Marvin Yagoda was a dreamer with an outsized sense of fun.
Marvin, who died of a heart attack Jan. 8, 2017, at age 78, will be remembered by generations of Detroiters as the founder of Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum, a Farmington Hills emporium of antique coin-operated toys, carnival games, pinball machines, video games and more.
“He didn’t just dream about things; he went out and did them,” said his son, Jeremy Yagoda.
Marvin was born in Detroit to Sam and Fanny Yagoda. A member of one of the first graduating classes from Detroit’s Mumford High School, he went on to the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy, graduating in 1961.
He was a member of Tau Delta Phil fraternity and was in the ROTC. After college, he served in the U.S. Army Reserves, where he trained as a medic. He learned to fly in the early 1960s and flew his own Piper Cherokee four-seat plane, often performing aerial tricks.
For many years, he ran Sam’s Drugs, a business started in 1931 by his late father, on Fenkell in Detroit. He would fill prescriptions for all who needed them, whether they had the money to pay or not. The family sold the store just two years ago.
“The store wasn’t making any money, but my father wouldn’t close it,” Jeremy said. “He said the people in that community supported him for many years and now he wanted to continue to support them.”
From childhood, Marvin loved carnivals and circuses. His fascination with antique mechanical toys started when he was at U-M in the late 1950s and saw an old nickelodeon — an early musical jukebox that played several instruments off rolls (like those for player pianos).
He started buying nickolodeons and other “working models,” many of which he found during trips to England, where they were popular at seaside amusement arcades.
Marvin started sharing his love of mechanical attractions with the public in 1979, when he rented a few square feet of space in Tally Hall, a large food court and mini-mall at 14 Mile and Orchard Lake, and installed a coin-operated mechanical chicken that dispensed plastic eggs containing prizes.
He added more mechanical toys and soon had his own space within Tally Hall. When Tally Hall morphed into the Hunter’s Square shopping plaza in 1989, Marvin opened Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum. The 5,500-square-foot space is packed with 600 beeping, buzzing, clattering machines, both old and new; 6,000 signs and posters; kiddie rides, games and photo booths. It takes more than 1,200 electrical outlets and five huge transformers to keep them operating.
Some of the machines were custom-made. “He’d have ideas for a crazy machine, and he’d find somebody to build it,” said his son.
A prize purchase was the “Cardiff Giant,” a supposedly petrified man dug up in upstate New York. The statue had been commissioned by Marvin’s idol, P.T. Barnum.
Wearing his trademark stars-and-stripes suspenders and often a safety pin with a dime attached (his “dime-on-pin”), Marvin loved to show off his machines to museum visitors. “He wouldn’t even wait for them to put a quarter in. He’d put the coin in himself so they could see it work,” Jeremy said.
The museum was a popular spot for children’s birthday parties and bar/bat mitzvah celebrations. Sometimes two or three parties ran simultaneously.
The museum was also popular with special needs children, who often found other arcades overwhelming. They recognized that Marvin would be patient and accommodating, Jeremy said.
Marvelous Marvin’s Mechanical Museum is included in the World Almanac’s list of the 100 most unusual museums.
Travel, Magic, Generosity
Marvin was interested in more than mechanical toys. He loved to travel. He also loved to hunt. His many wild game trophies include a Bengal tiger he bagged in India in 1968 and an African lion that was only inches away when he shot it. The lion gashed his leg, leaving a scar that lasted for years.
He made many trips to Israel, including one with the Jewish Federation’s Miracle Mission. He often told friends that trip made him feel a deep connection to the Jewish homeland.
He was also an amateur magician who took up the hobby as a teenager. On some of his trips to Israel, he entertained Israeli soldiers with magic tricks. At his funeral, a few magicians performed the Broken Wand ceremony by breaking a wand in half, signifying the end of Marvin’s Earthly magical performances.
In the late 1980s, Marvin and two friends, Mike Kratchman and the late Dr. Howard Weissman, tried to set up a ferry service across the Detroit River from Detroit to Windsor. The effort never got off the ground.
A member of Congregation Beth Achim and then Adat Shalom Synagogue, Marvin was very generous. “He gave to every charity in the world,” said his son.
He recently received a certificate from the Jewish National Fund as a 50-year continuous donor. He also received a lifetime achievement award from the NAACP in recognition of his services to the Detroit black community near Sam’s Drugs.
“He touched so many people on so many levels,” Jeremy said.
Some of those people left accolades on the museum’s Facebook page, including this one: “He was one of a kind; he was a character, but also he had character,” wrote Howard Glantz of Jenkintown, Pa., who was the cantor at Adat Shalom from 1991 to 2004.
Jeremy Yagoda said he started working with his father at the museum when he was 7 years old. He spent several years out of state but returned in the early 2000s to help his father with the business. He and his brother-in-law, Andrew Rosenfeld, plan to keep the museum going.
“Marvelous Marvin’s is not going anywhere,” Jeremy said. “Barnum and Bailey Circus didn’t close when PT Barnum died; Disneyland didn’t close when Walt Disney died, and Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum is not going anywhere!”
In addition to his son and daughter-in-law, Dr. Sherri Rosenfeld of West Bloomfield, Marvin Yagoda is survived by sister and brother-in-law, Dorothy and Martin Silverman of Huntington Beach, Calif.; brother, Bernard Yagoda of Las Vegas, Nev.; grandchild, Jonathan Yagoda; many loving nieces, nephews, other family members and friends.
Marvin Yagoda was the former husband of the late Jean Yagoda.
Interment was held at Hebrew Memorial Park Cemetery in Clinton Township. Contributions can be made to a charity of one’s choice. Arrangements by Dorfman Chapel.