How It All Began
By Edward Galland Zelinsky (1922-2004)
My collection consists of more than 300 items, ranging from orchestrions, coin operated pianos, antique slot machines, and animations, down to small bird boxes. Most of the items are displayed at the Musée Mécanique at Pier 45 in San Francisco, although I keep some of the more fragile and collectible items in my home.
Now, I started my collection when I was about 11 years old, and that's a long time ago. I went to the Ellis Theatre on Fillmore Street and during the intermission they had a Bingo game. My number was called and I ran on stage. They had a big wheel, I spun the wheel, and believe it or not, I won the grand prize! No, I didn't win a slot machine or a music box; I won five quarts of motor oil. Well, as I was 11 years old and I didn't have a car, I carried the five quarts of oil home and then sold the oil to my piano teacher for 75 cents. With the 75 cents in my pocket I rode the streetcar down to Golden Gate Avenue, an area where they sold slot machines and old jukeboxes. For 5 cents I bought a penny skill game that you put a penny in and get five balls and it goes around in a circle. I put pennies in it and taught my parents and my friends to do the same; it acted like a bank. I used the money I saved from the machine to buy more equipment and I visited that area many times over the years. One of my favorite purchases was a slot machine, which is now a collector's item. At the time slot machines sold for $20-$25, sometimes less. I bought a Charles Fey Liberty Bell slot machine for $25 and sold it for what I then thought was the fantastic price of $200 (it is now worth between $25,000 and $30,000). But that's the way of a collector-you should have done this and you should have done that.
When I returned from the service after World War II, I again visited Golden Gate Avenue. In the basement of one of the warehouses I found eight picture machines for $10 apiece, including delivery. These machines have been working ever since-first, for a penny. Then, later, I changed them to a nickel and they received the same amount of play. Later on, I changed them to a dime and the number of plays increased. Several years ago, I changed them to a quarter and the number of plays tripled.
In 1946, while learning the painting business, I visited a job in Oakland at the Mills Novelty Company. While I was there, I noticed a Seeburg piano with a xylophone and mandolin attachment. I inquired about it and asked if they would play it for me. As soon as it started playing, several of the mechanics gathered around and tried to make it play better. I asked the manager if it was for sale and he said he would love to get it out of his shop because it was costing the company too much money to have these men play around with the machine. I paid $200 for the piano and had it delivered to my home.
The machine hardly played, so I asked Sherman Clay Piano Company to come out and give me an estimate to repair it. They came out, admired the piano, and said they hadn't seen one like it in years. But, they had no idea how long it would take them to fix it-or if they even could fix it-which they would do on a labor and materials basis. I called two other piano companies and received the same answer. I finally decided to fix it myself. I did not smoke at the time, but I blew cigarette smoke and then cigar smoke (which lasted longer) through the tubes to see where the smoke led. I finally got it playing, and it's still playing today.
I seldom sell, but I love to trade. I did a lot of trading with George Whitney, Sr.; we traded music boxes and pianos back and forth. I made one trade with George Whitney that I will never forget. I had lunch with him every third Thursday and Mr. Whitney sat at the same table that he sat at for 20 years. I remember he had a scotch over ice, shrimp cocktail and a minute steak. I tried to copy him, but I couldn't keep up with him on the drinks. Well, one time I had quite a few drinks, and I was feeling no pain and George said, "Ed, you have a 1904 Franklin, do you want to trade it?" And I said, "George, what will you give me for it?" Well, I don't really remember the conversation, but I do remember shaking hands with him and Mr. Whitney telling me, "Ed, you are the proud owner of a steam motorcycle."
Later, we had dinner again and he asked me who got the best deal in the trade. I said, "I don't know, George, you tell me." He said, "Ed, I got the best deal. I got a Franklin that's running and you got a motorcycle that isn't, and needs repair." I told him, "That's funny, George. I thought I got the best of the deal because I got the only steam motorcycle, perhaps, in the whole world." He called me up a few weeks later and asked if I wanted to trade back again. That's when I knew I had a good deal. The motorcycle was made about 1912 in Sacramento by a man named Gillingwater. It is still in working condition and is on display at the Musée Mécanique.
Recently, I received an unsolicited offer of $250,000 for the motorcycle. Now I know I really got the best deal!
Special thanks to the people that help keep the Musée working:
Ken Eaton, Blake Richardson, and Connor, Kyle, and Betsy Zelinsky.