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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In the late-Sixties and early-Seventies, pinball fever was the center of the first rock opera, The Who's Tommy. The story centered on a traumatized kid who goes from being exploited for his disabilities to being religiously worshipped as a pinball champion. That deaf, dumb, and blind kid, as the classic rock hit "Pinball Wizard goes, sure plays a mean pinball.

But that proved to be the height of cultural consciousness of pinball. With the advent of video arcade games, pinball's popularity faded; by the mid-Nineties, home video games had taken over, and the only pinball machines left in public were lonely, corner wallflowers in the dwindling number of bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys willing to maintain them.

But that didn't mean that guys like Schiess didn't love the game anymore.

"Once you eject that ball, chaos theory comes into play. No two games of pinball are the same," Schiess said. "It's not like a video game where every possible outcome is programmed into it."

While pinball's cultural significance waned, Schiess decided he'd finally do more than play the game; he'd take a deeper look at what exactly went into a pinball machine — by designing his own. It would be a sacrilegious machine called "The Last Supper," featuring Jesus Christ, his disciples, and ladyfriends getting their divine drink on. He wanted to design it in the style of one of his favorite pinball back-glass artists, Christian Marche, who drew uber-mod characters with sharp angles and gracefully elongated limbs.

But as he reconstructed the old pinball body he wanted to use for it, Schiess fell in love with the creative electromechanical and geometric designs used to make the machine work. And that led him to learning how entire teams of artists, engineers, and game theorists spent weeks, even months designing the strategy and creating the story behind each game.

Schiess wanted to find more vintage pinball machines to play, but they were hard to come by. He couldn't afford to fully indulge the endless appetite he now had for vintage machines, so he started putting feelers out for other pinheads who might invite him to play their collections. He had heard of one guy, a legend of the Bay Area's pinball subculture, who for the past decade held a secret pinball party in a basement marked only by a glowing blue-violet light bulb.

Suddenly, Schiess decided, finishing "The Last Supper" was much less important than finding this guy.


Starting in 2000, Schiess spent his Thursday nights cruising residential neighborhoods in the East Bay looking for that light bulb. Where the hell was it? He knew he had to acquaint himself with this local pinball kingpin, who sounded like one of the few pinheads who had truly fallen in love with the game's art and construction as much as Schiess had. But for two years, Schiess' search proved fruitless.

"It was so secretive, I didn't even know what city he lived in," Schiess recalled. Then, while shopping for house wares in a downtown Berkeley store one day, Schiess began chatting with a tall, free-spirited guy who worked there. The conversation hovered around Schiess' vintage motorcycle until he spotted something in the back of the shop.

"Is that ... a pinball machine?" Schiess asked.

"Yeah, I fix them up on the side," the guy said. "You got one?"

"Yeah."

"Oh, well, you should come to this thing I do at my house on Friday nights."

"You're — you're that guy?"

Schiess had found his man. He went by the name Pinball Mac. That Friday night, as he made his way toward the blue-violet light bulb that illuminated an inconspicuous basement door in Berkeley, Schiess had no idea this would be a turning point in his life.

On the other side of the door, within a room whose walls and ceiling were covered with kitschy holiday ornament lights, toys, comics, and masks of US presidents, was a kaleidoscopic wonderland of pinball machines. Lights glowed and seductively danced around the back-glass art and playfields of more than forty vintage games, each one set on free play for Pinball Mac's most dedicated pinheads and their friends. No other place in the country had such an operating collection. "It was mind-boggling," Schiess remembered.

Games from almost every decade, stretching back to the 1930s, represented the fantasies of each era. On "Ship Mates," imaginary swim-suited babes swarmed a hard-up sailor. Other games took the player to a circus, a burlesque show, or into outer space. Year after year, decade after the decade, the games transformed and increased in complexity in order to entice and entrance a new generation of players. Despite the ubiquity these American-made machines enjoyed for so long, all over the world, the games are now exceptionally rare — playable versions even more so. Only a small number of machines found their way into the hands of aficionados who could repair and restore them.

Pinball Mac wasn't the classic "gamer" type interested in beating everyone else's high score. It was only after being pressured to use his electrical engineering skills to fix a friend's machine that he fell in love with their history, artwork, and creative mechanisms. Pinball Mac's lair had become a place where an underground subculture of pinball collectors and lovers could not only share a unique addiction, but network. Some of Mac's guests owned machines as well, many of which were obtained in the early-Nineties, when Mac helped rescue about five hundred machines from a warehouse in Omaha, Nebraska, shipping them to the Bay Area on a Union Pacific train.

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