Report by: Michael Schiess, Pacific Pinball Museum
Date: January 2010

Tim O’ Brien of the San Francisco Airport Museum contacted me in 2008 about doing a show on Neptune Beach, the 1920 to '30s “Coney Island of the West” in Alameda. Although we were still officially the Neptune Beach Amusement Museum, I told Tim there wasn’t much to be had about Neptune Beach and that we had reformed into the Pacific Pinball Museum.

When I asked “How about doing a pinball exhibition?” he replied that because of the height of the exhibit cases it would be hard to display something that far up on it’s legs. I suggested cutting the legs shorter so you could see everything and an exhibition was born. He called me after discussing this with the directors and thus started a year long project to produce the best exhibition on the historical/artistic evolution of pinball that has ever been done.

After a lot of questions to me and a visit to the PPM and Richard Conger’s Silver Ball Ranch, Tim caught the bug. Like any good curator, he did his research and asked a lot of questions. Richard Conger, Larry Zartarian, Dan Miller, Helmut Jordt, Gordon Hasse myself and others offered answers and suggestions to narrow down the choice of machines and artifacts. He also came down to the Ju Ju on a Saturday night and played a mean pinball.

After many round robin e-mails a list of games was made. This was modified for availability and after a lengthy process a final list was made.

At this point, the registrar steps in. They take possession of each object and forms are filled out stating the condition, pictures are taken and the object is cleaned, tagged and documented. Papers are signed and this continued until the end of the Pacific Pinball Exposition, 2009 where the lion's share of pinballs were taken from the PPE directly to a facility in South San Francisco for processing.

This is where pinball show and museum exhibition split away from each other. The pinball show is all about playing the games to have fun. The San Francisco Airport Museum is centered on education. Their process relies on thorough documentation, research, accuracy and engaging aesthetics for displaying objects. It is professionally presented and logically arranged and documented so the average person gets a good perspective on the subject so the end result is that you feel you are getting the straight dope.

A pop bumper exhibit
A pop bumper exhibit

To make this all happen takes a team of dedicated museum preparators, curators, designers, graphic artists, fabricators and installers. The main people involved from SFAM were Assistant Director Abe Garfield and Curator Kelvin Godshall who designed the exhibition. Principal Preparator Roman Korloev led the installation, which included preparators Robert Harris and Jason Rogowski.

Curator, Kelvin Gadshall and Principal Preparator, Roman Korloev
Curator, Kelvin Godshall and Principal Preparator, Roman Korloev

When the decision was made to have some backboxes next to complete machines lit up, they called upon me, Jem Gruber and Helmut Jordt to make it happen. As some of the objects were pre-war, we made sure all the bulbs were swapped out for lower wattage and had lights cycled on and off every 2 hours to avoid overheating. To run the heads by themselves, I made 6 transformer boards to supply 6 volts AC. We used jumper wires to light an interesting pattern and the general illumination lamps, and with the complete machines, we wired the hold switches on permanently.

Coronation flanked by Cue-Tee and Rainbow
Coronation flanked by Cue-Tee and Rainbow

The SFAM went to a lot of trouble to make special stands for each object complete with “legs” that actually secure them. The background wall was done with the spatter pattern found on many older machines, the design based on the cabinet graphics for “Humpty Dumpty”.

Drop targets and the change to solid-state machines
Drop targets and the change to solid-state machines

Every machine and object is labeled and credit given to the lender. The stands are brought in one at a time, bolted in place, and then machines are brought in and secured to the base through the leg holes.

Installing the machines
Installing the machines

It took 5 days to install all the objects and wire everything up. One problem arose when the machines would not light up as they were supposed to. It turned out; the added angle of the stand was causing the tilt pendulum to be on so we went into each machine and insulated the ring and bob.

After all that, the graphics and small object stands were installed. Fortunately I was not needed for that as I had already spent a few weeks at the airport and there were machines at our museum needing attention. The amazing thing is we were able to assist with all of this while at the same time, opening the new wing of the Pacific Pinball Museum and running it 6 days a week.

It was a bit of a burn but when I went back to see the full display, it was so worth it!

Some of the machines on display
Some of the machines on display during the set-up

Wedgeheads and electr-mechanical machines
Wedgeheads and electro-mechanical machines

The total number of machines displayed is 36, starting with an 1898 Redgrave Bagatelle and ending of course, with the Twilight Zone as expected.

The earliest pinballs
The earliest pinballs...

The accompanying historicl information
...and the accompanying historical information...

The most modern
...through to the most modern in the exhibition

The exhibition is arranged chronologically with an emphasis on demonstrating the different art styles chosen by the various artists creating the graphics for the machines.

Information about Art Stenholm
Information about Art Stenholm

From Roy Parker and George Molentin to Christian Marche and Dave Christensen, many styles are represented and the eye candy is too much to resist for the travelers.

Information about Jerry Kelley
Information about Jerry Kelley

I’m sure many people missed their flights when we had the pins out for play in early January. In fact, as it turns out, there are people who made the trek either to look specifically at the exhibition or to play free pinball that we provided from January 4th to the 14th.

Uloading pins at SFO
Unloading pins at SFO

The free pinball was an excellent opportunity for us to hand out museum information and get people playing pinball again. We had a nice array of 8 Electro-Mechanical games: Gottlieb’s 1951 “Flying High”, ’59 “Universe”, ’66 “Hurdy Gurdy”, ’69 “Mini Pool”, and a’73 “High Hand”. Not to be Gottlieb-centric, a 1976 Bally Capt. Fantastic and Williams ’67 “Apollo” and ’73 “Gulfstream” were present.

Setting up the machines in the airport terminal
Setting up the machines in the airport terminal

All these were set up around the column between the 2 display cases in the non-secured zone of the International Terminal.

The machines being enjoyed
The machines being enjoyed

The response has been incredible! Many people were drawn by the sound of the bells and chimes, one that many admittedly had not heard for some time and were “unmistakable”.

Fun for all ages
Fun for all ages

PPM Board members visit the pinball exhibit at the airport
PPM Board members visit the pinball exhibit at the airport

As I sat there one day watching the throngs of travelers from all over discover our treasure chest of fun I realized that this was the last bit of America that they were leaving with. They got a taste of a real American icon; it was free, entertaining and cool. I felt like a good will ambassador making sure everyone left our country with a good memory of what America is and was. They sure looked happy!

A video of the free pinball session at SFO

The latest news is - after just getting off the phone with Tim - they will be discussing a repeat of the pins for free-play at the airport in March. I am hoping we can do it once more so keep watching Pinball News for an announcement.

If you happen to be traveling to San Francisco in March, you will be in for a treat!

Michael Schiess
President, Pacific Pinball Museum, Alameda, California  
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