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San Francisco museum unveils a century-old device that plays piano and violin duets


At San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, there is a museum that is not quite like any other you may have been to. The Musee Mecanique is home to all sorts of antique coin-operated mechanical musical instruments and arcade games. And they all work, too.

DAN ZELINSKY: There's old-school pinball machines. I've got the original Pong machine. There's also the arm-wrestling machine that was filmed in "Princess Diaries." The list is so long, it's mind boggling. I don't even know where to begin or end.


That's owner Dan Zelinsky. He inherited the Musee from his father, who bought his first penny arcade machine for 50 cents in 1933.

ZELINSKY: He took it to his home, where his mom and dad put pennies in it, and his friends put pennies in it. And he soon had another 50 cents, and he went back to the same store and bought another machine. And that's how this entire collection started - off of several pennies.

SUMMERS: That 50 cents grew into the Musee Mecanique, which today boasts roughly 300 machines.

KELLY: And it's still growing. Zelinsky recently unveiled the museum's latest acquisition - a century-old oddity called a Violano Virtuoso.

ZELINSKY: That is, literally, a piano and a violin that play together. And it's like eye candy - it's just so beautiful to look at. And it also plays beautifully.


SUMMERS: The machine was built circa 1914 by the Mills Novelty Company. A mahogany cabinet houses a piano in the back and a violin on top, viewable through a glass window. But instead of a conventional violin bow, four rotating wheels raise up and down electronically to play the strings.


ZELINSKY: I've seen some people look at it and go - after a minute, it's like, well, that's enough of that. I never want to see that or hear that again. And other people will stay for the entire performance of one particular tune and be awestruck.

KELLY: Zelinsky says he fits into the latter category and that his joy comes from fixing up these mechanical marvels and then sharing them with the public the way they once were.

ZELINSKY: Machines of this sort were everywhere, in every nook and cranny - in ice cream parlors, hotels, pharmacies. Most machines now are in just private collections, where you'll never see them again, which is where this violin was, in somebody's living room. And the fact that I can show these machines off like they were originally intended to be used is what brings the joy to almost everyone.

SUMMERS: The Musee Mecanique is open to the public 365 days a year. And it doesn't cost a penny to see the machines, but you may want to bring a few quarters to play them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEX VAUGHN'S "SO BE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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