There is something enchanting about pinball. A spring launches a ball into a whirlwind of bumpers and obstacles, bouncing and chiming its way across a colorful board. I love the art and design of pinball machines, new or old. It’s always especially interesting when a pinball machine is based on a film or TV show, and how elements from the show or movie are incorporated into the playfield. While While Musée Mécanique has a handful of vintage pinball machines to play, if pinball is really your thing, then you must visit the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda.
Pacific Pinball Museum may initially look like any other pinball arcade, but here the full history and science of pinball is on display and you can play most of the machines too, making it one of the most fun and interactive museums I’ve visited. Made up of several different rooms, the museum allows for visitors to literally play their way through the decades and watch pinball evolve. As with any well played machine, some where unavailable, but even their “out of order” signs were so cute you couldn’t get mad!
The history of pinball goes all the way back to France in the 1700s with a game called bagatelle, a billiards style game that involved maneuvering balls past pin or stick obstacles and into scoring holes. The following century, Montague Redgrave, a British inventor, moved to the United States in 1869 and created a miniature version of bagatelle. Players would use a spring loaded plunger to shoot a ball into a game board filled with small pins that bounce the ball around before it would land in one of the scoring holes. While originally made as a game for adults, as pinball became an all-ages form of entertainment in the later part of the 20th century, the desire to have it at home caused bagatelle to see a resurgence as a children’s toy, such as this Disneyland version. It is Redgrave’s bagatelle that would eventually develop into the pinball machines we know today.
While pinball creates images of teenagers having fun, just as bagatelle was originally intended for adults, pinball was once too, as well as a gambling device, so much so there was great debate, crackdown, and even banning of pinball in various cities, it wasn’t until the 1970s it began to have the fun, arcade reputation it has today. Machines made amid this chaos feature small disclaimers such as “Minors not permitted to play this game” and “For amusement only. No Prizes. No Wagering.”
As mentioned, I especially love the art of pinball machines, and I was thankful that the museum has information plaques for each machine letting visitors know more about the machine and who the artists and designers were. One room featured an exhibit dedicated to two artists who attempted to break the norm when it came to the artwork of pinball machines, Jerry Kelley and Christian Marche. Inspired by the Cubist Movement, Kelley developed a “pointy” modernist style that made for bold, borderline abstract, and eye-catching machines in the 1960s. These were a departure from the illustrated, comic book style images that machines had. Marche then began to emulate Kelley’s style. Machine backglasses and playfields were screen-printed, with each new color requiring another screen, so the more colors, the more complex (and expensive) a machine became. Kelley’s and Marche’s designs were simpler, and meant less screens had to be made for the finished product, meaning they were slightly less expensive to make, but their style never quite caught on.
Much like Kelley’s and Marche’s art, other people attempted to shake up the pinball world with other innovations that didn’t catch on, such as the mirror game play and “Shakerball” method of Spooksville, and the Orbitor 1 which was developed by NASA engineers to create a unique curved playfield.
The museum takes note of many firsts for various machines, such as Black Knight, the first machine with a two level playing field, and Sea Witch, the first standard machine to score into the millions, as well as their roles in pop culture. Machines were inspired by the world around them and there are several that while not licensed, are clearly influenced by films at the time, such as Eight Ball Deluxe, which features a cowboy that bears a striking resemblance to Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman, and Black Pyramid, which seemed to capitalize on the popularity of Indiana Jones. There are also machines where the same version appeared in a movie, such as El Dorado, which briefly appeared in American Graffiti, and both Kings & Queens and Buckeroo were both seen in the film Tommy, and then, coming full circle, two machines were made that were inspired by Tommy, including Wizard and Captain Fantastic.
I seriously cannot recommend the Pacific Pinball Museum enough, and well worth the journey across the bay if you’re in San Francisco. At the time of our visit it cost a flat rate for unlimited play, $22 for adults, and if you go on a Tuesday with someone, it’s two players for $22! We easily could have spent way more time than we did, but we had one more stop and a concert to catch that day.
Become a pinball wizard at the Pacific Pinball Museum at 1510 Webster Street in Alameda. To learn more about the Pacific Pinball Museum, please visit their website.