Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum
Farmington Hills, Michigan
Marvin Yagoda is one guy who understands hyper-compression. His museum is sandwiched between halves of a shopping mall north of Detroit. Inside, he has packed masses of historical and modern arcade machines, sideshow wonders and curiosities. Marvin is a 60-year old pharmacist; Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum is a hobby that went out of control.
Every inch of his 5,500 feet of floor space contains a buzzing, clattering or otherwise disturbing coin-operated device. Overhead dangle signs, animatronic dummies, dozens of airplane models gliding along a steel rail, and classic sideshow posters.
Our first mission is to examine P.T. Barnum's legendary Cardiff Giant, which Marvin has thoughtfully shoved way in the back, next to a collection of Laxative ads. The Giant stands upright in a box, looming above mechanical claw machines and robotic fortune tellers. There is an incongruous bearded mannequin head wedged near the Giant's crotch. We compare Marvin's Giant with the competing Cardiff Giant in Cooperstown, NY.
Nearby, we spot a grandmotherly dummy strapped into a souped-up electric chair. The sign claims it's the execution device from Sing Sing Prison -- a shock to us, since the Sing Sing museum curator told us that the real chair was in storage.
But the main attraction here are the coin-operated machines. It's time to fill our pockets with quarters and dive in. Each machine has a small, hand-lettered card that notes its origins. "See the Invisible World" is a 1917 prototype of the only coin-operated microscope ever made. The "Drunkard's Dream" is a 1935 view of "what a drunk sees after one too many." Something called "The Disgusting Spectacle" features a goony pale head with a large nose -- finger poised to explore its mysteries. A quarter satisfies your curiosity.
Marvin appears, and steers us towards the "good" historical machines, which are spread throughout the museum. "Try this one," he suggests, pointing out a glass case with a medieval dungeon scene. "People like love and torture machines... love and torture are the favorites." Next, we're sticking our hands into a hole on something called "The Great Chopandof." A grinning character slams a blade down, and blood spurts.
Marvin has the rhythm of each machine down. He walks away to attend to arcade business while we play, but returns magically as each experience ends. He's particularly proud of "Harvest Time," a large farm scene in a glass case, "hand-carved by the 'Butcher of Alcatraz,' a multiple murderer who killed an Iowa farm family." A quarter brings the scene to life -- clacking, twitching miniatures working the hell out of their farm labors.
"The Butcher built this, then drowned while trying to escape," Marvin reports in a deadly serious tone.
MMMM has been open since 1990, though Marvin's collecting dates back to the 1950s. He constantly adds more, packing things tighter, shifting around games and kid rides. As we pause for an ice cream in the snack bar, Marvin disappears for a moment, then returns with a giant bra, judged unsuitable for public consumption. "This is a family place," he points out. Minutes later, he points out a naked pinup poster of Burt Reynolds, with a wooden fig leaf covering his privates. "It was originally in a women's bathroom," Marvin says. He lifts up the hinged fig leaf, and flash bulbs go off on a large camera hidden above.
The visitors during our stop are intently playing only the modern video games, paying little heed to the wealth of historical depravity that surrounds them. Marvin suddenly looks a little sad. "Ah, the kids, they don't have the respect." We walk back to the Cardiff Giant to take some pictures.
Marvin spots the bearded mannequin head. "Hey, who put this head here?" He pries it loose and restores the Giant's dignity. "Damned kids..."