Dan Zelinsky outside Musée Mécanique on Pier 45. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Dan Zelinsky outside Musée Mécanique on Pier 45. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Got a quarter? Check out the bizarre antique games at this S.F. arcade.

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Museum curator. Machinist. Genial host. Those are just some of the hats Dan Zelinsky wears as owner of the Musée Mécanique on Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf. On a daily basis, he scours the internet for antique arcade games and musical instruments he might buy, repairs dozens of his old 300-plus coin-operated machines with hand-built parts and helps visitors who are uncertain how to work the old games on display.

Step into the 9,300-square-foot museum and operate one of 51 player pianos from the 1880s to 1920s, compete with a 1970s arm-wrestling machine, try your luck on an early 1980s Atari Star Wars arcade game or have your fortune told by a mechanical contraption more than 100 years old. There’s also a penny arcade baseball game from 1927 and a device called the Thimble Theatre in which small wooden figures dance on a tiny stage. Most amusements cost just a quarter.

Zelinsky’s father, philanthropist and real estate magnate Edward Zelinsky, founded the business in 1933, and built it into one of the largest private collections of coin-operated mechanical art in the world. A fifth-generation San Franciscan and a member of Congregation Emanu-El, he died in 2004.

Children play with an arm wrestling game inside the Musée Mécanique. (Photo/Connor Zelinsky)
Children play with an arm wrestling game inside the Musée Mécanique. (Photo/Connor Zelinsky)

“For a long time, my dad’s collection was in the basement, and we had some incredible birthday parties there,” said Zelinsky, 69.

In the mid-’60s, the elder Zelinsky opened a small museum on Main Street in Tiburon. “Eventually it moved to Cliff House [in San Francisco], but Dad had machines at other locations too, including  the Hyde Street Pier, the Maritime Museum, a movie theater on Mason, at Playland [before it closed in 1972] and the Sutro Baths, and also in Redwood City.”

The Musée Mécanique has been on Pier 45 for about 20 years. Zelinsky, who lives in Mill Valley, has worked there since 1972, and his days are usually long. There are only two employees, though a few volunteers stop in from time to time to help Zelinsky with repairs.

The arcade games made in the 1800s feature gears, pulleys and figures made of wood or porcelain, Zelinsky said, “with a lot of leather belts, springs and nails that activate other parts as they rotate.” Games from the early 1900s are fully mechanical. The modern video games tend to short out from time to time. “Some parts are stainless steel, and the salt sea air is brutal on those machines,” Zelinsky said. “We’ve got six dehumidifiers that extract 20 gallons of moisture a day out of the air. Otherwise, due to corrosion and rust, the machines would freeze up and stop working.”

Nimble wooden dancers show off their steps on the Thimble Theatre’s small stage at Musée Mécanique. (Photo/Patricia Corrigan)
Nimble wooden dancers show off their steps on the Thimble Theatre’s small stage at Musée Mécanique. (Photo/Patricia Corrigan)

Zelinsky makes most of the replacement parts himself. “The days of finding parts for the collection are gone,” he said, “so I took a machine shop course at City College [of San Francisco]. Making parts is so much fun, and it keeps everything working.”

For decades, the quarters that visitors fed into the games and other machines paid for repairs and provided salaries for employees. Then the global pandemic closed the museum from March 2020 through June 2021.

“One of my sons set up a GoFundMe page and more than $117,000 came in,” Zelinsky said. “That was a tear-jerker, but we also got many wonderful notes, and many prayers, too.”

Business is good again, he said, though the crowds are smaller than before the pandemic.

Hunting for machines to add to the collection is “the fun part” of his job, Zelinsky said. One day, a woman called to report she had a game that used to be at Playland, the 10-acre amusement park next to Ocean Beach from 1913 to 1972. “It was a 10-foot-wide shooting gallery that called for live ammunition, with 22-gauge rifles that players used to shoot at moving cast-iron ducks,” he said. “She found it behind a wall in her house here in San Francisco.”

Dan Zelinsky working on his "The Boy and the Elephant," a machine from 19th-century Paris. (Photo/Connor Zelinsky)
Dan Zelinsky working on his “The Boy and the Elephant,” a machine from 19th-century Paris. (Photo/Connor Zelinsky)

Asked what the machines at the Musée Mécanique are worth, he said, “To a private collector, they are worth a fortune,” adding that, as an operator, he sometimes has paid “more than something was worth so I could put it on display for the public to play, and for pride of ownership.”

He primarily seeks out interactive mechanical machines. “I’m always looking, especially for some of the machines I grew up with. Eventually I’ll stumble across them, if I’m lucky.”

Meanwhile, Zelinsky said, “It’s easy to make people happy here.”

Musée Mécanique is open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. Admission is free.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.