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Quick San Francisco History Lesson: In 1914, John Friedle and Arthur Looff built what they hoped would be “the grandest amusement park on the Pacific coast” next to the already-popular Cliff House and Sutro Baths. In 1921, Playland-at-the-Beach was born. The new amusement park featured a fun house, a giant slide, a merry-go-round, the latest in coin-operated entertainment, concession stands and of course Laughing Sal. Eventually, the popularity of San Francisco’s beloved attraction failed, and, in 1972, Playland was demolished and replaced by that growing urban fungus, condominiums. Fortunately, however, many of the games from Playland were saved and are now kept at Musée Mécanique.

Musée Mécanique is housed in a low-ceilinged, dark little space beneath the current Cliff House. From the outside, it does not look like much. There’s a dusty, faded awning over the wooden doors, maybe a sandwich board advertising to passing seals. Step inside, however, and you are plunged into a bright, whirling, noisy slice of the old Playland. Museum is not the right word for this place – it is an arcade in the craziest sense of the word.

Apparently, Musée Mécanique has one of the largest privately owned collections of antique coin operated mechanical musical instruments in the world. Put simply, there’s lots of things that make noise when you put a quarter in. They usually dance, too. Player pianos, monkeys, hicks, hula girls, cowboys – you name it, it’ll dance jerkily for a quarter.

I never had the attention span to watch those suckers, personally. My favorite machines are the fortune tellers. You feed a machine change, it does some crappy mechanical trick and then it spits out a little card with your fortune printed on it. Sometimes they start with weird nonsensical limericks – those are the best!

If competition is more your cup of tea, there’s lots of wholesome sports-related games to play, too. The coolest ones are these old baseball games with crazy rosters, like the 1939 All-Stars or the 1941 World Series teams. You can also play mechanized versions of cycling, golf, and boxing. Most of the competitive games involve cranking a handle really really fast and making a face, which is far more fun than just pressing buttons. You can also scoop up candy with a miniature bulldozer, take pictures in an old-fashioned photo booth, buy weird celebrity postcards, and *ahem* play modern video games. But why would you want to waste your time with those when there’s so much cool (old) stuff to play with?

Since these machines are from another time, a visit to Musée Mécanique means getting to play with some really weird stuff. Perhaps the second-weirdest of all is the biggest machine in the building, a miniature fair complete with a working Ferris wheel, a rickety roller coaster and tiny concession stands, all replicated in exacting detail by inmates of San Quentin - using toothpicks. And if you wanna get off the way your great-grandfather did, there’s old nudie flicks that you crank. There’s also some really cool things that are still quite impressive, like a magic typewriter that types out your fortune in front of you and a cast-iron arm wrestling machine that’s impossible to beat.

Then there’s Laughing Sal. Ah, Laughing Sal. A San Francisco institution for no apparent reason, Laughing Sal is a gigantic mechanical lady who cackles drunkenly from just inside the doorway of Musée Mécanique. Fat and incredibly happy, with ruddy cheeks and a missing front tooth, the hysterical Sal has been frightening children and small animals for more than 60 years. Hell, a description can’t do her justice – you’re just going to have to go visit yourself.

Musée Mécanique’s address is 1090 Point Lobos Road. Yeah, I don’t know where that is either. Just go to the Cliff House and push through the throngs of milling tourists and past the vendors hawking crap and look for a flight of stairs. It’s down there. Bring a handful of quarters. Oh yeah, if you have some extra time you might want to climb through the Sutro Baths ruins or check out the Camera Obscura. You also could look at the incredible view or take a romantic walk on the beach. But check out the old girlie movies first.


UPDATE!!!!
After being threatened with closing or (gasp) being moved to the new Disney theme park in Anaheim, Musée Mécanique has been relocated to a temporary home at Fisherman's Wharf. The museum will reside at Pier 45 for at least two years while the National Park Service revamps its old location.
For more information see http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2002/12/21/BA54205.DTL

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