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The man behind the gears: Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum

I live in the Metro Detroit area. It isn’t particularly well known as being a mecca of gaming, but we do have one of the finest, and weirdest, homages to gaming’s past within our lands.

San Franciscans have the Musee Mechanique.

We have Marvin’s.

The following is an interview I did with the business’s proprietor back in 2007. I wrote an article about it, but wasn’t writing for anything covering the beat. Having just found the article, however, I’ve touched it up a bit and provide to you the story of this odd little place tucked away in the suburbs of Farmington Hills.

Marvin Yagoda is a busy man.

Dressed in an off-white shirt and suspenders, Yagoda is moving all over the place as children and adults both crowd his workplace, Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum.

“I’ve got three birthday parties today,” he tells me. He is working on a small television displaying the tale of the world’s tallest man.

Calling Yagoda’s business a museum isn’t entirely accurate. Nor could you really even call it an arcade. It is part of his collection of oddities. Mechanical arcade machines old and new, video games, pinball machines, animatronics, and large amounts of memorabilia from circuses and magic shows past fill the building. There, you can find an 80-year old fortune-telling machine originally from Coney Island sitting near an F-Zero AX arcade racing game from 2003. The contemporary dance-pad games have a 1930s foot massaging machine in between them, while overhead, a spring-mounted fan from 1902 provides a breeze for players. Oddities such as P.T. Barnum’s reproduction of the Cardiff Giant (a famous 1870s era stone “giant”) and looming animatronic muppets from Showbiz Pizza are on display along the walls.

“I opened the museum so I could share these with people,” Yagoda explains. “Most people never see these machines, since most of them are in private collections.”

Yagoda opened the museum in 1980. Since then he’s seen coverage in local and national media outlets, and has even gotten covered in the AAA tourism guide for the Metro Detroit area.

Yagoda is a Detroit native, born there in 1938. He later went into pharmaceutical science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, graduating in 1961. But his fascination with mechanical arcade machines burgeoned in 1956, when he first came across a KT Nickelodeon. Nickelodeons, of course, are machines that, for the cost of a nickel, display about a minute’s worth of filmed action. Popular well before cinema became widespread, Nickelodeons were phased out as technology improved. Yagoda, his interest sparked by that first Nickelodeon, found a dealer that was selling a number of these types of machines.

“I started my collection buying from a man in Muskegon,” he explains.

But he hasn’t stopped there. Yagoda has traveled across the United States, seeking out classic arcade machines, oddities, slot machines, and other pieces of old technology. Recently he has branched out outside the country, however.

“I’ve started collecting UK stuff,” Yagoda says. “It doesn’t matter to me if it’s new or not. If it’s mechanical, I’m interested.”

Pieces in his collection run the age gamut, with some dating back to the early 1900s, to the most recent ones made in the last decade. Finding and getting these items is not always the hardest part, though.

“It’s a hard job maintaining these machines. For the older ones, it’s hard to even find replacement parts,” Yagoda tells me, working in the box-filled back room of his museum.

Among the museum’s other mechanical amusements, interactive photo booths can be found, and there are music-playing machines, including a 55-piece orchestra automaton. Advertisements and statues that look to have come from an old circus sideshow are scattered throughout the building. But of all his collected oddities, Yagoda can’t pick just one favorite.

“It’s like asking someone to choose their favorite kid,” he shrugs.

Outside of the museum, Yagoda continues to work at a pharmacy in Detroit, and enjoys coin collecting and flying. But to see him in his museum is to see a man in his domain.

Even the location of the museum has a story. Located in an alley in a strip mall, Yagoda likes the location, adding that he thinks it brings mystique to the place. It only covers its own operating costs some of the time, but for Yagoda, that’s good enough.

One response to “The man behind the gears: Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum” »

  1. Chris A says:

    Along with the museum, he also mirrors one of THE finest electromechanical pinball/arcade repair sites on the internet:

    http://marvin3m.com/fix.htm

    Also, be sure to browse through the electromechanical arcade machine section, there’s a wealth of info in those pages:

    http://marvin3m.com/arcade/index.htm

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