Site Report by Jon Olkowski (Jonny O)
Somewhere in Northern California there exists a sort of pinball El Dorado. The location is only known to a handful. Yet, for those who have been, there is an instant awareness that it’s a very unique place, one of a rare few in the world. It’s the warehouse of the Pacific Pinball Museum, and what it holds is nothing short of pinball gold.
The Pacific Pinball Museum has been operating continuously since December 31st, 2002. It started off as the Lucky Ju Ju by Michael Schiess, and was originally just one room with sixteen electro-mechanical pinball games and a jukebox.
The original Ju Ju was for some years an unassuming, struggling, almost speakeasy affair off Webster Street in Alameda, known mostly to hardcore pinheads and the local hip contingent as an offbeat, retro, but most of all, cool Saturday night venue.
Michael Schiess: “It was inspired by Berkeley Mac (above) who ran a Friday night pinball party in his basement that was invitation only. I asked permission from him (it was like going before the Godfather of pinball) to run a public scene on Saturday nights and he gave me his blessing.”
Within a few years, the secret was out. Many additional enthusiasts joined the fracas – historians, artists, techs, volunteers and patrons. The whole thing grew like wildfire. Aging pinball relics were donated in huge numbers, from collections built over a lifetime all the way down to single machines in dusty garages, so that eager hands could put them back to their former glory.
They added a warehouse, but there were just too many games – why keep it to themselves? The Pacific Pinball Exposition was born and was an instant success.
Michael Schiess: “I believe Jim Dietrick came up with the idea of doing an old school pinball show to help promote his business, Pinball Revival."
"Then in 2006, Jim Dietrick, Helmut Jordt and myself talked about doing a pinball show in collaboration with the non-profit museum I started in order to promote both and make it affordable to pull off. When Jim looked into doing it at the Marin Civic Center, things started to take shape. We wanted to do a different show with amenities, class and an emphasis on older pinball."
"This year, we are bringing more Solid State and Dot Matrix games to the mix while maintaining our stable of '50s to '70s EM games and bringing additional pre-flipper games.”
Behind the scenes of one of the biggest pinball shows on Earth, inside one unassuming warehouse, all the nuts and bolts that make the Pacific Pinball Museum and Exposition happen takes place.
Outside the warehouse, vehicles show the tell-tale signs of pinball fanatics. This one bears a familiar license plate from Portland.
Stacks of pinball legs filling the loading bay will eventually find their way to games
Games acquired by the Museum show up in every conceivable condition. Some just need the legs put back on while others are clearly major projects.
One by one, each game is sent through the gauntlet of techs and tools. When something doesn’t work a spontaneous fix-it seminar takes place, with all techs pausing for a moment to lend either their expertise on a particular game’s unique oddities, or knowledge of the manufacturing nuances of the time period.
Above, just some of the Pacific Pinball Museum’s many volunteers.
Eventually they end up here, with other completed games.
Equal to the effort that all involved put into restoring these games is the place itself. It’s wall-to-wall pinball, literally hundreds of games. There’s an undeniable feeling of history within it. You can’t help but feel transported to the past.
Nestled among the endless games are coin-op treasures of all kinds, from old jukes to electro-mechanical gun games.
Every game has a story. Every backglass reflects a generation.
Every corner you turn in the maze of games that fills this warehouse evokes a feeling of potent nostalgia for some, and a window into the past for later generations.
Over by the door is the first game with flippers. In the backroom is the first game with bumpers. Around the corner is the first game with drop targets. And in another corner are the first pinball games, period.
A whole wall of the warehouse features a monolithic backglass mural, a work in progress by a talented artist.
Michael Schiess: “Last year we announced the acquisition of the Gordon A. Hasse Gottlieb woodrail collection and then Richard Conger stepped up to the plate and pledged a large part of his collection to the museum. This year, we will be showing a complete collection of Classic Stern games from the '70s to '80s curated by James Edes.”
Pinball has always been a living document of pop culture. The attitudes, art styles, hopes and dreams of earlier generations of the day - all reflected in the games of each era.
From the warehouse the games are rotated into the Museum. The space holds around 85 games from all eras along with electro-mechanical games, jukes and tons of pinball memorabilia from the local scene and beyond. Visitors are treated to a mini pinball show six days a week.
Each year in October, Marin County becomes the pinball center of the world.
Michael Schiess: “In accordance with our mission statement, we wanted to feature the art, science and history of pinball. Those have been our guiding themes since day one along with the fun and joy of pinball and introducing it to a new generation."
"The secondary goal of the PPE is to raise money for establishing the Pacific Pinball Museum. After 3 successful shows and a lot of volunteer hours, we opened our museum in November of last year. This year is the first year the museum will be open to the public during the show so people from all over will be able to come experience it first hand. We are very proud of what we've done with and for pinball, and with more vendors, more machines and more people, this will again be the biggest show of its kind in the world.”
This is the Pacific Pinball Expo most see. Every game that can be mustered is put into action, along with seminars, tournaments and exhibits.
The Exposition is not just the product of the thousands of hours of work, but the payoff for all involved. A bit of their hard work is reflected in the smiles of every happy guest, as well as the realization of their belief that these artifacts representing 80-plus years of coin-op history should not be content to idle away under a tarp in an unassuming warehouse down a random street. They should come out and play with us again.