opponent has been hiding the lever that allows you to aim. He laughs at his cleverness until, fully informed of the workings of the game, I come back with a pair of strikes.

Smarting from his loss, Miles challenges me to a game of Skee Ball. He knows that my tragic flaw is that I always aim for the elusive 100-point hole, so he gets a steady beat going, rolling his scuffed wooden balls consistently into the 20- and 30-point holes, while mine bounce away into the 10-point consolation bin. Victory is his in minutes.

I watch a kid scoop up a load of bubble gum in the Steam Shovel machine, and ignoring the sign that warns, "Only skilled crane operators will get some gum," I drop in my third-to-last quarter. Having read Mike Mulligan at least 70 times, I figure (wrongly) that I know my way around cranes. The kid offers me a piece of his gum after I lose my load well short of the prize slot.

Next, Miles and I race against one another on Sprint, a video game that looks only slightly more complex than Atari's old Pong. Nevertheless, my skill level is assessed as "Granny."

I decide to stick with the non-competitive amusements and check out one of the many "Mutoscopes" housed at the museum. The ornate cast-iron machines feature hand cranks that activate illuminated black-and-white flip books featuring scenes from old silent movies. My favorite is Washer Woman's Dilemma in which a beleaguered washerwoman whacks her drunken husband over the head with a washboard and then a 2-by-4. As I said, political correctness is not so important at Musée Mécanique.

Miles, broke, filches my final quarter for a round of Ms. Pac-Man at a old sit-down arcade table of the type that was popular when Space Invaders was big news. He gets to the blue round before the ghosts chase down the insatiable dot-eater for the final time.

We wander around the San Francisco History Museum part of the building, checking out display cases housing Gold Rush artifacts and newspaper clippings from the 1906 earthquake.

Floor-to-ceiling windows on the bay side of the building reveal that the rain has returned, and we watch as the Sausalito ferry plows through the white caps past Alcatraz. Undaunted, we exit onto the wharf to the smell of cooking Dungeness crab. We share a paper carton of crisp French fries and tasty crab claws as we stroll down to Aquatic Park and watch hearty winter swimmers plunge fearlessly into the frigid water. For just a minute, the rain stops and the mist lifts to reveal a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, backlit by the setting winter sun.

"We should come down here more often," I say.

Miles, a true San Franciscan, says, "But only if it's raining. That's when we have it to ourselves."

Getting There

Take the F-Market streetcar to the corner of Taylor and Embarcadero. (It's the location of the ship's wheel sign.) Musée Mécanique is at Pier 45 at the end of Taylor Street. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Saturday, Sunday, and holidays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free. Phone: 415-346-2000. Most of the games cost a quarter. A mom and an 8-year-old amused themselves for two hours for about $5 each.

Special Note: From Feb. 12 to 16, Musée Mécanique will host an antique car show featuring a fittingly eclectic assortment of vehicles, including an old San Francisco garbage truck, a Muni bus, a See's Candy Model-T pickup truck, and an original Greyhound Bus.