Pinheads in Oddball Places

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Pinheads in Oddball Places



Seventy-five years ago, in the city of Alameda on the San Francisco Bay, an amusement park called Neptune Beach was a rival to Coney Island. Now all that’s left of it are some postcards hanging in the Neptune Beach Amusement Museum, also known as Lucky Ju Ju Pinball.

In this oddball headquarters, 20-some pinball machines crowd a two-room space that shares an off-street entrance with a beauty salon. Proprietor Michael Schiess calls Lucky Ju Ju an “Arcadium,” short for Arcade Museum, but it’s also an art gallery. It’s only open on weekends, and Schiess charges $10 at the door, with all the machines on freeplay.

In his early 50s with a gap-toothed grin, Schiess is an affable caretaker and willing custodian. Before establishing Ju Ju, he composed electronic music and worked at the San Francisco Exploratorium as an exhibit builder and maintainer. But his longtime love of pinball art led him to start collecting machines. While taking me on an informal museum tour, Schiess explains that he prefers the art of Christian Marche, whose prolific output included many science-fiction-themed machines; he also admires Jerry Kelly’s work, such as in the Beatles-themed Beat Time. Schiess calls attention to Dave Christiansen’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, the artwork of which was censored in mid-production by the manufacturer. This led to an X-rated follow-on story that I won’t repeat.

Schiess is particularly proud of Fireball, a 1971 machine that he says is “everyone’s favorite” because it integrates superhero art by Christiansen with deft skill shots and a whirlwind spinner that changes the ball’s direction as it approaches the flippers. “This is such a well-themed machine,” says Schiess. “On the backglass, it’s got this guy throwing balls at you, and that’s just what it does on the playfield. The function follows the art, which is rare.”

Schiess hopes his collection of classic pinball machines will be the centerpiece of a larger vision that restores the old Ferris wheel from Neptune Beach, and invites kids to have fun while learning how these wonderful machines work. With his combined pinball and Exploratorium experience, Schiess may understand the educational possibilities of amusement machines better than anyone. “What I like about pinball machines,” he sums up, “is how they bring together art, history, and science.”


A mile or two east of the bright lights of Las Vegas, there’s a dimly lit strip mall with an aging movie theater, some ethnic restaurants, and the Pinball Hall of Fame. Inside this darkened space filled with pinball machines, I found owner Tim Arnold making his nightly rounds, caring for the machines he loves. The glass is off the one he is working on, the fully electromechanical Gold Rush. Arnold replaces a bulb, then wipes down the playfield before replacing the glass and testing the machine. He is as quiet as a monk, but soon the machine’s chimes are ringing — a good sign.

With thick glasses and ageless blond hair pulled back in a pony tail, Arnold mirrors the hybrid personality of pinball itself: part idealistic hippy, part road-hardened truck driver, and part nerd. Arnold sees every pinball machine as a hooker with a heart of gold — a storyline from the West that could be a pinball game itself. “These machines don’t belong in the home; they belong where people come to hang out and have fun,” he explains.

Years ago, Arnold worked as a route operator, selling and servicing amusement machines throughout the Midwest. He sold his business, moved to Vegas, and set up the Pinball Hall of Fame. Arnold runs it as a nonprofit, with extra revenue going to the Salvation Army. One day, Arnold hopes his Pinball Hall of Fame will become a popular oddball Las Vegas attraction like the Liberace Museum down the street.

Michael Schiess and Tim Arnold know each other. “Beware of Mr. Schiess,” Arnold tells me jokingly. “He’s charging you a flat price for all you can play but when you are done, how do you know it is ALL YOU CAN PLAY?”

Schiess stays with Arnold when he visits Las Vegas. “Tim’s been around pinball machines a lot longer than me,” Schiess explains. “He keeps telling me that I’m still in the romantic phase, and I’ll get over it.”

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


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