Playing Through Pinball History at the Pacific Pinball Museum

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!

Overall view of one of the rooms, which features murals of pinball art, and each wall is flanked with a row of pinball machines.

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 While originally made as a game for adults, as pinball became an all-ages form of entertainment in the later part of the 20th century, the desire to have it at home caused bagatelle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.”

Close-up of my hands playing the recreation on bagatelle.

A vintage bagatelle game with a colorful art deco diamond design.

Angled view of one row of pinball machines from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Close-up of a label that reads "Minors not permitted to play this game"

Myself, wearing a tan cowboy hat, floral print western wear shirt with yellow tie with horses on it, and black jeans, leaning against "Kings & Queens" machine which features saloon girls playing poker with an outlaw figure.

Close-up of the backglass of the Queen of Hearts machine, which features a showgirl in an outfit that has lots of hearts on it, and a gold crown atop her head, various playing cards are scattered around her.

Close-up of a blonde woman dressed in a fur with purple gloves that is featured on the playfield of a machine.

Close-up of a disclaimer that reads "For amusement only no prizes no wagering" which is within a sign on top of a ball that is being balanced by a seal.

View of myself from behind playing the "Magic Circle" game, which features artwork of a caravan and people dressed in colorful outfits dancing and playing instruments.

Close-up of a fortune teller illustration on the playfield of the Magic Circle machine.

A sign atop a machine that is not working reads "Out of Order I'll Be Working Again Soon" and features a cartoon of a sad pinball machine with a thermometer in its mouth.

Close-up of a blonde and a redhead in gowns playing pool for the playfield board of the "Roto Pool" machine, a gentleman smoking a cigar is in the background.

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.

Overall view of the room featuring machines by two artists, on the back reads "Pointy People the Modernist Pinball Art of Jerry Kelley & Christian Marche"

A very stylized cowboy is illustrated on the playfield for Doggies, a western themed machine.

A bold graphic almost abstract blackglass for Gulfstream which features people in beach attire playing with a beach ball.

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.

Scoreboard for Spooksville which features a woman in a casket, tombstones, and an Igor like character with a hunchback.

Playfield for Spooksville, which is unique in that it is played in a mirror, the playfield features mummies, a skull, and vampires.

View of the Orbit 1 machine which features planets on it. Hanging on the wall next to it is a cowgirl shooting a pair of guns and pink letters behind her reads "Dynamite"

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.

Close-up of the backglass for Black Knight, which features a knight on a black horse.

Close-up of a portion of "Kings & Queens" a redheaded showgirl in a green and yellow outfit holds a mirror showing the cards of a male gambler wearing a white hat and pink jacket.

Backglass for El Dorado, which features cowboys in a shoot out.

Close-up of the backglass for Black Pyramid which features an explorer character wearing a pith helmet and holding a torch, next to him is a mummy character holding a sword.

Close-up of the backglass from Wizard, which features a 70s styled man wearing a shirt that says "Bally Pinball Wizard" and a redheaded woman in a blue slip sits on his lap.

Angled view of one row of pinball machines from the 1970s, including two inspired by the film Tommy, one features Elton John playing a pinball machine.

Close-up of Eight Ball Deluxe, which features a mustached cowboy holding a pool cue, wearing a straw cowboy hat, blue plaid shirt and vest.

Close-up of the flipper portion of the playfield for Black Pyramid which features an explorer character wearing a pith helmet, leather jacket and holding a hand full of gold and jewels.

Close-up of a portion of the Wizard machine that features a woman with white hair in a red and white vest and bikini bottom. On her vest reads "Memento Mori" and behind her black text reads " last"

View of myself from behind playing the Buckeroo game, a western themed pinball machine.

Close-up of the Sea Witch machine, featuring a blonde woman with a crown.

Close-up of a part of the backglass from Wizard which features a black haired girl in a green and red bikini and a green turban on her head. On the bottom of her bikini reads "Take Me"

Close-up of a bumper from Eight Ball Deluxe which features a cowgirl in a red, white, and blue outfit.

Close-up of a portion of the playfield from El Dorado which features cowboys holding a large gold nugget.

Close-up of the playfield from Wizard, which features a 30s style sedan on fire crashing.

Close-up of the backglass of Magic Circle, which features dancers and people playing instruments and a blue caravan in the background..

Backglass for the game "Crossroads" which features a cute cowgirl hitchhiking, a convertible, a girl on a tractor, and a train.

Backglass for Evel Knievel machine which features him in his iconic red, white, and blue jumpsuit atop a motorcycle making a leap.

Backglass of Space-Ship, which features a circular space station and female astronaut.

Several machines are lined up against a wall that features a large mural recreating the backglass for the game Sky Raider that features pinup style gals in space attire.

Close-up of the playfield for Reserve, a scuba themed game, which features a mermaid and a scuba diver in a green and yellow outfit.

Close-up of a portion of the backglass for Slick Chick, which features a girl in a pink showgirl bunny outfit holding a camera.

Close-up of a portion of Spirit of '76 themed machine, which features knock-down portions that read "1976" with a space capsule flying over.

Angled view of one row of pinball machines from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

Close-up of a portion of playfield that features a female astronaut.

Close-up of the front of a machine which features a stenciled circus tent in red and yellow.

Close-up of the backglass of the Freedom machine which is see-through so all of the interworking are visible, but the artwork of George Washington beating on a drum is also still present.

Close-up of Surf Champ which features a blonde surfer in a red and white stripe bikini on a red and white stripe surfboard.

Close-up of the bumper on the Evel Knieval machine featuring a blonde woman in a white shirt with a "1" on it and reading "Evel Knievel"

Myself, wearing a tan cowboy hat, floral print western wear shirt with yellow tie with horses on it, and black jeans, leaning against the Eight Ball Deluxe machine.

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.

What’s Nearby?

Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon

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