SANTA ANA, Calif. — Dave Miner used to spend a lot of time in bowling alleys.
It made sense. It was the 1980s; Southern California. He was a teenager.
Bottled water is served. No alcohol or food allowed.
But like a lot of teens who hung in bowling alleys but weren't really into bowling, Miner's alley time was spent playing pinball.
He fed a college tuition worth of quarters into the slot, trying to keep the steel balls in play long enough to earn a free game or two.
Some might consider this a huge waste of time, and they'd have a point. But Miner found the game's simplicity appealing. And the gloriously cheesy pinball art — usually chronicling the pop culture vibe of the moment — was beautiful.
One day, when Miner saw a repairman reveal the mystery of the machine's guts, the kid from Arcadia, Calif., was transfixed.
Decades later, he's still a complete pinhead. Miner was 15, he thinks, when he bought his first machine.
He was working part-time as a computer lab assistant — a.k.a. the Epicenter of Nerd-dom — and he shelled out $300 to a guy getting rid of some machines from an arcade in Buena Park, Calif. The one Miner bought was Gottlieb Circus, with art by Gordon Morison, who in those days was one of the bigger names in pinball art.
The purchase virtually certified Miner as a lifelong geek. (He's OK with that.) It also fed his soul.
“It was a beautiful game,” he said.
Over the next few decades Miner kept feeding his passion. Today, Miner, 45, a computer executive, is a celebrity in the tiny but still vibrant world of pinball. He owns one of the world's most diverse private collections of pinball machines, with pieces representing each key innovation and era in the history of the game.
Miner recently opened his 80-machine collection to the public. Some date back to the dawn of the Great Depression, when the first coin-operated pinball games were manufactured in the U.S.
Pinball Forever, Miner calls his business. Rachel Miner, Dave's daughter knows pinball history. She's 12.
She can talk about the first machines, built in the 1930s. She can talk about the big years, the '50s through the early '80s, when everything from the games themselves to the rise of bar culture to random influences like the rock song “Pinball Wizard” and the movie “Tommy” helped boost the game. She can talk about the time pinball nearly croaked (again, in the '80s), because of the rise of video games.
She can even talk about the current resurrection of pinball, as the game today is a popular niche entertainment consumed by back-in-the-day pinhead types, like Dave, and youthful hipsters, like herself.
Before she talks about all this, Rachel tapes a homemade sign to the door of the office, located at the back of a light industrial complex in Santa Ana, near Grand and Edinger Avenues.
For $20 (cash preferred), visitors can play three hours' worth of games on more than 50 of Miner's machines, most of them from the 1950s through the 1980s. Some of the older machines are relics, meant to be admired but not touched.
Paul Anderson, 48, of Mission Viejo, Calif., who started playing when he was around 12 and, today, is one of about 70 or so who play in the Orange County Pinball League (yes, it exists). He is a Pinball Forever regular.
“Some old kid at the local 7-Eleven, which was at the end of my paper route, saw how I would use both flippers at the same time. (He) took pity on me and showed me a few tips, like playing one flipper at a time,” Anderson says of his introduction to pinball.
Patience, eye-hand coordination, timing, familiarity with the game, and practice, practice, practice — pinball fanatics like Anderson say those are the key skills required for strong pinball.
Miner believes there's a little renaissance going on in pinball playing these days.
Heather, his wife, has a theory about why that's true.
“People come in here, and all of the stress of the day disappears,” she said. “All that matters is the silver ball.”