Here’s to the crazies. The oddballs. The kooks. Some would describe Marvin Yagoda that way. He thought like a kid. He acted like a kid. He spoke in rambling sentences and trivial facts, as likely to tell you about the inner workings of an airplane as he was to explain the tic-tac-toe chicken robot in his museum.
Oh, yes. He had a museum. Why? Don’t you? His was unique. For one thing, it was free and open all year. For another, you brought quarters to enjoy it. Also, to be honest, it was born from a need to clean out his house.
“Our den growing up had five player pianos in it, and two self-playing violins, Nickelodeons, a feeder-band organ, and a couple of claw and digger machines,” recalls his son, Jeremy Yagoda, 43. “There was nowhere to sit. My mother always said to him, ‘Why don’t you get a place for all this stuff and get it out of our house?’ ”
In 1980, he began, moving a single machine (a chicken laying eggs “prizes” machine) into the old Tally Hall food court on Orchard Lake Road near 14 Mile Road. Eventually, he took more and more space there, and by 1990, the entire 5,500-square-foot building was his, filled with several hundred fun machines, including antique arcade attractions (like the fortune teller in the movie “Big”), skee-ball, claw diggers, automatons, a children’s carousel, pinball, photo booths, and the most unique collection of old coin-operated oddities, like “the Brain,” or “Dr. Kill-r-watt” or “The Great Chopandof,” where you stick your hand into a machine and a sinister dummy slams a fake blade down.
To visit Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in Farmington Hills is to go back in time, to squeeze the 20th Century of amusements into one wild, colorful, bell-clanging space. Places like this don’t just happen. They need visionaries.
Big kid, big heart
“My dad”— a Detroit pharmacist by trade — “was always torn between his two businesses, the drugstore and the museum,” Jeremy says. “But he would have done the second one for free. He was the biggest kid in the world.”
Many will vouch for that, myself included. I met Marvin 15 years ago, doing research for a book about old amusement parks. Truth be told, as a pinball nut, I had been visiting his place for years. But when I asked him a question about old carnival sideshows, he launched into an animated hour-long discussion, complete with trips to the back, old photos taken off the walls and offers to help me dig deeper.
He was a delightful odd duck, with high, round cheeks, prominent ears, a disheveled haircut suited to an 8-year-old and colorful suspenders that covered more colorful shirts.
But you could tell he loved fun, children, innocence and wonder. He adored flying, so he hung a laundry conveyor belt around the ceiling of his building and strung radio controlled toy airplanes everywhere. He even named one for his son. “Jeremy’s Bomber.” Had a Snoopy painted on it.
“It was cool being his son,” Jeremy says. If not always predictable. One time, his wife sent Marvin out to get young Jeremy a suit for a wedding. Father and son were gone for hours. They returned with four bags of clothing.
“Where’s the suit?” his wife asked.
Marvin lowered his head. He’d bought four tuxedos for a miniature band of characters in the shop.
“But,” Jeremy says, “he forgot the suit.”
Fun times will go on
Marvin Yagoda died last Sunday, at 78, after a heart attack. You’re tempted to say his heart was having too much fun.
But it’s that heart that will be missed. For beyond the arcade eccentricities, this son of Russian and Austrian immigrants was a man who regularly gave his pharmacy customers free medicine if they couldn’t afford it. Who regularly handed cups of quarters to children wandering through his machines.
Jeremy tells of a frequent customer, a mentally-challenged man who acts more like a child. Marvin always welcomed him and let him play the machines. One time, a family complained that the man was creeping them out. He’d done nothing wrong. They just found him annoying.
“Then you have to leave,” Marvin told them.
At his dad’s funeral, Jeremy says, there were testimonies from people the family never knew, people he had helped or supported through tough times.
At one point, because Marvin loved magic, a couple of magicians performed the Broken Wand ceremony, where a wand is ceremoniously snapped in half, signaling the end of the deceased’s magical performances on Earth.
“Then, they said since my dad provided so much fun for everybody, he deserved a standing ovation. And everybody stood up and clapped. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a standing ovation at a funeral.”
Here’s to the crazies. The kooks. The oddballs. People told Marvin Yagoda he was nuts his whole life. But look at the fun and kindness he gave this world. Jeremy insists that Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum isn’t going anywhere, that he will carry on the place’s tradition, in hopes of being “half the man my father was.” If anything deserves a standing ovation, that does.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.