The Mecca of Pinball might not be where you'd expect, but take one look at its surroundings, and the location makes perfect sense.
The island city of Alameda cuts a far different figure from its Bay Area neighbors. While it lacks the metropolitan flair of San Francisco, the underdog charms of Oakland, and the aging hippie accoutrements of Berkeley, Alameda has one distinct feature more popular Northern California destinations have yet to offer: time travel. Stroll down the city's sidewalks for just a few minutes, and you'll be transported to the postwar version of The American Dream: manicured lawns, picket fences, and quaint businesses "open by chance or appointment." Amid the sheer Mayberryness of Alameda, you'll find the Pacific Pinball Museum—though its founder doesn't like being grouped in with all the surrounding squares.
From Hobby to Mission Statement
The Pacific Pinball Museum isn't like any arcade you've ever seen—or museum, for that matter. Just a few steps past the doorway, beyond the small grouping of newer tables, you'll find two rows of machines removed from our modern notion of pinball. Sure, as the tables stretch towards the end of the room, they start taking on the features of contemporary games, but the first ones you'll see paint a more innocent picture of pinball. The scores rarely reach much higher than the hundreds, the backglass artwork typically features manicured white people having a good ol' time, and most machines are branded with warnings about the legal dangers of gambling. But beyond these antiquated trappings, you'll find the essential draw of pinball: the spectacle of watching a silver ball ricochet through a colorful playfield.
The Pacific Pinball Museum's director, Michael Schiess, didn't plan on being a pinball entrepreneur, but certain forces guided him towards this path. "My side thing has always been doing music—doing electronic music. I have all analog and some digital equipment. At a certain point, when I was ready to go full-blown into music, that's exactly the point when it all went, 'Basically, music is free,'" says Michael.
Michael's interest in pinball didn't come late in life. He picked up his first machine at the age of 13 after trading a salvaged electric sign and ten dollars to a friend whose mom owned a bar. This fascination clung to him throughout his adult life, and reached a boiling point during Michael's time at San Francisco's Exploratorium, where he built interactive exhibits with his brother. His lack of workplace freedom combined with the absence of pinball in the Bay Area led Michael to an important discovery: He wanted to leave the Exploratorium to make interactive, kinetic art—so what better medium could there be than the game of pinball? But Michael's inability to tamper with these old machines would serve as the catalyst of the Pacific Pinball Museum's creation.
Michael explains his reservations. "I ended up with these 36 machines, and I had to do some demolition work for a friend who had a warehouse just to get storage space for them. So I did all this demo work, stored the machines in there, and took one or two machines and I was going to start retheming them, basically. I think I started with a Jumping Jack machine, and I was going to make a pinball called 'Maginot Line' that was all about Germans invading France during World War II—how they basically went around the Maginot Line. So I looked for a machine that specifically had a row of targets that were going to be the French soldiers, and it had a way to go around them.
"I hope to eventually still make this machine, but what happened was I just couldn't do it. It was kind of like something in me just was preventing me from destroying the original art—it was kinda like chopping a Duesenberg. And so I tried whiskey and drugs and all sorts of stuff to ply my mind with ways to do it, and it just didn't happen."
Preserving a Misunderstood Art
When Michael couldn't commit the sacrilege of destroying pinball art, he turned his love of the game into a business of sorts. In 2002, he took his collection of machines and created the Lucky Ju Ju—named after an electric sign he brought back from some freelance work in China—a room full of pinball tables (located in what would eventually become the Pacific Pinball Museum) that skirted Alameda's anti-pinball laws by asking visitors for a suggested donation instead of charging on a per-game basis. But after 18 months, the city started sniffing around Michael's clubhouse of an operation, and began demanding the business fees associated with such an endeavor. Facing resistance from Alameda itself, Michael decided that his love of pinball needed a much loftier goal to survive:
"By that time, I had already convinced myself the only way to make something like this work was to be a nonprofit. I already knew what I wanted to do with it—I was very interested in the artwork that was on these pinball machines. I thought it was beautiful artwork. I kind of wondered, 'Why the heck hasn't anybody else done anything with this? People don't appreciate this artwork as much as I do.' So [the artwork on the machines] was a major motivator. I wanted people to see it, and then I kind of got this idea that it needed to be elevated to the status of fine art. So that became a driving force."
"I realized that we have to do education. We have to get people in here, and a lot of them aren't going to want to play pinball. So I really thought it was important to have a self-sufficient, self-sustaining museum."
Today, the Pacific Pinball Museum exists as a 501(c) nonprofit organization, with a mission statement that claims its goal is to "Teach science, art and history through pinball, and to preserve and promote this important part of American culture." Northern California had prior celebrations of pinball, like California Extreme and Pin-A-Go-Go, but their lack of attention to aesthetics informed the creation of the Pacific Pinball Museum. Michael explains: "Our whole thing was, 'People keep putting these pinball games and these pinball shows in strip malls and hotels.' Just really ugly venues. We said, 'There's a few things wrong. They're not showing all of pinball—if you're going to have a pinball show, shouldn't you show all of pinball?' We thought that was important. We also thought, 'Where are the amenities? Where's the beauty? Why not put in in a nice place?'"
Though the Pacific Pinball Museum is currently housed in a location that does a poor job of communicating the magic inside, its interiors are splashed with oversized recreations of authentic pinball art, driving home Michael's emphasis on the sheer beauty contained within these machines. And this love of the iconography of "low culture" also speaks to another purely American art form that, until recent history, has struggled to achieve artistic relevancy: comics. During a trip to a Milwaukee comic art exhibit in his contracting days, Michael took in the first exhibit on comic art he'd ever seen, and the reverence paid to these formerly misunderstood works led him to believe this whole "pinball appreciation" thing could happen. But this approach wasn't without its detractors.
"I went and gobbled up everything in that exhibit and came away with this thought, 'Gee, this this fantastic. Something I've always wanted to happen has happened. They're actually praising comic books as a fine art.' Blue-nose art critics just bug the hell out of me because they just seem to get it wrong just about every time," says Michael. "So I felt vindicated. Then I thought, 'That's what's got to happen with pinball.'"
"And I started out doing that, and I gotta admit: I was a little naive. Because the people that were involved in pinball before I came around, well, they didn't like that, and I don't blame them. Basically I'm taking something that was a hobby for them, and I'm putting it on a pedestal. And they're going, 'Why are you fucking up our thing? We just want to play these things.' And I'm going, 'Well, yeah, you can play them—but they're art!' And they're going, 'Fuck you. You're driving the price of the machines up.' I mean, nobody's ever said this to me, but I can sense the hostility."
For the Love of the Game
Talk to Michael for just a few minutes about pinball, and you'll realize there's an unexpectedly complex history to a game that's had the same basic form since Gottlieb's Humpty Dumpty introduced the flipper in 1947. That's a bit reductive, of course; advances in technology and changes to the industry have gradually given pinball a high-tech sheen, even if the differences between a table from now and 1974 aren't as pronounced as those two video games spread that far apart in history—like Pong and BioShock Infinite. If you play a new pinball table—and there are new pinball tables—the animated LCD screen on the backglass and those high quality voice samples might not have been technologically feasible 40 years ago, but your experience won't be too different from the guy in Jimmy Carter's America, slipping quarters into a Evel Knievel table while "Love Gun" plays gently in the background.
Like anyone with a deep interest in an art form that's persisted for so long, Michael has some strong opinions about his favorite era of pinball. He identifies the electro-mechanical era—lasting roughly from 1964 to 1967—as the best years of the game, since these tables produced a different effect on players than the ones created later. He explains:
"Modern games make you do things—hit that target, hit this one—and then do it again… You're basically doing all these things that are not that hard to do. Whereas the earlier machines, they didn't have those things that you had to do over and over again, they just had a few things that were really hard to do. And it took finesse instead of split-second reactions and pattern recognition. The physicality of it was the game part. It wasn't the structure, the program that it ran you through. It was the physical difficulties of getting the ball to do those things. It's what made it really interesting and hard."
Even though he clearly prefers an older form of pinball, Michael is always quick to point out "I've never met a machine I didn't like." In fact, his idealized future for pinball includes a mix of both old and new elements from the game's history. "I think what I would like to see is a combination of both [styles of pinball]," says Michael. "I think you can use the technology to do incredible things with that ball, but I think they ought to go back to the old format of making it [emphasize] finesse. I think the kneejerk, hyper, four-cappuccinos pinball experience, to me, it's just not my thing, man. I want to use it to relax."
"It's always been a tool for escapism—at its very core, that's what pinball is all about. You put the nickel in, and in the old days you'd try to win a prize. In the new days, you try to win a game. Basically, you're trying to escape. You've been working all day, and you just want to escape into this box that is amusing you. I think the modern ones, they still do that, but I feel real jittery after I play one. And so I'd rather come away from one going, ' Wow, I got a nice workout! And I got lost in that machine.' When it happens, the whole world melts away."
While pinball sat alongside other arcade greats during the rise and fall of this American institution, Michael prefers his escapism to have a little more presence in the physical world. When asked about his relationship to video games, he explains how it started strong, but quickly fizzled out when these machines didn't offer the same allure of pinball.
"When video games came out, I was fascinated by Pong—I thought Pong was amazing. Tempest and Battlzone and any vector-based video game fascinated the hell out of me. All the other ones, it just looked like a complete rip-off. I was totally bored by anything they threw at me that was raster-generated. The graphics were stupid, the point was stupid. I didn't see what you were winning, if anything. It just seemed like the whole thing was rigged, and I was really wary of it.
Whereas, I knew that if I put a quarter in a pinball machine—yeah, it might not last too long, but it was real. I wasn't being manipulated by somebody's program. It was me against gravity and this machine, and my understanding of physics. So it was much more satisfying to play a pinball machine and win because if you won at a video game, it just didn't mean much. It was like 'Did I really do that, or did it let me win?'"
The Future of Pinball
Pinball might have slowed down significantly since its peak years—pinball giant Stern typically produces one or two tables per year—but its mass market decline has led to the game being embraced by an entirely new demographic: artists. While Michael got into pinball with artistic intentions, the effort it takes to run The Pacific Pinball Museum hasn't waylaid his original goals; he still creates interactive, kinetic art, just not from the bodies of existing machines. But artists with stronger stomachs have managed to transform old tables into new, one-of-a-kind creations—like William T. Wiley's "Punball," which also serves as a parable about global warming—that apply new art and themes to extant layouts. And it's this movement that has Michael excited about the future of pinball, as he explains:
"I think it's amazing. I always considered [pinball] an art form, and now it's becoming an art form. There's artists making pinball machines—the whole maker movement has kind of fed into this whole thing where people are able to [design] their own machines. I mean, I got into this because I wanted to make my own pinball machines... What I'm reading about, there's a new manufacturer coming online who's just designing their own stuff. When I first got into it, I thought 'Man, there's gotta be a million things you could do with a ball that they haven't tried.' Because it was probably too expensive—[pinball makers] were always guided by the almighty dollar. But as an art piece, think about what you can do to that ball. And the whole thing, to me, is the ball: Watching the ball go around, or playing with the ball—just the kinetic motion of it, and what it does, is so appealing."
The revival of pinball isn't limited to the confines of the art world. Mass-market pinball has also seen a recent resurgence, something Michael isn't shy about taking credit for.
"I might get slapped for this—but I'm going to take full credit for our museum stimulating [interest in] pinball to the point that it's coming back. I mean, we just were relentless. We did shows... and people would come from all over the world to see these pinball machines, because no one was setting up the amount and selection of pinball machines that we had. So, it's inspired this resurgence of pinball. And on the commercial end, they've actually come up to me and told me this—the manufacturers.
Gary Stern [of Stern Pinball] actually pulled me aside at a show and said, "You guys have done a lot for pinball." And he ought to know. And Jersey Jack, same thing. He said, "It's working—what you guys have done." And that wasn't our intent, necessarily, but we're certainly happy that it's continuing. Our main concern is preservation of the things that we're losing—how many per day, I don't know. That's history, it's American culture, and I hate to see that stuff just get tossed by the wayside. We tend to do that. That's one thing I hate about America's disposable culture. And I swore I would not let that happen with pinball."
Spend an afternoon with Michael Schiess, and it's clear the future of pinball is in capable hands. I had no idea about the sheer scope of his operation until he offered to give me a quick ride to his warehouse, a cavernous building in Alameda that houses hundreds of machines from throughout history in various states of repair. With its status as the only pinball-specific museum in America, Michael's institution is tasked with preserving the history of a game that's quickly approaching its 100th year in the form we're most familiar with. But, because of his efforts, Michael's been able to bring pinball to a generation that could have missed it entirely—even if this fact baffles him at times.
"It's introducing [kids] to something they never had a chance to see," says Michael. "A kid came in the other day and goes, 'I'm really excited to play pinball—my mom brought me here. My mom didn't know what a pinball machine was—can you believe it?' And I'm thinking 'Kid, I can't believe you know what a pinball machine is!'"
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