There is a strip mall in Farmington Hills, Michigan. Were you to wake up in the parking lot of that strip mall and see its California Pizza Kitchen and Gap and Game Stop you’d be hard pressed to figure out just what state of the union you were in; America has become a series of generic, uninteresting parking lots for Taco Bells and Best Buys.
But hidden in that strip mall - right behind the California Pizza Kitchen and the Buy Buy Baby - is a shrine to the energy and individuality that used to course through America like hot blood. Tucked in the back, out of sight of the shuffling shoppers, is Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum.
From the outside it sort of looks like an arcade circa 1982, but once you get into the 5,000 square foot space you are assaulted with an explosion of chattering machines, odd knick knacks, bizarre posters and a sense of overwhelming, soul-deep delight.
Marvin Yagoda began collecting penny arcade machines in 1950 - his first purchase was a nickelodeon (there is a nickelodeon - now a quarterlodeon, I guess - in his museum, which shows the famous unmasking scene of Lon Chaney Sr’s Phantom of the Opera), and he just kept going from there. A pharmacist by trade, Marvin gave in to his collecting mania, and over the years he accumulated hundreds upon hundreds of machines.
The museum is crammed with them. There are hand-carved wooden dioramas that spring to life when fed a quarter, rescued from the boardwalk at Brighton, England. There is a strange sailor puppet, covered in puppet bees, who laughs horribly and maniacally for a quarter. There are strange fortune tellers and working pinball machines from every era. There is a framed photo of a nude Burt Reynolds lounging on a bearskin rug, a fig leaf covering his privates. Lift the leaf to expose a flash and have a hidden camera take a picture of you peeping on Burt’s balls.
There are more than just arcade machines. In the very back of the museum is PT Barnum’s Cardiff Giant, the hoax version of the hoax discovery of the age (I wrote about the Cardiff Giant here). An electric chair dangles overhead, claiming to have been the seat in which 30 executions took place at Sing Sing (apparently the real chair remains in storage). A klieg light is marked as being from the prison yard at Alcatraz. The walls are covered in sideshow posters and old ads for magicians. On the ceiling is a track; for a quarter (everything is a quarter here - that’s the spirt of the old penny arcades. Admission is free) you can start a parade of model planes flying around the museum on that track.
Walking through the aisles - the museum is an open layout, with the machines put into aisles - you come across some really strange stuff. Near the restrooms are two glass display cases, unlit and barely visible. One contains what appear to be a selection of legitimate Old West badges. The other contains shackles, on which are etched things like ‘Suitable for female or child negroes only.’ Then there’s the machine that takes your quarter and displays a (fake) two headed baby in a jar.
Other machines play with that edge of darkness. The Dr. Choppington machine has you put your hand into a slot, and a mechanical man with a machete cuts through it, spraying blood. Another has you hold your hand near the maw of a growling, shaking mechanical dog. And then there’s the machine where, for a quarter, you can watch an animatronic drunk vomit black liquid into a garbage bin. I pumped three quarters into that one.
Some of these machines are vintage but some, like the vomiting drunk or the more than slightly racist Chinese fortune teller, are new devices made for Marvin’s museum. They’re amazing examples of an old, strange form of entertainment making it into the 21st century.
Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum is one of those spots where the bland modern world is thin and where you can slip back into time when a time when carnival hucksters and disreputable arcades offered thrills. The vibe in Marvin’s is essentially the same as it would have been in Victorian Brighton or 1920s Coney Island or Times Square just before the porno theaters moved in. Bring lots of quarters.