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Pacific Pinball Museum offers old school thrills

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One of several rooms full of nostalgia at the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, CA. (Photo: Mike Krumboltz)

"The landlord said we'd never make it," said Michael Schiess, executive director of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California. "We were really just a hole in the wall, a speakeasy kind of thing." Flash forward ten years and the museum has proved the landlord dead wrong.

The place now includes several rooms, each filled with tables from different eras. In the front are dozens of old-school machines. "I like to make the customers at least walk past the classic tables," said Schiess. On the walls are gigantic murals of pinball art painted by Dan Fontes, board member and volunteer.

Technically it's a museum, but unlike at the Louvre, you won't get arrested for playing with the art. For a flat fee ($15), visitors can shoot the silver ball until their flipper fingers fall off.

Yahoo! Games spoke with Schiess about the museum's history, as well as where he'd like to see the institution go in the years to come.

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Capt. Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy machine, 1976 (Photo: Mike Krumboltz)

[Related: Pacific Pinball Museum Slideshow Gallery]

The museum began, he said, with what he calls a need to produce interactive kinetic art. "I realized, oh wait, that's what pinball is," he said. Schiess had grown up playing pinball. He says he got his first table when he was 13 (he traded an old electric sign for it and then fixed it up).

But he wasn't a pinball maniac.

"I've always been a tinkerer. I've always been fascinated by them [pinball tables], because I thought, 'Wow, how crazy is that that we invented this box that you put money into and its sole purpose is to entertain you?' I thought that would be my dream engineering job, designing things to amuse myself."

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Museum executive director Mike Schiess shows off one of his educational tools. (Photo: Mike Krumboltz)

But pinball is more than just a time-killer for Schiess. "My whole thing is preservation for the public. And education about science, art, and history of pinball," he said. Schiess and other museum employees and volunteers regularly host schoolchildren and teach them physics using pinball machines. "We're doing four different classes this year for 70 different students" from grades two through seven. "I'm trying to inspire an interest in experimentation."

Some of Schiess's most valuable instructional tools are his homemade pinball machines. Schiess used clear plastic to house the table and display, giving students a sweet view into the world of electromechanical engineering.

But don't worry. If you want to come and just play, Schiess won't try to teach you anything. "We get around 34,000 visitors per year," he said. "All ages." During our visit, little kids were marveling over the old-school amusements alongside folks in their 60s and 70s, eyes unblinking, working on their high scores.

Running a museum, like running a business, requires an eye toward the future. "We're looking to take over the space next door," Schiess said about his plans for the museum. "The guy is moving out. We're going to use that space for more classrooms. I don't want to just fill it full of pinball machines ... I want to do restoration in the front, so people walking by can look in the window and watch."

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Wonder what’s inside a pinball machine? Schiess built a clear version of Surf Champ. (Photo: Mike Krumboltz)

And make no mistake -- pinball machines do break. "We were here until midnight last night fixing things," Schiess said. Once or twice a week, a team of experts and volunteers comes in and goes through all the machines and reviews all the fine details.

Once upon a time, pinball tables were seen as a real vice. They brought in more money than the entire motion picture industry. Fiorello La Guardia, who served as mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945, banned pinball machines and made quite a show of destroying them with baseball bats.

When asked about the museum's most impressive table, Schiess paused before saying, "It's a 1936 Bally Bumper. We have a big poster up front of Mayor La Guardia of New York pushing one over. This Bally Bumper was confiscated by the Oakland cops back in 1936. But instead of being destroyed, the machine was brought to Alameda and given to the cops as a gift. The history around that amazes me."

That might sound maniacal, but back in those days, pinball machines were less a game of skill than they were a game of luck. And where there are games of luck, gamblers aren't far behind. It was the invention of the flippers on the Humpty Dumpty table that helped convince government officials (eventually) that pinball wasn't just a casino game but a game of skill.

Yes, skill. And players do get better. "Study the table," Schiess said. "Don't get flipperitis and bang on the flippers. That doesn't do anything. Slow the ball down. Capture it when it gets near the flipper and cradle it. Practice that and practice passing it from one flipper to the other."

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More machines at the Pinball Museum (Photo: Mike Krumboltz)

When you get the basics down, try the "drop catch." That's where the player keeps the flipper up. As soon as the ball touches, the player drops the flipper. "You get backward spin on it and the ball stops right on your flipper. If anybody's watching they'll think it's magic."

Although pinball isn't the national obsession it once was, new tables are still being made. And companies are still innovating with LCD back panels and tabletops that shoot electronic flames that follow the old-school silver ball.

But despite the electronics and special effects of today's tables, pinball is still, basically, the same game: "It's simple, really. The player against gravity," Schiess said.

Check out more pics of the Pacific Pinball Museum's incredible machines

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