Musee Mecanique, the old-school penny arcade

Today, WalletPop takes you to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, where inside an unassuming shed facing Alcatraz Island, you'll find one of the most unique attractions in the country: Musée Mécanique, the "mechanical museum." It's both a virtual temple to spare change and the product of thrift where a pocketful of quarters can transport an entire family to the early 20th century.

Not only can you see the Musée on a dime, but it runs on one, too.

These coin-operated antique devices, which were a primary mode of mass entertainment in the days before video games, aren't gathering dust behind a red rope. A museum might do that, but here, families are meant to play them. They're lovingly maintained as a labor of love by Dan Zelinsky, whose late father assembled the collection and made it a city institution.

Since 1975, Zelinsky has zipped around the Musée on roller skates to more quickly tend to visitors' needs. Because the companies that manufactured these amusements are long gone, he maintains a machine shop where he can keep his old machines -- some sporting, some simply entertaining -- in perfect working order.

He orders custom-printed fortune cards for the display-case soothsayer, and when a machine grows so fragile it can't take much play, he simply raises the price a little to discourage wear and tear. He rarely removes a beauty from service.

The queen of his family business is Laughing Sal, a puckish Gargantua, six feet tall, who does nothing more than double over in peals of maniacal laughter in exchange for 50¢. As a fixture of San Francisco's Playland from 1940 to 1972, she "made us smile and/or terrified children" (as her plaque reads) for generations, but now she presides over the dioramas, puppet shows, motorized psychics, player pianos, and dollhouse-like saloon games, just feet away from the crabby tanks of the fishmongers who ply the tourist trade.
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