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Laughing Sal Laughs Last

At the Musée Mécanique

Musée Mécanique reopened December 20, just in time for tourists lugging soggy presents to duck in out of the downpours and have a little fun. Having relocated from its previous home at the Cliff House, overlooking Ocean Beach, the Musée Mécanique is now a part of Fisherman's Wharf, one component of what is referred to as the 'Pier 45 Walk', which also includes World World II vessels the USS Pampanito, and the Jeremiah O’Brian.

Arguably the most historic part of the Wharf, which is ironically considered a historical district despite its contemporary context as tourist marketplace, the Pier Walk brings a degree of authenticity to the increasingly prepackaged experience of Fisherman's Wharf. Only on Alcatraz is the historical interaction as equally undirected as it is on Pier 45. And lets be honest, these days it does count that Musée Mécanique is one of the only attractions available if all you've got is change in your pocket.

In speaking with Dan Zelinsky, the Musée's General Manager, about the move he said he knew it would have to happen for a long time and dreaded it, but that in the end it wasn't that bad. As a steadfast fan of the old location and its peculiar yet fitting quality, I felt the same about visiting the new facility. I dreaded it, avoided it even, but in the end it wasn't so bad.

The ceiling no longer leaks or crumbles on to your head as you wind through narrow aisles filled with games that look like they shouldn't work but do. In fact, the games no longer look like they shouldn't work, instead they seem just what they are, a living, useable part of history. In the new facility, bright lights shine from high ceilings with exposed metal beams, white walls and exposed concrete floors create a gallery atmosphere that places the games more on display that they had previously been allowed in the dank, cramped quarters of the Cliff House's substructure.

Still as interactive an experience as ever, the heightened attention to display has resulted not only in games that are better seen and more accessible to the throngs, it has also provided a historical context for the games that was not as inherent a part of the Cliff House Musée. In addition to the large conglomerate replica of notable San Francisco landmarks including rows of Painted Ladies, Coit Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge and Japantown, there are also themed artifact boxes highlighting various periods of Bay Area heritage. These displays provide valuable knowledge for understanding the deeper meaning of some of the games. A display on Chinese immigrants reminds game players of the important role of Chinese culture in San Francisco's 19th and 20th century settlement. However, while the displays lend a welcome context for otherwise offensive games such as the "Opium Den", the information provided is sterile and does not voice the controversial nature of much of this history, alluding to rather than addressing the social commentary inherent in many of the Musée's holdings.

Musée Mécanique is located at Pier 45 at end of Taylor Street, Fisherman's Wharf. The Musée is open Monday through Friday 11 am to 7 pm, Saturday, Sunday and Holidays 10 am to 8 pm. For more information on the Musée or to take a virtual tour, visit their website at Muséemecanique.citysearch.com or call 415.346.2000. Admission is free, but games will cost you, and they aren't accepting pennies anymore, so you better bring a roll of quarters.