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Game museum keeps coin-operated antiques alive and flipping

The MuséeMechanique at San Francisco's Pier 45 brings together two of the city’s greatest tourist draws: history and entertainment. It’s an arcade, with some of the oldest and most rare games in the industry.

From the outside, the antique game “Ten Strikes” looks like a pinball machine. But as you get closer, you see it’s different. It’s made of wood, it’s not branded to some blockbuster movie, it’s about bowling. And instead of flipping the ball up to hit targets, you simply allow gravity to guide the ball down and help you get a strike.

Down an aisle, another machine isn’t a game at all. It’s a mechanized display of a carnival, complete with roller coasters and sideshows. It’s a work of art that animates with the drop of a coin.

I look up from the amusements and spot something else I don’t see every day. A man on skates, sliding past the machines

“This is one of my favorite playing pianos here,” says Dan Zelinsky, who owns the MuséeMécanique. He took it over after his father, the arcade's founder, passed away.

“My father started this collection in 1933 – he was just 11 years old – he bought a small machine for 50 cents. … To make a long story short, we have a 300 operated machine collection now,” explains Zelinsky.

It's one of the world's largest, privately owned, coin operated collection where you’re actually allowed to play. That’s what Hannah Hammel, from Washington DC, is here to do.

“I’m trying to pick, but I’m having trouble deciding what’s the best use of my quarter,” says Hammel.

Hammel can choose from driving games, shooting games, pinball, foosball, skee-ball and air hockey. The assortment of games is strategic.

“What we are trying to do is to show the evolution of the coin operated industry,” says Zelinsky. “The entertainment aspect of that from the earliest machine in 1884 through the modern machine or even modern video games that are 20 or 30 years old already.”

The Prep Cynescope is the oldest machine at MuséeMechanique and one  of the first motion picture machines. When you put your eyes up to a glass window on the machine, you see a series of photos, like a flipbook, that show a young girl dancing.

Zelinsky can fix all the machines himself – and even built some from scratch. “What really motivates [me], it's the frustration of poorly made machines,” Zelinsky explains.

Zelinsky makes his full-time living at the MuséeMéchanique and has been able to hire four part-time workers. Fisherman's Wharf, where the museum is located, draws more than ten million visitors per year – so business is good. That means that even though the MuséeMéchanique is old, Zelinsky plans to keep it growing.

“My dad sold some machines that I am trying to put back into the collection, but if something is cool, coin operated, something fun, I mean, that’s what its all about,” he says.