In a tucked away spot on Pier 45 of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, there is a delightful museum of vintage music boxes, antique arcade machines, dioramas of circuses and carnivals, and a gypsy who will tell your fortune for fifty cents. Old-fashioned organ grinder music fills the space with haunting melodies. Combined with the salty smell of the bay, the wonders at Musée Mécanique transport you to a carnival of a different era- the only thing missing is the prizes and the cotton candy. They even have a miniature Ferris wheel.
Entry is free, but bring a pocket full of dimes and quarters if you want to operate the machines. There are little “theatres” that will show you an old-time execution for twenty-five cents. Kind of gruesome, but they’re only puppets. The dioramas are large and fantastic with twinkling lights, music, and moving parts; the whole scene will come to life. The overall effect is a little spooky, with the frightening laughs from “Laffing Sal” and all the mechanical noises in the air, but it just adds another element to the spectacle.
Of course, you don’t want to miss the belly dance peepshow. And for less than a quarter! Although, you should be aware that it’s a mini, puppet belly dancer that will be dancing in the box; if you want to see real thing, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than just depositing a few dimes into a coin slot.
By far, my favorite thing about Musée Mécanique is the music. As a tribal fusion belly dancer, I have a lot of freedom to step out of the bonds of traditional middle eastern music when I choreograph dance pieces. The result has been choreography done to rock, Balkan music, and 1930s jazz, to name a few. There are CDs for sale at Musée Mécanique that feature organ grinders, accordions, and other circus-like instruments. It makes me want to run away and join a circus, become a belly dance sideshow performer.
However, there isn’t much of a chance of that actually happening, and instead I’ll opt for surrounding myself with the mystique of Musée Mécanique. At least, for now.
*The story of how the museum began is a worthwhile read on its website: www.museemechanique.org