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No San Francisco business owner has escaped the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bars have been serving cocktails to go, restaurants are buying plants to demarcate outdoor dining, and even cannabis dispensaries will deliver to your door. For Dan Zelinsky, quarantine has been a “living hell.”
Zelinsky, a second-generation San Franciscan, owns and captains the Musée Mécanique, located on Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf. It is, in his own words, a “hands-on, authentic penny arcade” of more than 300 coin-operated games, carny attractions and cheeky contraptions dating back as far as the 19th century.
That is a rather brief and tepid description of a space that boasts everything from Skee-Ball to Donkey Kong to a tasteful reenactment of an “English Execution” by hanging. There are pastoral dioramas, miniature Ferris wheels, a depiction of a French execution featuring a guillotine and one gesticulating, 7-foot-tall doll that chortles very loudly (looking at you, Laffing Sal).
Zelinsky’s father, Edward Galland Zelinsky, bought Musée Mécanique in the 1960s, though the late Zelinsky began collecting these penny games back in 1933 at 11 years old, according to the Musée Mécanique website. Ed died in 2004, but Dan has kept the motors running and guillotines falling. But the Musée has been a San Francisco constant long before it belonged to the Zelinskys.
Twenty years before the elder Zelinsky bought his first penny game, Playland at the Beach opened its proverbial doors for the first time along the Great Highway in 1913. It had everything: roller coasters, shooting galleries, a (full-size) Ferris wheel, concessions, a photo booth and, by the time Ed was a boy, it had the Musée Mécanique.
Ed was obsessed, and his obsession grew as he took over his family’s painting business, D. Zelinsky & Sons Inc., and began investing in real estate. He also grew close to George Whitney Sr., whose family owned Playland. Despite their age difference (Whitney was a generation or so older), the two men shared a taste for these coin-op machinations.
According to Ed’s testimony, they met weekly for food, drinks and collection swapping; one of the Musée’s most esteemed (pun intended) items is a steam-powered motorcycle from 1912 called the Steam Flyer.
George Whitney Sr. died in 1958, and some years later, Ed bought the Musée Mécanique from the Whitney family. He embraced running it, adding a number of machines from his own collection.
“My dad had this room in the basement full of these machines; I grew up with them like furniture,” Dan Zelinsky says. Before Ed bought the Musée, he lent some of his personal collection to venues around the Bay Area. “I started working at the arcade in Tiburon at age 10, sweeping and counting pennies.”
The Musée had switched locations a few times since Playland closed in 1972, including a stint at the Cliff House, before settling into its current home as a part of Fisherman’s Wharf. That was in 2002, most likely (“Time is hard,” Zelinsky said). Eighteen years later, its future teeters again. The Musée, with the rest of the city, had to abide by stay-at-home orders and, as a nonessential business, closed its doors on March 15.
“The most depressing thing I’ve ever seen: The entire museum is perfect; I’ve done all the repairs,” Zelinsky says. “But the doors are boarded up.”
On May 30, Zelinsky released a video along with a GoFundMe campaign for the museum, stating it was “financially impossible” to maintain the business since closing. He received a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and there is an online store where guests can purchase CDs with the attractions’ music and book collections of unclaimed pictures guests have left behind in the photo booth.
However, these are “not even a drop in the bucket of what it takes” to keep the place staffed, oiled, and open.
When asked about the May 23 fire at Pier 45, Zelinsky laughs.
“I get the phone call from my son at 6 in the morning,” Zelinsky says. “‘Did you know the pier’s on fire?’”
The Musée, “as lucky as lucky will get,” was spared because the wind was blowing in the opposite direction, onto a neighboring fishing warehouse. Zelinsky has reached out to both the Port of San Francisco and the mayor’s office for assistance in a time of dire straits, but they’re in the same boat — the funds simply aren’t there.
“I’m going to keep paying my bills until I no longer can,” Zelinsky says. “I am hell-bent on keeping the collection intact, as is, for the people. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”
The Musée has no definitive reopening date, and Zelinsky worries the GoFundMe campaign has stagnated. Many of the thousand-plus donors have posted anecdotes and photos with their donations in support of the museum’s $250,000 goal. The funds will largely go to rent and machine maintenance.
“Like your car, if you don’t drive your car, your battery dies, tires go flat,” Zelinsky says. “Dozens of these machines will stop working if you don’t play them. We’re right above the ocean. Parts oxidize.” Those parts would cost thousands to repair. Thousands that don’t exist.
So, two days a week, Zelinsky commutes from Mill Valley to the Musée for maintenance play, signature roller skates in tow. Recently, a “hazmat team,” some of the museum’s only post-shutdown guests, came to scrub, vacuum and sanitize every nook in every pinball machine and piano key in the building.
Zelinsky has also taken to restoring some of the collection’s previously shelved relics.
His latest project is a machine that predates his own father: a late-1800s French charmer called “The Boy and the Elephant,” a name that betrays what the machine is (indeed, it is a figure of an elephant and a boy, both 2 feet tall), but not what it can do. The elephant shoots water, and the boy, rather coyly, moves out of the way.
“Maybe no one will ever see it, but it’s so adorable,” Zelinsky says. “There’s always a silver lining; it’s there somewhere.”