Mechanical Monkeys Meet the Carpet Giants

It should come as no surprise that I’m a fan of the absurd. I’ve travelled the country taking photographs of preposterously oversized stuff. Usually these are advertising icons or factory mascots, but on a tour of North Dakota and Minnesota last summer I discovered that this area of the country has a real predilection for big stuff. Otto the Otter in Fergus Falls, MN comes to mind. He’s around fifteen feet tall and about forty feet long. He stands watch over a small lake in the town’s Grotto Park. Nearby you’ll also find world’s largest Dairy Queen Dilly bar. Then there’s the Trail’s Travel Viking-themed truck stop in Albert Lea, MN, where you’ll be greeted by a pair of giant Viking statutes. 

Add to these, giant chickens, the Shoney’s Big Boy and my personal favorite — the Carpet Giant. Folks who live in central Arkansas probably recall the carpet giant. An advertising piece made for Viking Carpets he (and his ilk) measured a good thirty feet-tall. For decades, he stood sentinel outside a local flooring company. I believe he may have retired to a used car lot. There seem to be a lot of these giant Vikings.

If you have one that needs a good home, my large backyard is available. My neighbors would likely take a momentary notice and shrug it off as “Pate being Pate.”

I also like smaller absurdities. Especially if they are mechanical or of a certain vintage. In my travels I have come across what is likely the most peculiar and eclectic collection of mechanical contraptions in existence anywhere.

This den of oddity is known as the Musée Mécanique. It’s located in a pretty touristy place: Pier 45 at the foot of Taylor Street in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, but this is no “I heart NY” t-shirt joint. It is a repository of more than 300 vintage mechanical amusements.

The proprietor of the Musée is a roller-skating chap named Dan Zelinsky. Every time I’ve gone there, he’s scurrying between machines, making repairs and entertaining visitors.

Zelinsky’s lair is dark and foreboding. If it’s foggy out — which it often is — the darkness is amplified. The glow of red electric clown noses gives the place an aura somewhere between Fellini and Hitchcock. It looks like a good place to become a victim on an episode of Kolchak: The Nightstalker. 

The glow of red electric clown noses gives the place an aura somewhere between Fellini and Hitchcock.

Once you find your bearings, it’s more an engagingly macabre curiosity than a place of fear. The cacophonic din of a mostly in-tune band organ bangs and tweets over everything else. There are animatronic fortune tellers. Pinball and other gaming machines ding and crack.

The thing that always gets my attention is an animated diorama that’s part fair, part circus, part city park, but all wonderful. A tiny dog jumps for its master. A lady sells tickets in a miniature both. Little carnival ride airplanes circle their tower.

Then there are other tableaus of a more sinister nature. The one I best recall is a Chinese opium den. The walls are lined with fabulous and frightening cased marionettes, who each have a little skit to perform. 

Mash pennies. Test your strength. Feed quarters into metal slots like a gambling addict. In very few places will a handful of loose change return so many memories. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll still know you saw something remarkable.

Whether the impossibly large or amazingly small, I love these sights. They speak to a whimsy that’s all-too rare these days. Nobody needs a Carpet Giant or a warehouse full of scary puppets, but I am happier knowing that daring and imaginative individuals have bothered to celebrate their potential. 

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