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 September-October 2011

September-October 2011

 

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Primed for Pinball

Michael Schiess Stokes an Eccentric Treasure on the West End

Mitch Tobias

     Artistic aspirations, his trademark ingenuity and a lucky arrow launched Michael Schiess’ love affair with pinball. Schiess is founder and CEO of the Pacific Pinball Museum, an eccentric, eclectic emporium of pinball preservation, magic and merrymaking that is formally committed to teaching science, art and history through pinball. On any Friday and Saturday night, you will find the arcade-museum at its Webster Street location in Alameda abuzz with old folk, 4- or 5-year-olds perched on portable stools, families, footloose guys and fancy-free girls, party animals (a group of teens and 20-somethings arrived for a pajama party on one Friday), and couples romancing or being romanced by a date with more imagination than the run-of-the-mill, pizza-beer-and-a-movie Joe.
     There are the sophisticates, the cool dudes and the in-crowd, drawn by the retro-hip vibe of the place. Conversation, laughter and music from three jukeboxes — each representing the era of the machines in a particular room — rise and fall in an embracing off-key harmony with the flashing lights, the bells, whistles, ka-chings, and in some cases, strange talking sounds coming from the newer machines.
     Schiess was 14 when he first got hooked on what, for many years before the invention and proliferation of video games, was America’s favorite (albeit for a time controversial, and for a while, banned) diversion. His romance with pinball, which for a period generated more money than the motion picture industry, started in New Mexico. “I was salvaging junk from this old car wash that had gone out of business,” he recalls.
     At that young age artistic aspirations had him recycling old junk, which he would re-create in novel ways, demonstrating early evidence of the ingenuity that would one day see him become an expert in the mechanics and artistic restoration of pinball machines. This same ingenuity was his trademark talent during the years he worked for the San Francisco Exploratorium building bulletproof exhibitions — “The public is pretty abusive of these things,” he explains — many of which were sold or rented to other museums.
     “I’m sort of a jack of all trades,” he says, adding that he’s particularly good at electromechanical devices “and a lot of their machines require that ... So I could design and build and go out on the road and install and do maintenance and upgrades. And I’m a friendly person and I travel well. So I’ve been all over the world for the Exploratorium. France a few times, China, Japan, London, quite a few museums in United States ... ” These days Schiess juggles his time between the Pacific Pinball Museum, as the quirky establishment he began grows in size and stature, and freelancing for the Exploratorium, installing and de-installing science exhibits.
     Meanwhile, back to those beginnings in New Mexico: “In the old car wash, I saw this big arrow made out of metal with about 50 light bulbs on each side,” he says.
     There was no cord or plug, but he took the arrow home, found an old lamp, transferred the relevant bit, and got it working. At which point, one of his friends saw the arrow.
     “His mom owned a bar. He wanted it for her. He said ‘If you give me that sign and 10 bucks, I’ll give you a pinball machine.’ ”
     Schiess said yes right away and that was it. He played. He loved playing. He was hooked.
     A couple of years and many games later, his parents divorced and he moved with his mom to the Bay Area. The pinball machine stayed behind. When he decided to go to electronics school in Albuquerque and returned to live with his father, he searched the old family house for his pinball machine, but his dad had disposed of it.
     In true rebound fashion, he went in search of a substitute — and bought his second pinball machine. He had no clue how many more there would be in his future.

     Schiess lives in Alameda with his wife, Cal Berkeley literature grad and artist Melissa Harmon. She never played pinball as a kid, was introduced by Schiess, started off liking the artwork and then fell in love with the older machines. Harmon is curator of the PPM’s two small art galleries.
     On my first visit to the nonprofit museum, it was Harmon who showed me around. Early in the afternoon before the doors opened to the public, she gave me a potted history of the place with its 90 machines of different vintages, ranging from a pre-pinball 1879 Parlor Bagatelle machine through to cutting-edge digital 2011 models that make up in bells, whistles and vocals for what they lack in charm and artistry. All are set on free play, which means you pay at the door ($15 adults; $7.50 children under 12) and play any machine and all three jukeboxes for free.
     An overflow collection of about 800 machines and counting — in various stages of repair — are crammed into an 8,000-square-foot warehouse-cum-workshop at the decommissioned Alameda Naval Air Station.
     Schiess discovered Alameda after stints in Crockett and Oakland. It was in 1985 that he chanced upon the Island City and decided it was “the perfect place to be in the Bay Area. It has the best climate. It has incredibly friendly people — and a lot of interesting people. It’s a little quirky. And everybody seems to kind of respect each other in Alameda. I really like that.”
     His first step was to buy a fixer-upper. He planned to rent out a section for income so that he might get back to the art he’d been neglecting.
     The renovation took him a year. Then he was ready to make decisions on the sort of art he wanted to make. He narrowed it to “interactive and kinetic and with an element of sculpture” — along the lines of the work he’d done at the Exploratorium. Pinball machines, he concluded, had all these qualities. He would buy up old pinball machines, re-theme them, repaint them and make them his own.
     He bought a few here and there and then, on Craigslist, saw a listing for a woman in Benicia who was selling doubles of about 40 machines. “This meant I could fix up one and modify the other and not feel bad about destroying someone else’s art,” he says.
     He bought them all for “about $275” each and traded a stint of demolition labor for a few months storage “while I figured out what to do with them.”
     He ultimately concluded that his plan to create new art to make the machines his own would not work. “It would have been like making f
a hotrod from a Jaguar. You don’t want to mess with a classic machine. They are too precious. I saw that what I needed to do was restore them to their original glory.”
     When he’d restored about 20, he rented a small off-street shop near Webster Street to put them in. Inspired by a Berkeley acquaintance who also collected pinball machines and who hosted pinball evenings for friends on Friday nights, Schiess decided to leak the word that for a donation of $5, anyone could come, bring beer, party and play pinball for free on any Saturday night at his place in Alameda. “I was wanting to expand beyond friends so as to re-create a time gone by when people socialized around pinball,” says Schiess. He kicked off on New Year’s Eve 2002 with a huge party. And on subsequent Saturdays, people turned out in force.
     It was some time later, while on a trip to Washing​ton, D.C., for the Exploratorium, that Schiess went to the Smithsonian to check out its pinball exhibit. “I understood pinball was a big part of American culture,” so he was sure he’d find a significant collection.
     After three hours of searching, he had found a single Pacman video machine and “while they had the Wizard of Oz ruby red slippers, there were no pinball machines. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ And then I thought, ‘That’s it. If they’re not doing it, I’m going to do it.’ ”
     Open a serious museum, that is, celebrating the art, science and history of pinball.
     Schiess’ first step was to open Lucky Ju Ju, an arcade essentially, in Alameda eight years ago in a single room at 713 Santa Clara Ave. When an adjacent tenant moved out, he expanded into a second room. These two rooms represent what Schiess describes as “souped-up versions of the pinball arcades of the ’70s” complete with murals, many by Alameda muralist Ed Cassel, and a huge lava lamp collection that belongs to Jem Gruber, the Pacific Pinball Museum’s cool, friendly and knowledgeable front-desk guy.
     Lucky Ju Ju has been renamed the Electronic Room. The second vacancy they filled is known as the New Electromechanical Room. A third store space to vacate — formerly a hairdresser — became the EM Game Room, with games related to pinball. The fourth is the formal museum, which opened in 2010 when Alameda’s old Record Gallery moved across the street to 1451 Webster Street. The four rooms, with the two small art galleries, constitute the Pacific Pinball Museum.

     Almost half the machines in the formal museum have placards that both lovingly describe them and indicate they belong to Larry Zartarian, who lives in Berkeley, and is chairman of the PPM board and an investment advisor when he is not buying, restoring or playing pinball. When I comment on his swashbuckling name, he tells  me zartar translates as jewel in Armenian while ian means son of. Swashbuckling indeed!
     Pinball defines Zartarian, who collects machines made by David Gottlieb, a businessman who in the 1930s saw their potential, started to mass-manufacture pinball machines and was the biggest name in pinball for years. The artwork on his machines tells stories representative of the news and culture of the day.
     There are also many in his huge collection that feature versions of vibrantly colorful Playboy-type cartoon-style screen-printed pop-art images of sexy women and adoring guys. “In those days lots of boys and men played, and it was a safe way to ogle girls,” says Zartarian, who adds that the women are usually beautiful and the
men goofy.
     Zartarian’s are mostly early ’50s and ’60s Gottlieb machines. Classics. Works of art. And his passion is tangible. Same as Schiess’ in that it extends way back. He grew up in Fresno and started playing at the Coconut Grove on the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. “From age 5 to 12, my mother took me, my brother and our dog to Santa Cruz every summer,” he says.
     “My brother and I would play from opening time until lunchtime. We’d go for a swim, play again until dark — and the next day, do it all
over again. I remember it as the most fun time of my life.”
     He didn’t start acquiring machines until he was in his early 30s, in the early 1990s. The Internet made it easy to find them, he says.
     He gave his collection to the museum except for 10 he keeps at his North Berkeley home. “There is no better way to relax at the end of a stressful day than to play pinball,” he says.
     His passion for both pinball and the museum is tangible. “Most museums, you walk in, you look, you don’t touch,” he says. “Even with a car museum, the cars will be behind ropes. But this is interactive. It’s designed to be enjoyed. All the machines are there to be played. We want people to experience them. To have fun with them. And we want the machines stored in the warehouse on display and accessible. And pinball machines like to be played. They don’t do well when abandoned.
     “And this is not just about nostalgia,” he adds. “We want to preserve and promote pinball. The 1940s through the 1960s was the Golden Age. There were 15 to 18 manufacturers coming up with new models all the time with different artwork and design. The pinball industry was making more money than the motion picture industry. They were ubiquitous. Every drugstore and laundromat had pinball machines. They were just about everywhere and designed so if you had nickel in pocket, you could play for a few minutes.”
     Zartarian and Schiess know they won’t see those days return. But they do want to share their romance with pinball.
     Schiess knows that ultimately the PPM needs to grow exponentially to optimally house the current collection and meet the aspirations of Schiess and his fellow pinball wizards. The huge collection now occupies less-than-ideal warehouse space.
     Ideally, he says, 30,000 square feet of warehouse space is needed and 10,000 to 20,000 square feet of museum space. “Looking long-term, we know we need to expand to offer educational programs, grow our organization, collection and display area. We may even open satellite museums in other cities.”
     He thinks an ideal location to meet the museum’s current and future needs would be the old Naval Air Station recreational center. “We have been offered space in Oakland, Berkeley and even Monterey, but we want to stay in Alameda.” To this end, he has formally proposed to the city that the museum and warehouse be given an option to move to the rec center. “We believe that in conjunction with its proximity to the U.S.S. Hornet Museum, we would be a draw that could bring more visitors and business to the area. If we got that building, we would fund-raise and work cooperatively with the city on its restoration.”
     The longer-term goal is to establish a new kind of museum that combines art, science and history with the fun and interactivity of pinball machines, Schiess says.
     Meanwhile, he sees the museum staying on Webster Street for at least two years or more. “I would not close that location until we have another, much improved place ready to go,”
he says.
     And it looks like the city, as bereft of finances as it is, may be game to keep those magnificent old machines pinned in the Island City. “We believe the Pacific Pinball Museum is a great community asset that attracts visitors from inside and outside the city,” says Deputy City Manager Jennifer Ott. “We want to work with them to keep them here in Alameda.”


Pacific Pinball

     ExpoThe Pacific Pinball Museum of Alameda will sponsor the fifth annual Pacific Pinball Exposition at the Marin County Civic Center Exhibition Hall in San Rafael Sept. 23–25. Look forward to a variety of pinball and other games spanning the past 80 years from the museum’s collection as well as historic displays, unique artwork and science exhibits from other pinball collectors and enthusiasts. All machines will be set to free play. For prices and times visit www.pacificpinball.org


Love pinball? You can play your heart out at the Pacific Pinball Museum, 1510 Webster St., in Alameda. The pinball parlor is open 2 p.m.–9 p.m. Tue.–Thu.; 2 p.m.–midnight Fri.; 11 a.m.–midnight Sat.; and 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Sun. It’s affordable, too: $15 for adults; $7.50 children under 12. www.pacificpinball.org



 

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