ALAMEDA – The minute I walked through the door and caught sight of a row of pinball machines, all gleaming metal and burnished wood and flashing lights, I was transported to my awkward 'tween years – that less-than-halcyon time of acne and inferiority, raging hormones and daily disappointments.
See, I was never good at pinball. Hopelessly inept.
Had they chosen sides for pinball teams, I'd have been the last pick. I was no wizard, had no supple wrist, no crazy flipper fingers – to borrow from the Who.
Yet, there I was at the local Shakey's Pizza, part of a middle-school mob flipping and flirting, watching slender hips move in time with that silver ball.
For me, alas, it was always "Game Over" almost before it began.
Sorry, folks. I must've spaced out a moment and taken a Proustian stroll down memory lane. But that's the risk a baby boomer takes when visiting the Pacific Pinball Museum on Webster Street, the main drag of this East Bay isle.
Nostalgia overflows and envelopes the senses. Jem Gruber, manager of this arcade-cum-museum dedicated to documenting nearly a century of pinball history, has seen the look on people's faces when they walk in, how the years seem to fade like some reverse time lapse, how they revert to younger versions of themselves.
He, himself, is not immune.
As he shows off a perfectly preserved "wedge-topped" machine from 1967 called "The Bootles," a knockoff from some pop band with a similar name, he becomes almost childlike in his need to reminisce.
"I had that machine when I was in fifth grade," he said. "I had broken my leg on an electric exercycle at home. My mom took it to a moving furniture and storage company and said, 'What will you guys trade me for it?' The guy said, 'I got this old pinball machine.' Mom said, 'Great, throw it in this Volkswagen bus.' That's what started me on this pinball sickness."
It's not just those with graying temples and slackening waistlines making nostalgia trips. Many of the 100 or so tables at the museum (there are another 700 in a nearby storage warehouse) are from the 1980s and '90s, that time before computer or smartphone games – you know, the Pleistocene epoch.
"It's funny," Gruber said. "People resonate to their era. Some will walk in and go immediately to the back to the '90s machines and say, 'Oh, that's my game for back in the day. Oh, that's old school.' And I look at them and think, 'Hey, that was just 10 years ago.' But to them, it's nostalgic, it's a half-life (ago)."
The museum itself is hardly more than a young teen, having grown from an aborted art project by founder and owner Michael Schiess in the mid-1990s into a bring-your-own-beer "speakeasy" on Saturday nights, to a full-time arcade and, in 2004, a nonprofit museum with a "hands-on" component.
Schiess originally bought 30 machines from the widow of the Stop 'N' Go convenience-store mogul looking to liquidate. He wanted to sand them down and make objets d'art, but realized they were priceless objects as they were. So he collected more machines and hooked up with like-minded folks, including Gruber and museum board president Larry Zartarian, to open a space in town.
They originally called the joint "Lucky JuJu Pinball," and you could only enter by walking to the back of the record shop out front.
Soon, the record store went belly up, as did a dance studio next door, so the pinball wizards expanded. Today it occupies four rooms. The storefront room on Webster Street boasts the vintage machines, dating to 1931, a time before flippers, even. But the bulk come from the "golden age" – the '50s and '60s.
"Look at this," Gruber said, "so beautiful. It's a 1953 'Flying High' (machine). That's a representation of the era from which it came. You'll notice after World War II, we saw the advent of the pinup girl on the background. That wasn't thought of as a marketing ploy until the GIs came home. They figured they could take (the girl) off the nose (of fighter planes) and put it on the back flash and guys'll put nickels in it.
"Later on, when it became a family game, they toned down the cheesecake factor. Look at this, a '67 Gottlieb called the 'King of Diamonds.' That was one used in the movie 'Tommy,' I think."
Through the doorway into the back rooms, the vibe is louder and flashier. This is the end of the "electro- mechanical" era, Gruber said, almost with a sigh.
"Here we are in the '80s, with the dot-matrix games, the alphanumeric ones, and the Pinball 2000 games, where they added video holograms in there," he said. "That's when they first started making them with images from movies and TV shows. Just my opinion: They don't have a very long shelf life."
Perhaps to baby boomers like Gruber or me. But to 26-year-old Megan Ojeda of Alameda, who strained the extensor longus muscles in her hands while punching buttons, playing a '90s game is a nostalgia trip.
"I like the feeling of revisiting my childhood," she said. "I remember playing games for hours and hours, and begging for quarters. It was great."
Good to know that at least someone has fond pinball memories.
The Pacific Pinball Museum (pacificpinball.org) at 1510 Webster St. in Alameda is open 2-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 2 p.m. to midnight Friday; 11 a.m. to midnight Saturday; and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Cost is $15 for adults, $7.50 for those under 12.
A "Pin-A-Go-Go Pinball Show" will be held Friday through Sunday at the Dixon May Fair grounds. It will feature more than 100 pinball machines from the 1950s through today, set on free play at an entrance cost of $10 to $15. For more information: www.pinagogo.org.