The Museum of Pinball was only open for nine days a year in pre-Covid times, but when it was open, it glowed like -- well, like an arcade in its neon-lit heyday.
Pinball machines may be relegated now to bars or bowling alleys, but for museum owner John Weeks, they had a lifelong appeal. That's why he opened the Museum of Pinball -- to take guests back to their youth, or to introduce young people to games they couldn't find on an Xbox or PlayStation.
And for a few years, the museum was a monument to nostalgia. Weeks' museum was an arcade with so many games that they'd only fit in a windowless warehouse in Banning, California. From 2013 to earlier this month, the museum was a tourist destination for pinball fans, who could pay to play on any of its hundreds of machines. It billed itself as the world's largest collection of pinball machines, and a Guinness World Record was even set there for most people playing pinball at once (the record, thanks to the museum and its patrons, is now 331 players).
But nostalgia couldn't sustain the museum forever. The Museum of Pinball shuttered for good this month, leaving its illustrious collection of rare or unusual pinball machines and arcade games -- around 1,700 machines total, Weeks estimates -- to be auctioned off. More than 750 of them have already been sold -- the rest will be available at a weekend-long auction later this month.
"It's like a funeral," Weeks told CNN of the museum's closure. "There's no place like this place. There probably never will be."
The museum had an enviable collection of pinball and arcade games
Weeks' obsession with pinball has gone through phases, but it first peaked when he was in middle school, he said.
"When I saw my first pinball machine, I was just 13 or 14 years old, at a motel my dad stayed at in San Diego," he said.
At the time, he said, he imagined it was the only machine of its kind in the world. So when he returned home and found out how many more pinball machines there were, he looked for ways to make his hobby into a business.
In the 1970s, as a teenager, he opened up an arcade in his parents' garage. At 18, he traded in his home location for a real storefront. That arcade closed a few years later, and Weeks abandoned his obsession with pinball for a few years ... until the mid-2000s, when he noticed a classic pinball machine in the corner of a bar where he was attending a concert, and all those teenage dreams of an arcade business returned, he said.
He approached a friend about opening a "barcade," but by the time those plans fell through, Weeks had already started amassing a sizable collection of pinball machines. They'd need a facility large enough to store them all -- and Weeks found the warehouse in Banning, a small city around 80 miles east of Los Angeles.
The museum, housed in a 44,000-square-foot warehouse flanked by mountains, had housed around 800 pinball machines and just under 1,000 arcade games, Weeks said. They were all playable, and "people used to visit this place from all over the world" to spend all day playing retro arcade games.
The museum ultimately wasn't profitable, though, due to its very limited schedule. Weeks tried to offset the cost of running the place by renting space to marijuana growers, he said, but it wasn't enough to keep the pinball paradise open.
Pinball great Bob Matthews, who runs the INDISC Pinball Tournament, which was held at the Museum of Pinball for five years, said fans of the game would dearly miss Weeks' museum.
"The greatest thing about the museum was really not just the fact that they had so many games but that they had such a broad variety of games," Matthews said in an appearance this month on the Pinball Profile podcast.
There was hope, briefly, that Weeks could relocate the museum to a new location in Palm Springs. Ultimately, the process of moving 1,700 oversized gaming consoles would've been too expensive, Weeks said.
The first weekend of the auction was successful, earning more than $3 million, according to the outlet Pinball News, which recorded the results. Among the most expensive machines was a "Back to the Future"-themed machine that sold for $14,000 and a limited-edition Addams Family machine that fetched $22,500.
If you can name a hyper-specific piece of pop culture, chances are that Weeks' museum had it in pinball form. From Dolly Parton, to "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Star Wars" to the the Pinball Wizard of The Who's "Tommy," there was a branded pinball machine (or, in the case of "Star Wars," at least seven) for that.
"Each one's kind of a work or art," he said.
There are similar shrines to the arcade centerpiece on the West Coast, including the Pacific Pinball Museum, Weeks noted. But their collections often are not as large or expansive as the Museum of Pinball's once was.
"There's other pinball museums popping up -- just nothing like this," he said. "This is like the Disneyland of pinball museums."
The final auctions of the Museum of Pinball's collection will take place virtually from September 24 to 26 through Captain's Auction Warehouse.