WCBE

Tilting Toward Fun: A Museum For Pinball Wizards To Come And Play

Mar 13, 2016

When most people want to play a game, the first thing they reach for is likely a smartphone or tablet. Actual pinball machines have become quaint curiosities, but a father-son duo in California is keeping these old-school games alive in a museum.

The Museum of Pinball is hidden away in an old industrial building, just off Interstate 10 and about 90 miles east of Los Angeles in Banning, Calif. It's pretty quiet when the rows upon rows of pinball machines are not turned on. But once the switch is flipped, it gets loud.

"I built this collection picking them up one by one, and I put them in my house," says John Weeks, who founded the museum together with his son, Johnathan Weeks. "I'd fill up buildings with them, storage units."

Their collection is huge. There are 650 games ranging from vintage 1950s-era machines all the way up to ones based on current TV shows such as The Walking Dead. John began amassing the games in the early 1980s.

At first, he thought of opening a bar with an arcade, but that would only allow a handful of the collection to be played at any given time. The benefit of the museum is that all the machines are out on display. But Johnathan explains there is a drawback.

"You gotta remember when the museum is so large and there's so many games plugged in," he says. "Just to flip the breakers is thousands of dollars to turn it on for the day."

That means the museum is only open a few times a year. During a recent rare opening, Dolores Barrett was trying her hand at it.

"I've really never played pinball. But I started out by playing The Terminator, and now I'm hooked," she says.

Although she's old enough to have grown up with pinball, Barrett says her parents never let her have a quarter to play as a kid. Now, she's making up for lost time.

On a different aisle of old timey machines, Jamie Vanderet is playing one called Sea Ray. He's here from Ottawa and says he picked up the game at a bar back in Canada.

"Once you start to play, you kind of get the bug," he says.

When he was a kid, pinball and arcades were already starting to fade. He says it's not nostalgia drawing him to the games.

"There's just something about like the lights and colors, especially with the older machines," he says.

Vanderet thinks it has something to do with the physicality of the real machines.

"I have played versions on the iPad and on the computer and stuff, it's not nearly the same thing as playing it in the flesh. I mean, the machines all have their own quirks that you don't really get into when you're playing a digital version," he says. "It doesn't quite match. Not even close."

Quietly tapping a screen is one way to play a game, but as Barrett discovers, shouting and celebrating with each click of the flipper and bounce of the pinball — surrounded by audience — is more fun.

"Oh my goodness, I'm doing this. I can't believe it. I can't believe this!" Barrett says.

Copyright 2017 KVCR. To see more, visit KVCR.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

You might be playing Candy Crush on your phone right now, but I bet you wish you were playing pinball. Pinball is still cool despite the fact that there are now pinball museums. Matt Guilhelm of member station KVCR went to check one out.

MATT GUILHELM, BYLINE: It's hidden away just off Interstate 10, about 90 miles east of Los Angeles, in an old industrial building. Row upon row of pinball machines. If they're not turned on, well, it's pretty quiet. But when the switch is flipped...

JOHNATHAN WEEKS: It's going to get pretty loud in here.

GUILHELM: That's Johnathan Weeks. With his dad, John, the father-son duo run the Museum of Pinball in Banning, Calif. The collection is huge - 650 games ranging from vintage 1950s-era machines all the way up to ones based on current TV shows like "The Walking Dead." John Weeks, the dad, began amassing the games in the early 1980s.

JOHN WEEKS: I built this collection picking them up one by one. And I put them in my house, I'd fill up buildings with them, storage units.

GUILHELM: At first, John thought of opening up a bar with an arcade. But that would only allow a handful of the collection to be played at any given time. The benefit of the museum is all the machines are out. However, his son Johnathan explains there is a drawback.

JOHNATHAN WEEKS: You got to remember when - the museum is so large and there's so many games plugged in. Just to flip the breakers is thousands of dollars to turn it on for the day.

GUILHELM: That means the museum is only open a few times a year. And during a recent rare opening, someone new to the game is trying her hand at it.

DOLORES BARRETT: Well, my name is Dolores Barrett. I've really never played pinball. But I started out by playing The Terminator and now I'm hooked.

GUILHELM: Although she's old enough to have grown up with pinball, Barrett says her parents never let her have a quarter to play as a kid. Now she's making up for lost time.

BARRETT: Here we go. And the ball is bouncing about. And just waiting for it to go down through between the two things like it just did (laughter). I'm new at this. Did I mention that?

GUILHELM: With her fingers still on the flipper buttons, Barrett is on her way to becoming a pinball wizard. On a different aisle of old time machines, Jamie Vanderet is playing one called Sea Ray. He's here from Ottawa and says he picked up the game at a bar back in Canada.

JAMIE VANDERET: Once you start to play, you kind of get the bug.

GUILHELM: Vanderet is 32. When he was a kid, pinball and arcades were already starting to fade. He says it's not nostalgia drawing him to the games.

VANDERET: There's just something about, like, the lights and colors, especially with the older machines.

GUILHELM: Vanderet thinks it has something to do with the physicality of the real machines.

VANDERET: I have played versions on iPad and on the computer and stuff. It's not nearly the same thing as playing in flesh. I mean, the machines all have their own quirks that you don't really get into when you're playing a digital version. It's just - it doesn't quite match. Not even close.

GUILHELM: Quietly tapping the screen is one way to play a game.

BARRETT: All right. Yes.

GUILHELM: But as Dolores Barrett discovers, shouting and celebrating with each click of the flipper and bounce of the pinball, surrounded by an audience, is more fun.

BARRETT: Oh, my goodness. I'm doing this. I can't believe it. I can't believe this.

GUILHELM: For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhelm in Banning, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.