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Arcade of the Ages in San Francisco


SAN FRANCISCO — A walk through the front doors of the Musee Mecanique arcade is like entering a time portal.

Visitors are greeted not by the sensory mayhem of modern arcades, but by the cast-iron and wooden games of yesteryear. The digital sounds of laser guns are replaced by bawdy barrelhouse piano tunes and the endless guffaws of Laughing Sal.

Of the arcade's 160 games, 145 are antiques. Only a few "vintage" video games--Galaxian, Millipede, Sprint II--are maintained.

The Musee Mecanique, in the same complex as the Cliff House restaurant, at 1090 Point Lobos, is home to The English Executioner, The Drinking Man and Jolly Jack--hand-crafted games, many dating to the 1890s. There are also 11 music machines, from player pianos to a Swiss music box.

A re-creation of a carnival is the largest piece, measuring 7 feet by 14 feet. After the quarters drop, the scene comes to life with a moving Ferris wheel, merry-go-round and boxing contestants.

But perhaps the most well-known antique piece is Laughing Sal, a robust life-size figure who laughs and shakes uncontrollably--a relic of the long-defunct Playland amusement park, once located nearby, overlooking the Cliff House and Point Lobos.

Dan Zelinsky, who runs the arcade for his father, collector Ed Zelinsky, does all the maintenance. "Just like a technician for video games, there used to be guys who would come out and fix them . . . but they're all dead," he explained.

Entrance to the museum is free, although it costs a few coins to play some of the machines. It is open every day, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends and holidays. Telephone (415) 386-1170.

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