Good Times

Reliving the decade we never had

"The game just ended," explains David G. Miles Jr., the "Godfather of Skating," who first brought music to the Sunday skate in Golden Gate Park in 1979. "Come on back in a while."

Following a rumor, my photographer and I head over to Alameda, trolling four quiet blocks around the intersection of Santa Clara and Webster in hopes of seeing evidence of Lucky Ju Ju (www.ujuju.com), a room housing a private collection of 20 1970s pinball machines, offered for free play every Saturday night by Michael Schiess. But the streets are mute; Alameda is not giving up her cache of disco-era diversions easily. Just as we are about to admit defeat, a large man with a big dog, an iron cross T-shirt, and a matching cap cheerfully points us in the direction of a nearby parking lot.

Following the muffled sound of surf music and ringing bells, we slip through an open doorway into a tiny storefront obscured entirely by band fliers and posters, into the land of Lucky Ju Ju.

"Initially, I got interested in collecting pinball machines just for the artwork," explains Schiess, who teaches a class called "Interactive Kinetic Art and the Pinball Machine" at the Crucible when he's not freelancing for the Exploratorium, Chabot Space and Science Center, and Ned Kahn Studios. "Every machine has a theme and a story. I wanted to repaint and retheme them. Then I realized they are a great way to teach people about electricity and electronics. They're so fun and simple.

"Now I want to open a little museum that traces the history of Alameda through the pinball machine. Before the Navy came in, Alameda was like Coney Island. There were roller coasters and arcades and Ferris wheels. But, for now, I do this every Saturday."

As we talk, the small room slowly fills with people from around the East Bay, who wave hello and drop donations in a jar to help pay for the rent and electricity on the space. Some of them just bring beer, which they deposit in the cooler alongside the chips and homemade guacamole Schiess supplied for the night.

"Folks drink beer in here, so unchaperoned kids aren't allowed," he explains.

Unchaperoned adults are quite a different matter.

"I can't think of anything more fun to do on a Saturday night," says Jem Gruber, singer for the East Bay band Cleve-Land, who tracked down Schiess when he decided to buy a pinball machine.

"I would've gotten totally ripped off if it weren't for Schiess," says the 35-year-old Gruber with all the enthusiasm of a devotee. "I fixed up the machine I have, and it's rockin' out in my basement, but I still come here because it's a nice little social scene. Just like arcades in the old days."

None of Schiess' pinball machines -- El Dorado, High Hand, Scuba, Jack in the Box, Royal Flush -- was produced after 1979, and they all have the smooth, uncomplicated feel of those early games.

"Take Scuba," says Schiess, pulling back the plunger and sliding his fingers over the flipper buttons. "It's such a fluid machine. I have it set on a slow play, so it feels like you're playing underwater. No specials, no bonuses, just short flippers and the ball. It puts you in a certain frame of mind."


"It's the swoosh and glide and the music, and you just feel like you're on top of the world," says a gal in sequins and bell-bottoms as she adjusts her roller skates.

In the rink, a man in a purple pimp coat and two women in halter tops sail past, while "Dancing Queen" blares over the sound system. Four skaters use the center circle to practice a dance routine that even I remember from back in the day, as a very funky Santa tries on some break dance moves.

While the Dry Ice Roller Hockey Arena could do better in terms of lighting and décor, the 60 skaters who have turned up to roller disco like it's 1979 have more than made up for the shortcomings with fancy threads and fancier footwork. I smile, the effects of cereal psychosis vanishing with every rotation of the wheels.

"Roller disco is going to make a comeback," assures David G. Miles Jr.

At least for the night, I agree.

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