If you happen to follow San Francisco’s nearly 10,000-square foot, cult-favorite penny arcade attraction Musée Mécanique on Facebook, you know the family-owned, old-time antique arcade has had an exciting new antique plaything in the works for the last few months. A mid-October Facebook post teased that “We are getting ready for an amazing new machine that [owner Dan Zelinsky] has been wanting for decades!” This mysterious new device shipped to SF less than a week later, and on October 20, we got the big reveal that “Our automatic violin machine has safely arrived at the Musée!”
Now the Chronicle has a deep-dive profile of this “automatic violin machine,” which is really so much more. As the Chronicle explains, it’s a Mills Bow-Front Violano Virtuoso from 1912. Or in the words of Musée Mécanique, “Here is our newest addition to the collection! A Mills Violano virtuoso, ‘Bow Front’ style with a solid mahogany case. Circa 1912 it was designed and built by the Mills novelty company in Chicago.”
They’ve been fiddling with the internal mechanics of this automatically playing piano and violin for months, and now it’s showtime. “The 350-pound antique is known as a Mills Bow-Front Violano Virtuoso, a machine created circa 1912 and designated by the U.S. Patent Office as ‘one of the eight great scientific instruments of the decade,’” the Chronicle says. That paper adds that “It’s estimated there are perhaps 100 units still in existence,” though some vintage auction houses estimate that there are “less than 20 Mills Novelty Co. Bow-front Violano Virtuoso machines in existence today.”
The story of how this machine got to Musée Mécanique is as unbelievable as the machine itself. The Chronicle ran a September 2020 story about the museum’s struggles amidst the pandemic and the nearby Pier 45 warehouse fire. That story caught the attention of an anonymous couple in Nevada City, who happened to have that old non-functioning device, and felt they’d found the perfect home to which to donate it.
“I got this beautiful letter from them telling me that they had this machine and wanted to find it the right home,” Zelinsky tells the Chronicle. “They came out here, walked around for maybe five minutes, and said, ‘This is where it needs to be.’ ”
Of course, getting it here was the easy part. Getting the 110-year-old machine to play music again was the hard part, as Zelinsky could only identify three people in the U.S. who knew how to repair it.
“Two of them are too old to travel and one guy lives in Florida,” he told the Chronicle. “So I flew him out here to get it working for me.”
The Mills Bow-Front Violano Virtuoso is now operating again, just like the Musée Mécanique itself, which is now operating again after a long pandemic closure. The Musée Mécanique is at Pier 45 at the end of Taylor Street in Fisherman's Wharf, open every day 10 a.m. - 8 p.m., and admission is free.