Wizard or Alchemist?
Michael Schiess keeps pinball alive with his Alameda museum.
While pinball may seem like a lost cause, Schiess is quick to point out it brings people together
Photo by Margaretta K. Mitchell
As a kid, Michael Schiess encountered his first pinball machine and thought to himself, “'Wow, we’re an advanced civilization. We’ve made a box that is meant to entertain us.' That just kind of stuck,” says the founder of Alameda’s Pacific Pinball Museum. Later, as Schiess started to maintain exhibits all over the world for San Francisco’s Exploratorium—a gig he still has—his appreciation of the art and history surrounding pinball only increased. When he discovered that the Smithsonian made only a halfhearted attempt to create an exhibit on pinball machines, Schiess opened a museum in a Webster Street storefront in 2002. While it’s cozy, Schiess et al. have grander plans for their comprehensive collection and are fundraising to move into an Alameda landmark, the oozing-with-charm Carnegie library. While pinball may seem like a lost cause, Schiess is quick to point out it brings people together, unlike that supposed smartphone you’re reading this on right now.
Paul Kilduff: Why do we need to preserve pinball?
Michael Schiess: The medium length answer is a 1,000 years from now, when aliens are digging through the rubble on Earth, I hope that they’re going to find this little sanctuary where there’s a perpetual power supply that’s still delivering power to a totally functional pinball machine. That will show these aliens what our greatest achievement was as a society. That’s my pat answer.
PK: Pinball has a rich history, dating back to its origins in France in the 1700s.
MS: Yeah, 1776. It started with the aristocracy not being able to play croquet outside when it was raining. That translated into billiards and bowling. Indoor bowling kind of became pinball, because they didn’t have room for a whole alley. So they folded the alley in half and made it so you had to roll the ball uphill. Then it would do a U-turn over a barrier and knock down pins on this other side that you couldn’t aim directly at. The amazing thing is that it came from the aristocracy and then it boiled down to a working-class game.
PK: Americans changed pinball by introducing the plunger?
MS: They got rid of the cue stick that the French were using. The steel spring had been invented. This is early technology. It was actually, strangely enough, a British expatriate, who invented the plunger, or got the credit for it and patented it. Then it was almost like a new form of gambling that was a little bit ahead of the curve. The authorities hadn’t really figured out that it was gambling. Then by the time they figured it out, it had caught on, and it was the rage. Everybody was playing it. Hollywood was forming, so all these stars whose pictures were with them playing it made it really popular. California was where it really took off. In the Great Depression, it was a ray of hope. That’s why the art is so fascinating—it attracted men to empty their pockets into these things. It was gambling. If you got high scores, you would get money. That also leads to why the mafia loved it, because it was all cash.
PK: Why was pinball illegal?
MS: It was mainly because of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. In the 1930s and ’40s, he was trying to clean up New York, and pinball was a huge part of the mafia’s income.
PK: Was it considered gambling because people would get money for getting a high score?
MS: Yeah. Some of them had a little payout draw that would pop open and give you some money. You didn’t have flippers then, so there was no skill involved.
PK: No flippers?
MS: Oh, no. Anything pre-flipper, before 1947, is considered gambling. You didn’t really have any chance. It’s basically like pulling a handle on a slot machine.
PK: Is it a thriving industry today?
MS: It was dying. When we came into this in 2002, you couldn’t find a pinball machine. The last manufacturer, Stern, was basically on his last legs. He was ready to throw in the towel. We started doing these pinball shows in 2006, glorifying all the art, at the Marin Civic Center. After six of them in 2012, I remember Gary Stern came up to me going, “We’re going to start making pinball machines.” In six years we got the interest back up in pinball.
PK: Where can you play?
MS: You can come here.
PK: Beyond a museum?
MS: Our big inspiration is Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. They don’t have a ton of pinballs, but they have some.
PK: They have new machines?
MS: They do.
PK: Where else?
MS: There’s a Hi-Life Pizza in Oakland. There is Free Gold Watch, which is a T-shirt place in San Francisco where they have more than 40 machines, mostly modern. They’re the ones that led the fight to legalize it in San Francisco.
PK: Is pinball too analog for today’s digital kids?
MS: What kid gets to operate a big machine with buttons like that? When you’re a little kid, you don’t get to do anything. I remember this little girl. She was 4 years old. She could kick butt on a pinball machine. She was great. We used to have little tournaments between her and some adults. My friend used to say the appeal of pinball was from 8 to 80. I always used to think it was mainly middle-aged men. No, it’s everybody. Women like it. The thing I always say is, “You know what’s great about pinball? Anybody can suck at pinball.” One of the world wizards is this autistic man in Seattle. He used to memorize phone books. Now nobody has phone books anymore, so that trick’s no good. They put him in front of a pinball machine, and he could play the heck out of it, because he’d play it a few times and memorize the trajectories, so he knew exactly where that ball was going to go way ahead of when it ended up there. It’s a course in physics is really what it is, playing pinball.
PK: What about the museum relocating to the Carnegie Library?
MS: We are going to restart our Carnegie campaign in the next month if the meetings with the city of Alameda go well. If not, we will concentrate on our program offerings and educational exhibits and classes while we look for funding.
PK: How many times have you been called the pinball wizard?
MS: I hear it all the time. I always tell people I’m more of an alchemist.
Help the Pacific Pinball Museum fundraise on Nov. 11, 12, and 13. at Shoot the Moon, 1680 Viking St., Alameda, For more info, visit PacificPinball.org.
For more Kilduff, visit the “Kilduff File Super Fan Page” on Facebook.
This report was published in the October edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on Oct. 25, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.