Joker’s den

Aug 20, 2003 at 12:00 am
A wall covered with dozens of containers full of loose screws, bolts and homeless parts signals a failed attempt at organizing an office that’s in complete disarray. Papers are stacked, some waist-high, restricting mobility in an area about the size of a closet. Between the basic office supplies and machines lie oddities such as a movable wooden carving portraying a relationship between a yelling woman and an obviously unsympathetic man. Bizarre animal trophies line the walls and ancient black-and-white photographs serve as important historical reminders. Tucked between scattered tools and rolling batteries on the large wooden desk by the doorway is a far-too-perfect sign that sums up the perpetrator’s obvious feelings for the crammed compartment: "I love this messy place."

Although it might seem that sorting through the piles, boxes and objects could take a lifetime, the room reflects not only a life’s work and an odd curiosity, but also one of the most unique and creative unconscious thinkers of our time. The office is a museum in its own right and the highly systematic creation of its owner, Marvin Yagoda.

"They do call me a little disorganized," he says smiling. "They may call me a rat, but I’m no packrat. Although, I do like cheese."

His sense of humor can be, well, cheesy much of the time and his taste in fashion is comparable to a circus clown’s, but his passion for rare, pulsing, often-expensive mechanical antiques is as bizarre as it gets.

Yagoda’s office, tucked in the far corner of Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, isn’t the main attraction for searchers and explorers who flock from all around the world to gaze at the 5,500-square-foot collection of children’s rides, arcade games, high-tech reality marvels and hundreds of collectable wonders. But it’s one of the most important spaces in the museum for those trying to understand its whys and hows.

Opening the door

A first impression from Yagoda is often intimidating for someone used to a small "hello" or a passive handshake. If you’re in the museum, the pharmacy he owns and operates in Detroit, in the same aisle at the grocery store or happen to be waiting on his table, chances are high that you’ll have a close encounter with the man, whether you want to or not.

"Excuse me! Hey, you!" he shouts in his aged baritone voice across his already noisy museum. An unsuspecting middle-aged lady looks up in surprise from her thick piece of newsprint — she’s one of many parents just waiting for their kids to run out of pocket change.

"No reading serious material in the museum! It’s not allowed."

Her reaction is normal: a small nervous laugh and a drawing back into the previous moment. Seconds later, Yagoda moves on to his next victim.

"Hey! No sunglass-wearing allowed! You’re being too cool."

And the next, after that: "Hey! You two! no holding hands! Cut that out!"

The parade of shocking confrontations is amusing to those who are secretly witnessing the free show — and though they’re somewhat intrusive to the victims, they’re harmless enough.

Yagoda is fearless, with little respect for the rules that most of society plays by. But his behavior and traditional comedic sense aren’t the only colorful qualities about him. His wardrobe is just as outlandish.

Yagoda’s trademarked "stars and stripes" suspenders, weighed down by pieces of bedazzled flair, include a slew of patriotic Mickey Mouse pins and a "Sod Off" button that Yagoda admits he still has no idea as to its meaning. He’s as comfortable in his pilot’s shirt and dark-blue Bermuda shorts as a banker in a business suit. His new Z-Coil shoes are conversation pieces that he likes to think put a "spring" in his step.

A flashy smile from the 65-year-old doesn’t even reveal your typical pearly whites or yellows. Instead, "tattoos" cover 10 teeth with images of a train, a clover, a bumblebee, a ladybug and a micro depiction of American and Israeli flags.

"I’m not cool," Marvin says of his unique image. "I just like the reaction I get when I see all these kids come in here with their tattoos and piercings. I’ll run up to them and say, ‘You think that hurt? Look at these!’"

Even the man’s car and briefcase convey his sense of style.

"You wanna take a look at my important documents?" he questions. Snapping back the top of a briefcase decorated with fake bullet holes, Yagoda reveals his "special work materials." Wading through candy necklaces, toys and a lighter that shocks people who try to use it, he pulls out the only thing that looks like an actual business item: a card.

His name, phone number and address appear on the front, but so does a bunch of other stuff: "World Traveler, Lover of the Bizarre, Last of the Big Spenders, Hell Raiser, Eternal Optimist, Safari Planner, Big Game Hunter and International Lover" are just some of his claimed specialties and titles. And he’s completely serious.

"I’m proud of being a lot of things," he says. "I’ve worked really hard."

Looking inside

Most geniuses are strange characters. The greats, such as Albert Einstein, Frank Zappa, Pablo Picasso and comedian Andy Kaufman, emerged doing their own thing, leaving the rest of society sometimes gasping for air. Their unconscious seems to work on a whole other level.

"I don’t know why I do what I do," Yagoda says after sitting silent for a moment. "I just do what I want. I buy what I like. I just act."

For the most part, Yagoda’s business cards don’t lie — he’s accomplished more in the realm of the wacky than most have done in the world of the average Joe. In the 1960s, he clung to his hobby of hunting — but in the jungles of Africa.

"I’ve been almost everywhere in the world and have been in Africa a few times hunting," he says. "Shot 32 animals in the jungle."

In 1961, he graduated from U of M with a pharmacology degree so that he could take over the family pharmacy in Detroit. He also flew airplanes, practiced magic and, most importantly, started collecting certain machines by chance.

"I went to this canoe rental in Ann Arbor and they had a bunch of old nickelodeons in the basement," he said. "I remember thinking, ‘Damn, I’m gonna get one of these!’"

Not only did he buy one while in college (paying only $500 for it), but he later became obsessed and began stockpiling nickelodeons in whatever basement, garage and closet space he could scrounge up.

"My mother thought I was crazy," he said. "Everyone did, because who buys old machines and just stores them? After that, I learned I can shove 10 pounds of crap into a five-pound bag."

A psychiatrist might question what kind of childhood he had or whether he had a childhood at all, but Yagoda swears it was "… completely normal. I’m sure it was just like anyone else’s," he says. "I played with trains a lot and later on got interested in girls. That’s one thing I’ve never learned how to master."

In 2000, Yagoda and his wife parted ways after 29 years of marriage. Yagoda won’t admit to his work and love for the museum as the reason for the split, but says that’s "something she might answer." (She was unavailable for comment.)

Now the only women he has to deal with are the ones his friends take him to visit at local strip clubs.

"Everyone appreciates beauty," he says. "Everyone likes to see beauty, whether it’s in an object or in the eyes of a human."

Women are clearly Yagoda’s Kryptonite.

"I’m no Rudolf Valentino," he admits. "I can’t seem to figure them out, but I don’t mind trying."

At Cheetah’s on Eight Mile Road, Yagoda is surprisingly different. Although he hasn’t changed out of the colorful outfit and springed shoes, he is shockingly quiet and at times very shy.

A stripper named Roseline sits down next to him, trying to win him over. Nearly frozen, like a deer in headlights, he still manages to buy her a drink and they talk, not about fantasy or pleasure, but about an older Dearborn company, her future ambitions and about magic. He tries to be comical in a somewhat awkward situation.

"She’s trying to wake up that sleeping giant," he cracks.

Walking through it

If Yagoda could put his brain on display in his museum, you’d probably find it between the smoke-blowing buffalo and the flying model airplane collection. The only question is: Would it get any attention?

The Marvelous collections of oddities are impossible to comprehend without viewing them. On a first visit, our bodies spend most of the time overcoming shock — and by the sixth, most people finally move from the pinball corner and are just noticing the crane games. True gems are hiding in the rough; a hunt for what’s claimed to be a retired electric chair that assisted in electrocuting over 30 people, the giant swinging Humpty Dumpty or what may be P.T. Barnum’s Cardiff Giant can turn any evening into an entertaining scavenger hunt.

Yagoda even seems to spend more time playing in his own museum than he does working in it. His eyes light up as soon as his fumbling fingers retract a coin from his deep pocket and dunk it into a metal slot.

Even though the museum also houses dozens of new pinball machines, virtual fighter games and proactive machines, his favorites are the ones without the flashy graphics and loud sound systems.

"People don’t play these older ones too much, but I don’t care," he says, still managing to stare at his quarter at work. "A man built this with his bare hands and you can see it. It’s really a lost art and I’m holding onto it."

Half fascinated with the outer beauty and half by the components that make his collection tick, Yagoda says it’s impossible to pick a favorite out of the bunch.

"They are all like my kids," he says. "You love them all because you can’t have a favorite child."

Some of his most frequently played novelties include a 1910 "Merlin the Magician" (only two others are known to exist) and a number of fortunetellers that look like they just escaped the Big movie storage room.

Celebrities from the Detroit sporting world, such as Darren McCarty and Grant Hill, have even been spotted quarter-popping on occasion. Eminem rented the museum for his private 30th birthday celebration that made national news.

"You can tell that this was done with a passion — people see it," Yagoda says gazing at his hand-decorated walls. "I’m not done with it yet either."

Although there’s virtually no room left for another photo booth or one more singing puppet, it doesn’t discourage Yagoda from seeking out new pieces — he’ll just stuff them somewhere else.

"Look at this!" he says of a wooden cutout of painted feet. "I bought this in New York for no good reason!"

Both of his offices are turning into mini museums and his home is already doomed.

"Look at all this stuff," he says standing in a small patch of open carpet at home. Furniture, rare in the large three-bedroom condo, seems only to exist to hold the collectables and toys. What looks to be a coffee table in the middle of the living room is actually a coffin table.

"That’s a real human skeleton in there," he says, as if it’s just another Mickey Mouse tribute or a hand-carved train. "Isn’t that something?"

Yagoda’s not a creepy old man — he’s just a curious collector. But his son, Jeremy, who helps his father maintain and run the museum, thinks otherwise.

"He’s crazy, indubitably," Jeremy says with a serious face, looking straight at his father. "His insanity has created this."

"Crazy? Indubitably?" Marvin mumbles. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"All I have to say is you better live forever because I don’t want to clean up your shit," answers his son. Jeremy has "no comment" on what it was like to grow up with Marvin as a father. One might only speculate.

Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum is at 31005 Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills. Admission is free. For more information, visit or call 248-626-5020. Elysia Smith is an editorial intern with Metro Times. E-mail her at