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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But Schiess also gets support from pinheads who have a more old-fashioned attitude about pinball. One is Tim Arnold, director of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. His place is set up more as a moneymaking arcade than a museum.

"Tim Arnold called them 'quarter whores,' and I thought, what is he talking about?" Schiess said. "And from an operator's perspective, yeah, [the machines are] either pulling in the quarters or it's 'Get back out there and pound some pavement, bitch.' But I just keep on looking at him and he says, 'Mike, you're still in the romantic stage. Soon you'll begin to see them like we see them.' But I don't think I could ever leave that [stage], because if I did, it would kind of change the whole thing for me."

For Schiess, preserving pinball is about preserving his favorite American invention.

"Pinball is a nice slice right through the heart of American culture," he said. "It's one of the things I think America can be really proud of because we did pinball better than anyone else and we still do. Europeans tried to build some but they just were never as popular as the American ones. We seem to get beat at our own game with cars, electronics, and other technologies. But they can't touch us on pinball."

Every Monday night, a rotating cast of more than twenty volunteers shows up to maintain or restore some 1,300 machines. On average, a dedicated team effort can fix up to three games a month. Some of the volunteers are just learning the ropes of repair, by learning how to wax down playfields and degrease smaller parts. Others, like Christopher Kuntz, are experts. Kuntz often comes in still wearing his work shirt from his full-time job repairing arcade games. Working on the vintage machines in Schiess' warehouse, he said, is a privilege.

"Even in my line of work, where I'm picking up the phone every day to repair someone's pinball machine, coming across a lot of these is very rare," Kuntz said, while working with Schiess on the complex circuitry beneath a pinball playfield. "And there's always something little that wants your attention. Sooner or later, you're going to have a wire that breaks off and you'll have to find it and solder it back on, or there's flipper parts that wear out to the point where it's no longer fun to play or actually doesn't work."

In the warehouse's repair room, volunteers sort through pinball parts strewn on a long plywood table nearby. When in need of pieces that are no longer made, Schiess sometimes has to barter — learning how to bee-keep and gather honey, for example, for a man who, in return, could lathe a custom-built part. Twice a year, that process speeds up during visits from a pinhead named Christopher Nash, known in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, as "The Pinball Doctor." In exchange for a bed at Schiess' house, Nash comes because, for a pinball lover, he says, no experience compares with the Pacific Pinball Expo Schiess puts on every year in San Rafael. Last year more than 400 machines drew an international crowd of more than 3,000 in one weekend.

"I used to travel all across the country to different expos," Nash said, while organizing pinball innards. "But there's no point to that anymore. This show — it's the cat's meow of shows. It doesn't get any better than this."

The museum's volunteer team is one of the reasons Schiess believes no other spot in the country can preserve or promote pinball as well as the Pacific Pinball Museum. The board of directors and team of more than eighty volunteers who help put on the Pacific Pinball Expo are a big reason Gordon Hasse decided to donate his collection to the museum.

"We weren't rich, but we were dedicated," Schiess said. "I think Gordon made the right choice because that's the one difference that we have from the other people trying to do this. We've got a group that believes in this, and it's a passion that drives us all to do this. There are more pinball museums popping up around the country now, and that's great. What we're afraid of is that all those are going to be temporary blips because they don't have the kind of community support we do."

Well, at least within their own pinball community. Schiess has given up on getting the City of Alameda's attention regarding a bigger space for now. It's possible that the museum might be able to expand into a storefront next door, which would at least make it big enough to host classes, exhibits, and more parties. It's also located in the quirky, retro-business district of Old Town Alameda's Webster Street, which is home to shops selling antique books, comics, vinyl records, and scuba gear.

The idea of possibly making the leap to San Francisco, if the Exploratorium decides to share its pier space with the pinball museum, is still up for discussion during board meetings. But in the meantime Schiess is going to try to grow the museum organically — for example, by trying to secure more academic grants to teach the science of pinball.

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