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The Museum of Pinball makes a lot of noise in a quiet California town

The Museum of Pinball makes a lot of noise in a quiet California town
Just a few of the more than 1,100 pinball and video games on free play at the Museum of Pinball in Banning, Calif. (Museum of Pinball)

In 1973, when Bruce Springsteen lustily cooed “I just got tired of hangin’ in them dusty arcades, bangin’ them pleasure machines,” pinball was illegal in Los Angeles.

It had been since before World War II and wasn’t legalized until the year after “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” made its debut. Blame the mob and degenerate high school gamblers.

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Far from the Jersey Shore, the Museum of Pinball occupies an enormous industrial space off the west end of the Banning airport, a dimly lighted sea of electrified consoles on the edge of Riverside County. Last weekend, the museum hosted Pinball Madness, one of only three weekends a year that the museum is open to the public.

Countless restless adolescents have dreamed of an arcade filled with hundreds of pinball machines and video games flashing quietly, unattended, beckoning with the blinking phrase “free play” — a four-leaf clover whose value is measured in quarters. In the past decade, John Weeks and his son Johnathon have built that Valhalla. The Museum of Pinball has 1,100 fully functional arcade machines, 650 of which are pinball. Every one of them is set to free play.

“We don’t open to the public a lot because it is a significant-sized facility,” says the younger Weeks, standing outside the 18-acre complex. “It’s 45,000 square feet of pinball. Just to flip the electrical breakers, it costs a few thousand dollars.” Deutsche Electronics Co. opened the campus in 1964, teeming with as many 800 employees. When it closed in 2010, the Weeks family purchased the lot. Nearly 80,000 square feet of it has yet to be used.

Pinhead heaven

The average pinball player is lucky to get a couple of minutes out of a machine. At more than a dollar a game, it wouldn’t take long to spend more than Pinball Madness’ cover charge ($30 on Friday, $50 on Saturday and $40 on Sunday). But it can also make a player restless and perhaps a little guilty, betraying a childhood spent maximizing coin life. Where one might spend half an hour on a single game in a pizza parlor, here visitors could play a single ball on every machine and probably not have enough time to play them all.

Just a few of the more than 1,100 pinball and video games on free play at the Museum of Pinball in Banning.
Just a few of the more than 1,100 pinball and video games on free play at the Museum of Pinball in Banning. (Museum of Pinball)

In their heyday, pinball machines were seemingly based around anything: commuting (Cross-Town, 1966), hippies (Doodle Bug, 1971), derivative hard rock (Ted Nugent, 1979). From the 1970s to the present, machines became extensions of film marketing. The Museum of Pinball boasts two machines apiece with Sylvester Stallone (“Rocky,” 1982, and “Demolition Man,” 1994) and Christopher Lloyd (“Back to the Future,” 1990, and “The Addams Family,” 1992). Not to be outdone, Arnold Schwarzenegger has three (“Terminator 2,” 1991, “Last Action Hero,” 1993, and “Terminator 3,” 2003).

Pinball business was so good at one point that Bally’s began making pinball machines about pinball (Fireball, 1972, & Silverball Mania, 1980), while the Who’s “Tommy,” the double album/movie/stage musical about a pinball prodigy, has two machines, one for the movie (Wizard!, 1975) and one for the musical (Pinball Wizard, 1994). If Broadway buffs remain unfulfilled by that offering, they can also take a spin on 1990’s “Phantom of the Opera.”

Players enjoy a game at the Museum of Pinball.
Players enjoy a game at the Museum of Pinball. (Museum of Pinball)

Weekend wizards

Kat Peterson looked forward, unblinking. She had attended all three days of the weekend, driving up from San Diego, and was fixated on topping the high score of Gorgar (Williams, 1979), a titillating depiction of the devil and an unlucky pair of lovers. “I have to beat that score,” she said with unrelenting focus. “I’ve been trying since yesterday.”

The endlessly scrolling dot matrix above many modern machines taunts and touts the victories of previous gladiators, memorialized with only three letters, oftentimes in inappropriate combinations. But for the most part, pinball is a solitary game. Each pull of the shooter is an attempt to uncover a new corner of the playfield. For the 5,000 people in attendance over the weekend, most do not interact with each other. Men, women and children all mumble and curse to themselves, striking strange poses in an attempt to coerce the ball toward a blinking ramp and away from the center gap.

To call the space a museum is a bit generous. Those looking for the history and evolution of pinball should look elsewhere. Aside from a small display at the entrance featuring an 1800s-era bagatelle and amusing assortment of objects inside vintage machines, visitors are left to self-discovery. A tour of the collection’s finer gems would be a nice addition.

The machines are lined up in a vaguely chronological order. The early Gottlieb and Bally’s machines are a quiet respite from the muscly bells-and-whistles of testosterone-heavy titles by Data East, which seemed to replace nearly every part of the control system with a replica of a gun.

A team of 70 volunteer technicians roam the museum in red shirts, lifting and inspecting machines, checking in with guests to make sure everything is going as intended.

“These games are made to withstand the abuse,” says Weeks. “We want the games played. They’re like a classic car. If you aren’t driving those games, you are going to have problems with the coils and springs, electrical issues.”

From the graphics to the placement of every screw, the machines at the Museum of Pinball prove its worth. They’re almost pieces of art. And each tells a story, a unique topographical map of plastic and rubber.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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‘Museum of Pinball’

Where: 700 S. Hathaway, Banning

Info: For future events check museumofpinball.org

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