Arts Listings

The Culture and Science of Pinball

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday October 01, 2009 - 09:49:00 AM

Pinball machines are really a kind of kinetic sculpture,” said Lawrence Zartarian of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, as he and museum founder Michael Scheiss, both Berkeley residents, gave a tour of the museum on Santa Clara Avenue, where visitors can pay a set price for free play on the dozens of vintage machines, as well as check out art exhibits and find out about the history and science of pinball. 

Pinball’s history of technological and artistic development will be the special theme of the third annual Pacific Pinball Exhibition, presented by the museum in association with the Pinball Revival Company of Novato, from this Friday through Sunday, at the Marin County Civic Center Exhibition Hall, just north of San Rafael. The exhibition is the biggest pinball show anywhere and features tournaments, speakers, clinics, vendors, raffles and antique and unique games, including one of the museum’s “visible” pinball machines, made of Plexiglass, which shows its electromagnetic workings while being played, and vintage Woodrail games of the ’40s and ’50s from the newly acquired collection of Gordon A. Hasse. Admission gives exposition attendees free play on the hundreds of machines from the museum’s collection, which now number about 650. 

There’s more than a little local history to the museum itself. A game arcade known as Lucky Ju Ju (“Lucky—not bad!—Ju Ju,” Scheiss points out, smiling), once a stroll from the Neptune Beach amusement park that flourished on Crab Cove from 1917 until 1939, which the nonprofit museum has begun to restore and refurbish with vintage jukeboxes, an old movie theater popper and bottles of cola.  

The museum’s being expanded, too, into a long storefront, which was once the Record Gallery, with an entrance on Webster. “It was owned by an old Alameda character named Fud,” Scheiss said. Fud was reputedly something of a hip mentor to the young Jim Morrison, later of the Doors, when his Navy brass father was stationed here. 

Scheiss and Zartarian—both collectors who’ve donated their scores of pinball machines to the museum—spoke with enthusiasm, erudition and wit about the history of the game that inspired cautionary tales from generations of mothers. Remotely descended from an ancient Greek game—“like bocce ball,” said Scheiss, “but played up an incline, arching balls over holes”—pinball’s more direct ancestor was Bagatelle, a game popular with the French aristocracy during the reign of Louis XVI. Played at the Château de Bagatelle, it employed a cue stick to shoot marbles that would be caught by arrays of pins on a board “the size of a grape tray,” according to Zartarian. “Like the nobility taking croquet indoors as billiards, with pockets,” said Scheiss.  

In America, pinball’s true home, Montague Redgrave developed the ball shooter in 1870. Pinball quite literally got legs in the 1890s, joining the coin-op phonograph as an amusement in saloons and pharmacies.  

Pinball was electrified in the ’30s, the Bally Bumper added on, and finally, in 1947, the flipper was invented, giving the player ball control and making pinball a game of skill. 

Going through the museum’s warehouse at Alameda Point is a good way to get into the game: pinball machines are being overhauled and restored constantly there. Scheiss and Zartarian eagerly show some of the unique games—or survivors—including the biggest pinball machine ever, Hercules, which shoots cue balls with cue sticks, quite the opposite of Bagatelle’s marbles.  

Back at the museum, the first licensed game, Tommy, is on display. “The Who gave a boost to pinball with their rock opera,” said Scheiss. But within a decade or so, video games had overtaken the electromagnetic marvels of pinball. 

While vintage machines were being discarded, European collectors were discovering Americana. “The lion’s share of jukeboxes are in Europe,” Scheiss noted. But Pacific Pinball Museum is on a mission to bring pinball back home. “We want to become the Smithsonian of pinball,” said Scheiss. He then launched into a funny tale about visiting the venerable national institute and looking for three hours in the American Heritage wing for pinball, only to be shown a Pac Man game. 

Scheiss went through a local odyssey before becoming a pinball collector. A Berkeley High alum, he met his wife, Melissa Harmon (who has written an essay—“A feminist essay!” Scheiss declares—on the fashions worn by the women represented on pinball backglasses), at the Berkeley Film House, “a film commune in an old frat that was going under—but the food killed it! Half wanted macrobiotics, the others, meat and potatoes.” He organized the first annual Berkeley Film Festival, making films—“eating razor blades in one, instead of slicing a woman’s eye, like Dali and Buñuel in their first film ... in 1972, I won the Mayor’s Film Award with The Cretin. I doubt the mayor ever saw it! He reminisced about pinball at the Silver Ball ‘on Durant, above the the art store—aspiring artists would go upstairs!’” 

Showing the backglasses of French-born pinball artist Christian Marche—“like back to the home of Bagatelle”—whose pointy, angularcaricature figures and bright, contrasting colors made his name in the genre, but who had a wide range of style and a master illustrator’s eye for composition—or talking about “Lil Ju Ju,” the 1947 Spartan Manor Travel Trailer that’s become the museum’s equivalent of a Library Bookmobile, taking pinball games and ajukeboxto schools and events—Scheiss and Zartarian demonstrate that special mix of collectors’ doting care with the zeal of educators—and just pure enthusiasm—required to lift a relic of craft, technology and entertainment out of the recent past—often the time most quickly forgotten—and bring it back to life by showing its true place in popular culture, something obscured by the game’s plebian associations. Watching either of these two directors of the Pacific Pinball Museum play a game, jostling the machine with loving care to avoid a “tilt!"—is to know the venerable sport and its equipment are literally in good hands.  



10 a.m.–10 p.m., Friday, Oct. 2; 10 a.m.–midnight, Saturday, Oct.3; 10 a.m.–8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 4. at the Marin Civic Center Exhibition Hall, San Rafael. $15–$25 a day; $35–$45 for the weekend. 



713 Santa Clara Ave., Alameda. Open Tuesday through Sunday (Friday until midnight). $10 adults; $5 for kids under age 12. 205-9793.