S.F. museum restores historic arcade

A dance with the past: S.F. museum restores historic arcade

Pat CraigSTAFF

THERE ARE lessons to be learned at the penny arcade, important lessons — the first of which is you can’t get jack for a penny anymore.

Inflation has stretched the penny slot to accommodate a quarter, which is still a small price to play for a tumble down a time tunnel. That two-bits will buy you a dance with the past — when times were less genteel and the huddled masses who passed through Ellis Island were reviled, sometimes viciously, by their new countrymen.

It is there in a caricature, for sure, in Musee Mecanique, at Pier 43 by Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s nothing more than a silly, early 20th-century automaton Irishman, who will swill and reel drunkenly for anyone who drops a coin in the slot.

I’d seen him dozens of times. First, when I was a little kid, in the mechanical museum at Sutro’s, a Victorian-era fun house perching on the cliffs near Seal Rock. The joint burned to the ground in the 1960s, but the Irishman, and many of his friends, survived, and continued their public lives as citizens of this land that time has left alone for darn near a century.

As I said, I’d seen the old gent dozens of times. But, as with so many familiar things, I’d never really looked at him.

And when I did, the image haunted me — the liquid eyes, the wispy white hair, the hint of moisture below the lower lip, and, yes, the gin blossoms and puffy face.

It was a joke, a caricature, a chance to laugh at an Irish drunk for a penny or dime, or quarter, or for whatever amount to which inflation had pushed the price of fun.

But the last time I looked at this hapless Paddy, I didn’t see a coin-op lush. I saw some of the old faces that stared from the faded black-and-white pages of the family albums I treasure. He wasn’t a dead-ringer, of course, but there was enough resemblance to see the old uncles or the roguish cousins who peer out from the album’s pages.

One of the anonymous photographs is of the ancestor who first set foot in this country, making it available to the rest of us, and enduring, with good humor, or clenched fists, the stereotypical abuse heaped on him by the other sweaty shoulders pushing toward the promise of a new land.

Yeah, he gave it back, too, probably, and his targets are in the mechanical museum as well.

The other faces tucked behind glass in the musee are less haunting, perhaps because they’re less familiar, more like characters out of old movies than the players in my old albums.

They are vintage images for somebody else.

There’s that bald fellow in the vintage bow tie — he’s a tough guy, Turkish maybe, or Eastern European; came here to work on the docks, but became captain of a tramp steamer, smuggling things he picked up on the run from Buenos Aires to New York (seen mostly in Warner Bros. spy epics).

Time has worn wrinkles into the Gypsy fortune teller’s face, but still, both mystery and sweetness radiate from her face, as you stare at her freely, because her eyes are closed. She’s pure MGM — probably figured out how to patch things up between Fred Astaire and his gal.

It’s hard to tell what the deal is with the grinning guy with no bottom teeth. He’s kind of cockeyed, and his nose has undergone the same sort of indignity Michael Jackson’s suffered just when things were looking their darkest.

But, whatever he is, the galoot in the sailor hat ain’t from around here, not from this time and place.

He, like the others, screams of another era; the ’20s or ’30s, maybe, or perhaps even earlier. And this whole giant pier, which houses these things and dozens of other mechanical wonderments, is, in a very real sense, a tunnel to the past.

The sojourn’s soundtrack is the resonant bell sound of a giant Swiss music box, the honky-tonk jump of the player piano and, best of all, the old-town-band sound of the orchestrion — a complex series of electricity and air tubes that knocks out tunes with the sound of piano, drums, cymbals, triangles, wooden blocks and whatever else could be corralled by the designer’s imagination into a box the size of an upright piano.

It’s the right music for what your eyes devour.

Like the carnival, or the coin-operated equivalent of a mid-’30s carnival, which has been a mainstay of the museum as long as I can remember. When I was small, in fact, this carnival, about the size of a half-dozen Ping-Pong tables shoved together, was an irresistible keyhole to past times that would keep me rapt and beguiled for what seemed like hours. There were wrestlers, rides, a band, a little cafe and countless details that brought to mind family stories about the good old days.

The Musee Mecanique is still a favorite stop of mine, but somehow, it hasn’t been quite as enthralling as it was when I was little. I chalked that up to maturity until my most recent visit, when I had a little digital camera that I pressed against the glass wall of the mechanical carnival and took a picture.

I had placed it at little-boy eye level, and instantly the magic came back.

There’s the little cafe with the young carnie behind the counter, wearing his snowy bellboy hat and waiting to sell a couple of dogs and burgers or maybe a handful of El Stinko Cigars to one of the fellows wandering the midway.

Around the corner, you have this young dandy on the merry-go- round. This is a boy with lovin’ on his mind, and he yearns for a gal to take the calliope spin with him and maybe share a phosphate later in the evening.

I remember how badly I wanted to step into that world when I was little. And in a way, you can. All you have to do is look very carefully.

Musee Mecanique is on Pier 45 along San Francisco’s Embarcadero in the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Hours are 10 a.m.-7 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. weekends and holidays. Call (415) 346-2000 or visit http://museemecanique.org.

Reach Pat Craig at (925) 945-4736.

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