May 4, 2006 1:59 PM PDT

Retro-gamers tap their inner pinball wizards

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"Do you know how all this came about?" asked Graham Hale. Twenty years ago, Hale explained, he, Mac, and other antinuclear activist friends played pinball when they were not blocking test sites or getting arrested.

"We would get some beer, play pinball and (gripe) about the government," Hale said. "It was pinball therapy."

"Some people come down here to talk politics, art, theater. And others to play pinball," said Tim Volz, a "pinhead," as afficionados call themselves. "It's a one-of-a-kind place."

Mac's oldest machines date from the late 1930s and early 1940s, before the golden age of pinball in the '50s and '60s. The older machines, called "shakers," don't have flippers, meaning they require more of a subtle bodily force to "shake" the machine, as opposed to quick fingers and electromagnetic velocity to propel the ball around.

"There's this ancient art we call 'the nudge' and it's pretty spooky stuff. If you nudge the right way, a certain energy will go into the ball," said Mac, who often sports a floppy velvet court-jester hat on his head and a duck caller around his neck. "You have to nudge very subtly. Slap the side of the machine at the very instance (the ball) hits the bumper, and it ricochets off it," he said. Nudging too hard triggers a "tilt" or "slam switch" mechanism that turns the game off.

Speaking of spooky, in the minds of these players, there seems to be a mystical undercurrent to pinball. Volz spoke about "electrical chi moving through the game," and Erickson described a "zen awareness and in-the-moment quality of reacting to spontaneous situations."

And then there's Lucky Ju Ju Pinball, a commercial arcade inspired by Pinball Mac's. "Ju ju" is defined as "an object used as a fetish, charm, amulet" and "the supernatural power ascribed to it," on the arcade's Web site.

Lucky Ju Ju isn't secret, but it's practically hidden, tucked away in a strip mall behind a diner called "Tillies" and next to a church in Alameda, Calif., a small town across the bay from San Francisco. Where Mac's attracts an older crowd for whom vintage pinball machines are a nostalgic childhood odyssey, Lucky Ju Ju's customers are younger, a mix of goth and "rockabilly" hipsters to whom anything retro is in style.

Like a museum curator, Lucky Ju Ju Pinball owner Michael Schiess can discuss in historical and political detail the art that graces the backs of the more than two dozen pinball machines in his arcade. Adults can play at Lucky Ju Ju for as long as they want for $10 on Friday and Saturday nights.

For example, the "Space Odyssey" pinball game from 1976 acknowledges the Soviet-American endeavor to dock together two vehicles in space. There is also the subversive art of Bally's classic "Captain Fantastic" machine from the same year, featuring a disco-era Elton John performing for a crowd that is, among other things, groping, flipping and Nazi saluting.

"Every one of (those machines) is a little slice of history," said Schiess, wearing a white cowboy hat with a feather in the band. "Every one of them has a story and is a reflection of history at that time."

Schiess creates "interactive kinetic art" out of old pinball parts and has taught classes on electricity and pinball engineering. He opened up a machine to show me what he was working on, lifting the face to reveal the guts--a mechanical board with a neat tangle of wires running between a 110-volt transformer, a score motor, and switches and relays that trigger the lights and sounds.

Part of the proceeds from Lucky Ju Ju Pinball are going toward opening up the Neptune Beach Amusement Park, a pinball museum and educational center that will commemorate an early 20th-century amusement park in Alameda.

Schiess takes his pinball evangelizing on the road, too. He has installed six machines in a solar-powered Spartan Manor trailer and plans to pull it behind his 1959 El Camino or another car to the Pin-A-Go-Go Pinball Show, a gathering of "pinheads" in Dixon, Calif., scheduled for May 19 to 21.

"Pinball seems tame compared to video games. A lot of people still like to come back to pinball because it's real," Schiess said.

"There is only so much you can do with a computer before you realize you're doing the same thing over and over," he added. "Sure, the graphics are neat. But you are basically playing against someone's program. Pinball is you against gravity."

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