The Pinball Wizard 

Michael Schiess has amassed the world's largest collection of rare pinball machines. But the future of his Pacific Pinball Museum remains uncertain.

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From the moment he laid eyes on the game, Schiess was endlessly fascinated at how alluring a simple game could be. Some mystery about human desire had to be lurking inside it.

"I always thought that, as a species, that it was pretty amazing we came up with this amusement box," Schiess said. "That always blew me away. You just put a quarter in and this ball starts bouncing around? That's it? So then I did it, and thought, 'Wow. This is fun. So this is what humanity has been bred for.'"

What he didn't know then was that he was joining a long line of Americans who had been just as fascinated by the simple goal of keeping a ball bouncing around a playfield. According to pinball historians, that line started during the American Revolution. French soldiers brought the bagatelle, a pinball precursor, to the New England colonies along with the martial power needed to defeat British rule. Players shot balls with cue sticks around a small box with nails, or pins, used to ricochet them into holes with varying point values. Apparently, it was French King Louis XIV's favorite game. Bagatelle continued to be played in America by the poor and the presidential for more than a century. Schiess has one from 1879, displayed under glass at the front of his museum.

Then Baffle Ball, one of the first coin-operated pinball games, hit the American market in 1931 with such force that its producer, David Gottlieb, couldn't manufacture enough to meet public demand. The wooden tabletop game featured baseball-field bases and bagatelle-like pins nailed into the playfield. The game didn't have flippers yet; scoring depended entirely on the force with which you plunged the ball into the game. One cent bought a player seven balls, which made Baffle Ball an overnight hit for a Depression-era public eager for cheap entertainment. Enough points won the player either free games that they could sell to others or a coin payout.

Within a year of Baffle Ball's release, at least 150 other pinball manufacturers had popped up, all started by individuals tinkering in their garages. Some were even funded by National Recovery Act grants. A restored Baffle Ball game is displayed at the museum, but it is still off-limits to everyone but Schiess and other museum personnel, who love to show people how it works. "You got to kind of knock it around to make anything go right," Schiess demonstrated. The devices became even more exciting with the 1933 Rockola World Series: The plunger that sprung the ball into play wound up a set of rotating infield bases that could be filled with multiple pinballs and "hit" home.

Proliferating styles of the game proved addictive for so many people that pinball was illegal for decades in many US cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Oakland. Because of the coin slots they shared with slot machines of the day, pinball games were associated with gambling rings that financed now legendary New York City criminals: Frank Costello, Charles "Lucky" Luciano (often considered the father of modern organized crime in America), Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro, and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter (the latter two created Murder, Inc., a nationwide murder-for-hire syndicate).

In the weeks following the attack on Pearl Harbor, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia told police their top priority would be confiscating pinball games, then smashing each in public with sledgehammers. (Photos of these bashing sessions grace one of the walls of the Pacific Pinball Museum.) At first, the crushed remains were sunk like murdered bodies into the Hudson River. But once scrap drives started for World War II, newly confiscated pinball games were instead turned into 7,000 pounds of scrap material, 3,000 pounds of it from steel balls. There's a good chance, in fact, that pinballs once fired at imaginary enemies were melted down into bullets that were fired at very real ones.

On the opposite coast, similar pinball raids were taking place in Oakland. A Bally Bumper from that era, the first game with electronic bumpers and scoreboard, was saved from destruction in Oakland by a policeman who hid it in his garage in Alameda. The cop played it and kept its minimalist art deco designs in mint condition for seventy years; when he died, his brother donated it to the Pacific Pinball Museum. Games like Bally Bumper didn't have flippers yet, either; as Schiess demonstrates, the large antique box has to be physically tilted and knocked to score points. (That's why "tilt" sensors were later added to pinball machines).

To survive the illegalization movement and conserve materials during World War II, pinball manufacturers started focusing more on interchangeable art than on building new games. Colors multiplied and were lit more brightly. Bells rang louder. Imagery became sexier and more carnivalesque. One of the most popular was Gottlieb's 1954 Dragonette. The Roy Parker back-glass art of a scantily clad woman is a soft-porn parody of the TV crime drama Dragnet. While a suspect in the corner glances at her and grabs a pickle from a barrel, a detective says to her, "Just want the facts, mam! The bare facts ... mam." By the Fifties and Sixties, rebellious youth inching toward an era of sexual liberation were emptying their pockets for pinball in such numbers that the game made more money than the entire film industry.

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