Musee Mechanique (part the second)

September 2nd, 2013, 1pm

The old-time band sways and gallops to the music, wooden heads stuttering in a vague approximation of boozy joy. The piano player has a wood-grain 5 o’clock shadow and bags painted under his eyes, not to mention quite the hair cut. None, not even (especially?) the onlookers painted into the windows, seem perturbed by the scene outside the bar, where a wooden woman waves a kerchief out a tower window and the fire department’s little truck runs its track over and over again en route to her rescue. There’s no sign of actual flames, of course, just the siren rising above the raucous tavern choir and the endless loop of the truck’s advance. The machine runs for a surprisingly long time.

As the scene plays out, a window at the base of the machine offers a glimpse at its internal workings. A great mess of gears spins and grinds away, following no obvious pattern but somehow resulting in the whirlygig of motion above. It’s mesmerizing.

As you walk the crowded aisles, resisting (or heeding) the siren call of the Love Testers and lurid peepshows touting a glimpse of ‘what pole dancers do on their days off’, you’ll see a number of machines like this one - animatronic dioramas performing moments from another time. The stories told vary in content, of course, with everything from a Texas Oil Field (mostly harmless) to an ‘Opium Den’ (extraordinarily racist) on display. The Old West is a recurring theme. A shocking number of executions are bloodlessly reenacted. It gets kind of intense.

The most impressive, though, is the circus that sits at the center of the building. Though only 50 cents to play, the circus is more than three times the size of any comparable artifact in the building. There’s a carousel, a ferris wheel, a lion tamer- every act you might hope to see at the fair, all elaborately choreographed to the constant murmur of the music box at its heart. A single picture cannot do the beast justice. You just have to see it.

Once upon a time, the circus lived at Playland by the Sea, as did many of the machines now here on display. In fact, Playland is where the Musee Mechanique was born, the realization of a young man’s animatronic obsession. But more on that later. For now, toss another quarter in the slot, and listen to that band wail.

Jess, Paul, Cassie and Allan said thanks.

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Zoelle Egner

Digital literature. Alternate reality games. Science fiction. Cocktails. Octopuses. Excessive pondering. By day I do the technology thing. (Sometimes by night, too.)

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