One Man’s Junk …
Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum
It’s ironic that a place as unique as Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum would be tucked away, hidden in the back of an otherwise generic strip mall in Farmington Hills. Sandwiched between a Borders and a California Pizza Kitchen is a sign with a backwards-running clock that displays a silly, alliterative name and serves as a gateway from mundane, suburban life into the youthful vibrancy of an eternal carnival. As I passed through the gateway, I spotted Marvin Yagoda himself, clad in his signature patriotic, red, white and blue suspenders with matching plaid shirt, unloading a truck full of more artifacts to add to his vast collection. With a smile and a hearty handshake, Marvin welcomed me to his world.
From my first step inside the quirky interactive museum, which chronicles generations of coin-operated entertainment machines, I experienced a total sensory overload. More than 50 handmade model airplanes flew through the air on tracks overhead and video game screens flashed while animatronic fortune tellers offered their wisdom and a small carousel spun around and around. Yagoda reached into a cash register at the snack bar, grabbed a fistful of quarters and placed them into my hands, inviting me to explore.
Seemingly every inch of the space was covered. As Yagoda put it, “I can fit ten pounds of crap into a five-pound bag.” There were giant, authentic magic show posters from the 1920s covering the walls, retired animatronic characters from Chuck E. Cheese on display, vintage Westinghouse and GE fans from the early 1900s hanging from the 40-foot ceiling, neon signs galore and arrays of moving mechanical artworks called automata, both decades old and brand new. More than 1,000 electrical outlets keep everything going. Once I had a chance to take it all in, I couldn’t help but wonder where Yagoda gets all this stuff. “I can’t tell you all my sources because then they get dried up,” quipped the 69-year-old, who then admitted that his collection comes from a combination of classified ads, trade shows and world travel. Yagoda has been building this collection since the early ‘80s, when the Tally Hall food court was being constructed. Yagoda knew the owner of the complex and was invited to install a few prize machines and games there. As years passed, Yagoda’s assortment of machines grew, but the food court tanked, closing in 1988. However, this gave Yagoda the opportunity to expand into his current space while the surrounding area was converted into a shopping center. “I opened up and people said I’d never make it back here,” Yagoda said proudly. “Guess what? I’ve been here over 20 years! They’ve told me I could be a feature on the strip in Vegas, but here I am in a back alley in Farmington Hills.”
Yagoda's obsession with mechanical ephemera began in the ‘50s while he attended pharmacy school at the University of Michigan. He marveled at some old nickelodeons at a shop in downtown Ann Arbor and vowed to get one someday. Now Yagoda has the coolest nickelodeon ever: a custom-made, MIDI-based mechanical orchestra that plays 3,000 songs using 55 real instruments. For 50 cents you can select a track on the touch screen menu, then sit back and enjoy.
At one point during our interview, Marvin reached into his wallet to get a business card and also pulled out a photo. “Let me show you my pride and joy,” he said as he handed me a picture of a can of Pride furniture wax beside a bottle of Joy dishwashing liquid. It’s precisely this kind of cheesy, oddball humor that permeates Marvin’s. Even scary attractions like Crankenstein and gross-outs like Dr. Ralph Bingenpurge capture a pure, still-innocent sort of juvenile thrill. Sure, there are other arcades, but none with the distinct personality of Marvin’s. | RDW
Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum is at 31005 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248.626.5020 or marvin3m.com
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