The foundation for my love of film is a deep appreciation of where it all began. For instance, the early inventions that led to the birth of cinema were peepshow devices. Tools of entertainment mainly used to give the people of the late 1800s a little thrill are ultimately responsible for one of the greatest industries in the world, an art and pastime that’s become apart of daily life for many. I’ve been lucky enough to get up close and personal with a couple of these authentic optical toys at a coin operated arcade on San Francisco’s infamous Pier 45.
I love San Francisco. I love the chilly weather and the way the clouds flicker across the sky at what seems to be warp speed. I love all the architecturally beautiful buildings squeezed in tight with windows looking into windows, a setup that makes me feel like if I stare outside too long I’ll end up in some modern take on Rear Window. Their Chinatown is probably my favorite Chinatown and trust me, I have been to many Chinatowns in my travels. I love everything about SF, but we have a very touch and go, love ’em and leave ’em, but occasionally come back to ’em relationship. I love the Golden City, but I also have this nagging gut feeling that I can only love it in bursts, that if I were to settle down I’d slowly start to love it less, which is something I never want to happen. It really is me, not you, SF. Though I may never lay down roots in the Bay Area, when I’m in the city I can’t resist a trip to Musée Mécanique.
San Francisco’s antique arcade is one of the world’s largest collection of coin-operated musical instruments and arcade machines still in perfect working condition. Unlike museums with velvet ropes that try to preserve historical objects by keeping their audience at a distance, Musée Mécanique encourages everyone to have fun and play the machines after feeding them shiny silver quarters, of course. Even better, admission is free!
They have your standard air hockey and foosball type me-verses-you games, old-school crane games and classic video games like Street Fighter and Bust-A-Move. You can have your fortune told in the form of little cards that you can keep forever. The old luchador awaits arm wrestling challengers and don’t let the chipped exterior or his age fool you. The guy is a champion for a reason! There are also some terrifying marionettes and puppets that move and dance. It’s fun to just wander through the aisles and test out apparatus only ever see in movies these days, slowly emptying coin-heavy pockets while taking in the evolution of entertainment.
That brings us to my favorite by far — the optical toys. The history behind these machines and how giddy I get just thinking about it brings out my inner film nerd. Whenever I’m sitting at home watching a movie or in a theater, I can’t help, but think about how these clunky boxes begging for coins, playing the same thing on repeat, are the early stepping-stones to the extensive cinema cameras and projectors that give us visually stunning movies like The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012), Her (Spike Jonze, 2014) or the Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011). (While we can argue whether these are good movies or not, their mass visual appeal is fact.)
One such optical toy is this beauty — the Mutoscope.
Just a little nitpick and fun fact combo (because I can’t help myself, I really can’t) the sign at the arcade says it’s a Zoetrope, which is in the ballpark, it’s in the family, but not quite right.
The Zoetrope, invented in 1833, is basically a revolving drum containing a strip of paper. On the paper is a series of drawing, each altered somewhat. When spun, the image appears to be moving, repeating over and over. The Zoetrope was widely sold after 1867.
The Mutoscope wasn’t invented until late 1894. Herman Caster patented the Mutoscope, a penny-in-the-slot peepshow machine operated via hand crank. It also contains a drum with a series of photos inside, but used a flip-card mechanism. What helped it sell over its competitors is the Mutoscope’s patented cardholder that’s less likely to break down. Caster teamed up with W.K.L. Dickson, who had just terminated his work relationship with Edison and they formed the American Mutoscope Company. They began showing their short films in penny arcades and other entertainment parlors using the Mutoscope. In 1897, American Mutoscope absolutely dominated the peepshow side of film exhibition and Mutoscopes remained in use for decades.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but to me, the Mutoscope and its family of optical toys are among the coolest pieces in the entire arcade! I’m drawn to them. No matter how many times I circle the arcade I always end up in front of them. I don’t know the history of these specific machines, where they’ve been and who used them, but I can just imagine lines of machines in penny arcades, offering middle-class individuals a short film of a woman in a revealing dress doing a cheeky little dance. Honestly, it was nothing salacious, but for the late 1890s crowd, it was probably pretty racy and the technology highly innovative. The fact that the machines still work and withstood time is incredible. The fact that I was lucky enough to see a piece of film history up-close is incredible. Between you and me, it’s on my mental bucket list to own one of these things along with set pieces from Classic Hollywood slapstick comedies someday. Mark my words! It’ll happen!
If you’re ever in San Francisco and have some time to kill or just want to feel like a kid again, running around an arcade that only takes coins not plastic token cards, I definitely suggest visiting Musée Mécanique. Take a stroll back through time, shoot down some Space Invaders or challenge your friend to a duel with tiny fighting robots. When you’re there, be sure to check out the optical toys that witnessed the start of an industry that has arguably taken over the world. I always find myself visiting the arcade every chance I get and introducing people to the pure awesomeness inside. I love San Francisco and I love Musée Mécanique.