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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At Mac's place, Schiess realized what else he loved — this atmosphere of people kicking back and reviving artifacts of American pop-culture history. But he was deeply bothered by the thought of private collections, such as the one in Mac's basement, fading and dying along with their owners. His gut told him that if the public had a chance to see and experience pinball history, the game's popularity could be revived. And in Mac's basement Schiess met others, like Dan Fontes, who believed the same.

"In the Eighties and Nineties, you had this rise and fall, rise and fall, based on the success of certain games," Fontes said. "But what's unique about this point in time is that there's this wave of privately owned pinball machines, pinball shows, and now a third wave of small pinball museums, and that had never happened before. There's something about the American identity to be discovered in these games. The love of inventing, tinkering, amusing, winning, and even cheating to win are all very American."

So six months later, Schiess respectfully asked Mac if he could start his own pinball lounge. Mac gave him not only his blessing, but also a neon "Lucky Juju" sign that had once hung outside his basement. Schiess displayed it next to the doorway of the small pinball parlor he started in 2002, and named the parlor, accordingly, the Lucky Juju.

It was the beginning of what would soon become the most ambitious collection of vintage pinball machines in the world.

As Schiess' network expanded, collectors across the country came out of the woodwork to donate their games. One collector from Florida — who spent half his life hunting for games up and down the East Coast — has donated 240 wood-rail machines from the Fifties. Another local collector has promised his 800-plus collection, including many one-of-a-kind pieces. The rest came from a large network of Bay Area pinheads who have chosen to splurge on pinball games instead of Porsches for their mid-life crises, and who eventually realized that the whole concept of the game might die with them if they don't find a way to cultivate another generation of enthusiasts. Some lent financial support and eventually comprised what would become the board members of the nonprofit Pacific Pinball Museum.

Ninety machines — a small fraction of Schiess' collection (he has about seven hundred stored in his warehouse) — are on display at the museum, which is open six days a week. For $15 ($7.50 for kids under twelve), guests can play for as long as they'd like. The museum's walls are painted with the bold, pop art imagery of vintage pinball bumpers. Light bulbs that glow like neon Broadway marquees frame images of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire look-a-likes on machines from the Forties; from the Fifties, there are sexy, multi-colored parodies like Dragonette; Jetson-esque artwork prevails in the space-race era of the Sixties; sex and rock 'n' roll rule the Seventies with games like Captain Fantastic, which features Elton John as a pinball wizard pursued by busty groupies.

Despite the museum's success, Pinball Mac remains skeptical of Schiess' enterprise.

"Pinball's money-making days are over," said Mac at one of the Friday-night meet-ups he still hosts. "They're nowhere near as cost-efficient or convenient as video games, and we're not going back in time. Some have more metal parts than most cars do these days. I'd rather just maintain and open up my games to others for fun."

But for Schiess, building up the pinball museum has never been about making money, and that in itself, ironically, has helped the facility rack up enough monetary support and contributions to make it what it is today. As word got around that Schiess was building a nonprofit to revive pinball, he traveled around the state to pick up individual donations. Two years ago, Schiess travelled cross-country to do so, along with Larry Zartarian, the museum's board chair, and Pacific Pinball Expo founder Jim Dietrick. That trip led them to the unique collection of Gordon "Gordo" Hasse.

Hasse, an ad executive, spent half his life plotting road trips from New York City to basements and warehouses in small towns from Kentucky to Maine just to pick up pinball machines. Afraid of having them commercially shipped, Hasse would pack the machines into his station wagon, sometimes daring to strap two to the roof of his car. "It was tedious," Hasse said of the process. "But I couldn't let any of them get away from me! There was always the chance I'd never find one of them again." His searches, which began in the Sixties and came to a close just as eBay matured, amassed the collection of 240 Fifties-eras Gottlieb wood-rail machines that he eventually donated to the Pacific Pinball Museum. Similar to Schiess, Hasse doesn't consider money a part of his interest in pinball. "It was just never my motivation," he said by phone from his home in Orlando, Florida. "I collected because I value the games inherently and I want them to be available to be seen and played. The average person younger than 55 has never even seen a wood-rail."

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