Your Wish is Granted

zoltar speaks.jpg (118946 bytes)In the movie Big a teenage boy, played by Tom Hanks, is told he is too short for a carnival ride.   He puts a quarter into an unusual antique arcade fortune teller machine called Zoltar Speaks. He wishes to be made big.  Zoltar dispenses a card that says, “Your wish is granted.”  He becomes spooked after noticing the machine is unplugged.  Never the less he wakes up the next morning transformed into a 30-year-old man.

Coin-operated fortune telling machines were popular at amusement parks and penny arcades in the 1930s and after.  Those were years that dropping coins into game slots seemed like the last thing people would be doing with their money.  But actually, if a person had a spare penny or two, the arcades were a cheap, temporary way to put their real-world problems on the backburner.

The fortune machines were simple: the Mystic Pen, for instance, wrote out a “special” fortune for a player after he inserted a penny.  And Exhibit Supply’s An Answer from Beyond had players ask pertinent questions and then glean answers from a picture of the all-knowing Egyptian mummy Ramasees, located just inside the cabinet.

A few years later, arcades saw the coming of more elaborate fortune telling booths, and in terms of coin-op artistry, these might just have taken the cake.  Inside the beautifully finished wood cabinets, set behind glass and usually seen from the chest up, there were mannequin tellers that weren’t just life-sized, they were also incredibly life-like.  If you were going to pay cold hard cash for something as shady as a randomly distributed fortune, at least someone who looked the part was doing the distributing.

Mystic Seer.jpg (64552 bytes)The tellers were frequently costume-jewelry-and-fancy-robe-wearing women, but sometimes these booths had models of bearded men and animals dipping their toes in the pool of prediction, too. The tellers were shown to nod, breathe, blink, and finger mystic objects like tarot cards and tealeaves. And if a teller had a name like Grandma…well, who wouldn’t believe the little prediction cards that she doled out? Later fortune telling games had zodiac options—a player twisted the knob to his particular sign—for added accuracy (which is, of course, not to say that they weren’t accurate in the first place).

Many of the games built around this time were assembled with parts taken from pre-war arcade games, because in the war years, new parts for non-essential mechanical items couldn’t be obtained. In post-war years, the 50’s and 60’s especially, old-fashioned arcade games came back into vogue and were widely manufactured. There were still mannequins, but they tended not to be as finely detailed as they were in previous years.  Sometimes just the idea of a fortune teller was compelling enough. A shiny metal “Swami” napkin holder, for instance, was eerily used in the “Nick of Time” Twilight Zone episode, dispensing a whole lot more than just napkins to its diner patron, played by a young William Shatner.

1957 genco gypsy grandma.jpg (145332 bytes)One of the most memorable players on the fortune teller block during the 70’s was Bacchus’ Madame Morgana.  Here, a woman’s face was projected onto a blank, head-shaped screen, from whence she started to move and talk, and promptly dispensed a player’s fate. When this disembodied favorite did her thing, it looked as if she was speaking, and looking, directly at you.

The Zoltan booths came out in these same years. Again, the bearded wise man inside the glass may not have had that 1930’s-type mannequin authenticity, but he did offer a telephone handset which the player picked up to hear his fortune. This little innovation merged the two disparate worlds of telecommunication and fortune telling, and—one never knows—may have paved the way for the future of paid fortune tellers, psychic hotlines.

There also is a fortune-telling machine named “Zoltan” that often is confused with Zoltar.  The name "Zoltan" may have come from the Hungarian word for Sultan and the figure was dressed like a sultan.  The first fortune-telling machines probably were made in the 1890s, and the first electric coin-operated machines in about 1910.  Experts say that Zoltan was introduced in 1965 and that only 50 or 60 were made.  After the movie Big came out, some reproductions were made of fiberglass.  A dime went in the slot.  Later models required a quarter.

zoltan1.jpg (99414 bytes)Zoltan Fortune Teller is an electromechanical fortuneteller game from Prophetron using a Cousino endless loop tape cartridge, made in the late 60's through the early 70's.   All the buttons are wired in parallel; so pressing any button just starts the tape system, which has 14 different fortunes, all about one minute in length. The fortune plays and when done, a conductive tape on the tape loops closes a switch, which turns off the tape player.   To play the player deposits a quarter, puts a receiver to their ear and presses one of twelve zodiac sign buttons on the front of the machine.  When one of the zodiac buttons is pushed, the crystal ball lights up brightly and illuminates Zoltan’s face.  Then after a short pause, mystical background music fades in and Zoltan begins speaking your fortune in a low voice with a heavy Hungarian accent.  Zoltan usually begins his fortune telling with, "This is Zoltan speaking" or "Greetings from Zoltan".  The predictions include things about your future, lucky numbers, and favorable colors. 

The most valued fortune telling machine today is the Gypsy.   She actually talks to you from two Edison cylinder machines that're inside the mechanism. There are two coin slots, one for male and one for female. Depending on where you put the coin, that's which Edison cylinder machine, will be turned on at that point.  When you drop a nickel in the slot, her eyes would flash, her teeth would chatter and her voice would come floating from a tube extending out of the eight-foot-tall box.

Collectors realized the machine was one of two or three "verbal" fortune tellers left in the world.  Many were interested in purchasing the Gypsy, including David Copperfield.  He wanted the Gypsy to be the crown jewel in his collection of turn-of the century penny-arcade games. It would occupy a place of pride among the magician's mechanized Yacht Race, Temple of Mystery and various machines that tested a person's strength.

But Montana Heritage commission curators representing the Gypsy's owner, the state of Montana, rejected the idea, saying cashing in on this piece of history would be akin to selling their soul.

The state inherited the Gypsy in 1998 when it paid $6.5 million to buy nearly 250 buildings and their contents in Virginia City and nearby Nevada City from the son of Charles Bovey.  The Montana collector spent years buying up the buildings to preserve the two crumbling ghost towns and he stocked them with his ever-growing collection of antique games, music machines and oddities.

The Gypsy was made sometime around 1906 by the Mills Novelty Co. In restoring her, the curators either replaced or repaired frayed, worn or broken parts with exact replicas. When they couldn't find replicas or period materials, they didn't replace the parts.

Gypsy-arcade.jpg (541783 bytes)In 2008, they installed the Gypsy as the centerpiece of the Gypsy Arcade amid the ancient wooden buildings of Virginia City's main street. Calliope music spills out into the street, beckoning the tens of thousands of visitors to enter and view the stereoscopes, shock tests, tests of strength, fortune telling machines and love letter machines. The Gypsy presides over the menagerie in the rear, ropes keeping visitors at a distance.

Some of the other more known and collectible fortune tellers are listed below.

Madame Zita is a richly attired fortune teller in gypsy style. The Roover Brothers manufactured the electric version around 1905.   There are only a handful of surviving original specimens.  It's among the most desirable electric tellers from the golden age of automated machines.  At the turn of a handle the teller, a gypsy styled figure, reaches for a card and drops it into the chute for the customer.

madame Zita.png (550575 bytes)Princess Doraldina was made by the Doraldina Corp around 1928.  Her youth and beauty attract the arcade customer.  A wax head, real human hair and lifelike movements when granting fortunes make the princess appear to be alive.  Her chest moves as she breathes, and her eyes roll as she delivers a fortune.

William Gent who lived in the Cleveland, Ohio area during the 1930s, made Grandmothers Predictions. The wise old grandmother passes her hands over the fortune telling cards and stops at the proper fortune. The card falls into the tray below.   International Mutoscope later copied the wise Grandma fortune teller for a version they produced which was mechanically identical but the cabinet was different.  Grandmother's head moved left and right and nodded up and down, her hand moved over the cards, her chest moving like she is breathing, and she of course gave out a fortune card.

Geneco Mfg., New York, made Geneco Gypsy Grandma Fortune Teller in the 1940s & 1950s.  The central attraction of the original boardwalk and arcades was the Gypsy Grandma that came to life after a coin was deposited into a slot.  Once a selection was made using a rotary dial that illuminated the player's astrological sign of Estrellas.jpg (125148 bytes) choice, the animated gypsy fortune teller moved her head above a lighted crystal ball while she held a fan of playing cards in her right hand and magic wand in her left hand.  Her right hand picked-up a fortune card from the enclosure that she opened with her left hand.  She brought the card in front of her, turned her head, and then moved the card over the cauldron and dropped it, which delivered the card to the patron.  She breathed during this process too and turned her head left and right and nodded.  Some Genco Gypsy Grandmas had a speaker/microphone mounted to the upper left of the front glass, and some did not.  The Speaker was not functional.  It was just there to fool the patron into thinking they could talk to the Grandma. The front glass specified that you could ask Grandma a yes or no question, and she would give an answer.  The Genco Gyspy Grandma was one of the more sophisticated fortune tellers, much more complex than the 1957 Genco Horoscope Grandma, which came out at about the same time, but delivered a horoscope in addition to a fortune.

Estrella's Prophecies Fortune Teller is a Coin-Op Gypsy-style Fortune Teller Machine.  She is a full size enclosed figure in an elaborate oak cabinet.  Her head moves from side to side, hand moves across the cards, while her left hand raises and then she slowly dispenses a fortune card through the ornate card slot.

Most of these coin-operated fortune-telling machines sell for high prices.  Think of it.  A wish for a coin…it has to be the greatest bargain of all time.

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