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Friday, April 20, 2012

Music Exec Donates Rare Pinball Machines to Alameda Museum

Posted By on Fri, Apr 20, 2012 at 8:30 AM

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds each week.

To my knowledge, real estate maneuvers and pinball machines have little in common, but when Michael Scheiss offered to explain, I went to Alameda in search of answers.

Scheiss' Pacific Pinball Museum is open to the public, but his warehouse is not. Let's just say I knocked on a slew of unmarked doors lining a seemingly abandoned "street" before a big metal portal swung open. I tentatively stepped inside and stopped in my tracks, met with the incredible sight of more than 1,000 pinball machines and related effects, from 15-foot murals to unidentifiable thingamabobs, crammed into an elephantine space.

When my eyes adjusted, I was warmly greeted by two middle-aged gentleman in stonewashed jeans and shirts bearing script that time has made indecipherable, unwrapping sandwiches atop a card table. I politely declined half of Scheiss' turkey on white.

I came for the Foos.

How cool would this have been when we were 8? A Batmobile.
  • How cool would this have been when we were 8? A Batmobile.

Richard Foos, the co-founder of the legendary Rhino Records and Shout! Factory, is a well-known philanthropist, partly enabled by the reportedly $60 million that Time Warner paid for his record company in 1998.

Lesser known, however, is Foos' affinity for pinball machines, jukeboxes, and arcade games. The collection filled his 1920s Mediterranean-style home in Brentwood that was listed for more than $19 million in 2009.

"I've seen a lot of pinball widows," Schiess explained in earnest, launching into a cautionary tale culminating in the creation of his own Pacific Pinball Museum.

Michael Scheiss and two of his babies
  • Michael Scheiss and two of his babies

Foos was moving, and the collection wasn't going with him. There are only two analogous museums in existence -- Tim Arnold's Pinball Hall of Fame, and the recently established National Pinball Museum -- but Scheiss enjoyed several advantages, including a man on the inside: A friend maintained Foos' collection down south.

The ultimate donation was considerable, and it now takes up a substantial portion of the warehouse. There are "quite a few jukeboxes, soda machines, puck bowlers, and two rare EM Arcade games," he said, fingers pointing in every direction. He pauses in front of no less than 50 machines, a "nice collection of 1950s and '60s flipper games from Gottlieb, Williams, and Bally." On a personal level, he's most excited about the Bally "2 in 1," a machine he had never seen, which arrived in perfect condition.

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The three named manufacturing companies were founded by pioneers during the games' early years. They were considered industry leaders by the 1950s, the golden age of pinball aesthetics. The same producers attempted and failed to compete with video games, and they all exited the industry by the late 1990s. Only one manufacturer, Stern Pinball, remains, and even it might disappear.

Despite the undeniable decline, Scheiss maintains sanguine expectations, encouraged by high museum ticket sales and private parties. He's focused on restoring as many of the Foos machines as possible by September, in preparation for the Sixth Annual Pacific Pinball Exposition in San Rafael. He's betting on future generations. He was thrilled by Caine's Arcade, the short film about a 9-year-old boy's cardboard arcade that went viral earlier this week. Scheiss hopes to meet him this weekend at the Exploratorium, and he is making a custom, hand-crafted token holder to present to the young entrepreneur.

The Pacific Pinball Museum is located in Alameda, 1510 Webster (at Haight), Alameda. Admission is $7.50-$15.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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Alexis Coe

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