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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Flipping through time: Inside Alameda’s Pacific Pinball Museum, where history and fun collide

The Pacific Pinball Museum is the world's largest pinball museum and may have the largest collection of pinball machines in the world.

ALAMEDA Calif. (CN) — Nestled in the sleepy island community of Alameda is a unique museum that echoes with the sounds of bells, buzzers and flippers. 

A destination for enthusiasts and curious visitors alike, the nonprofit Pacific Pinball Museum offers a journey through the evolution and artistry of pinball machines.

Upon entering, visitors are struck by the sights and sounds of more than 100 pinball machines. The devices span nearly a century of pinball technology, from wooden contraptions from the 1930s to sleek and modern electronic tables. 

The collection isn't merely for show: Visitors are invited to play virtually every machine on display in the nine-room museum. Nor is the museum’s inventory limited to the 105 playable machines in its main exhibition rooms. Machines are rotated in and out, with those not on display stored in an annex in an old U.S. Navy aircraft hangar.

That annex is the length of a football field and stores another 1,350 machines, Evan Phillippe, the museum’s executive director, said in an interview at the museum. He was standing next to the earliest piece in the collection: a bagatelle board from 1879.

While not exactly pinball, bagatelle would go on to inspire modern pinball machines, Phillipe explained. The board stays on permanent display, along with some of the museum’s other particularly noteworthy items. Among them: Humpty Dumpty, a 1940s machine that was the first to include flippers, and Gorgar, the first pinball machine with a speaking voice when it debuted in 1979.

The museum’s inventory is among the largest collection of pinball machines in the world, if not the largest. It beats out the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, another major U.S. pinball museum which has more than 1,050 machines, according to Tim Arnold, the Hall of Fame’s director.

“In terms of pinball museums, we are the largest one,” Phillippe said — though he acknowledged that someone somewhere could theoretically have a larger collection. “Who knows if a private collector who has a couple barns in the Midwest has them full of pinball machines?” 

The pinball machine Gorgar, from 1979, was the first to have a speaking voice. Gorgar now has a permanent home at the Pacific Pinball Museum. (Natalia Seenarine for Courthouse News)

When the Pacific Pinball Museum first opened in 2004, it was technically illegal to operate a pinball arcade in Alameda County. 

Pinball had long been associated with the mafia and vices like gambling, Phillippe explained. It didn’t help that in the 1930s and '40s, many machines were manufactured in mafia hotbeds like New York City and Chicago. In the 1940s, then-New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia even launched a crackdown against what he called “pinball machine pushers,” ordering police to raid pinball lounges and seize the machines.

“Pinball took a lot of design cues from slot machines because of where they were located: gambling halls, billiards halls, card rooms,” Phillippe said. Like slot machines, some early pinball machines even had payout drawers in the front. To get around the ban, the Pacific Pinball Museum charged players a flat admission rather than for each game. It operated like a tongue-in-cheek speakeasy, with visitors entering through a back door. 

Alameda County’s pinball ban was finally rescinded in 2014 — but the admittance fee stuck around. Having players pay for each game would require workers to give out coins, which could themselves damage the historic machines, Phillippe said.

Another consideration was the physically taxing nature of the game. “We found that most people can only play [for] one to two hours,” Phillippe explained. With an all-day admittance fee, visitors “can go get food or coffee, take a look at other stores and come back.”

“The other businesses like us because of that,” Phillippe added. The museum offers a two-for-$20 admission special on Tuesdays, as well as discounts for low-income visitors.

Among those playing pinball on a recent evening was Jodi Starnes, who recently moved to Alameda. She enjoyed visiting the museum, which she said brought her back to her times playing the game in arcades in the 1980s.

Starnes liked to take advantage of the museum’s two-for-one Tuesday specials, bringing her boyfriend or a friend for a night out. She also appreciated the all-day admissions policy, which allowed her to leave to grab a drink or meal before returning for more pinball.

“It’s not like other museums or like a theme park, where you pay and, if you leave, you can’t reenter,” she said. She liked to visit the other cafes and bars on Webster Street where the museum is located. Outside on Webster on a typical chilly evening, one could hear the rattles of pinball machines and the thunks of silver balls. Pinball, it would seem, is alive and well in Alameda.

A vintage jukebox in a back room at the Pacific Pinball Museum. Visitors have unlimited plays. (Natalia Seenarine for Courthouse News)
Categories / Entertainment, Uncategorized

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