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Flipper Fantasy: Collecting Pinball Machines

Remember Those Classic Pinball Machines from Your Teen Years? Well, They're Still Out There, and They're for Sale
Terrence Fagan
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 1)

For Roger Sharpe, director of licensing for WMS Games Inc., parent company of pinball and amusements giant Williams Bally/Midway, pinball's appeal is metaphysical: "In pinball, I am the mad scientist. I am the one that's creating those things and getting the thing to reach out or the Borg ship to fire back at me in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I am the one who's effecting what is happening, what's taking place. That's the part that's magical."

Sitting in his office at the Williams factory in Chicago, surrounded by pinball artwork and plastic figures of comic book characters, Sharpe, 47, warms to his subject. "We look at the brave new world of interactive entertainment with its 'total immersion.' What's more immersive than being in a pinball machine? If you're really at one with the game, if you're really in sync, or as an old buddy of mine once said in Sports Illustrated, if you're really in 'the zone,' you are the pinball machine. There's no two ways about it. For that 10 seconds or 20 seconds or a minute, where everything is just kind of clicking, there's no difference between you and the game. Both of you have the same rhythm; it's almost as if both of you have the same heartbeat. So if you could lose yourself in that world, in that reality, you don't need a headset."

Pinball as we know it today is a Chicago-born child of the Great Depression, but its ancestry lies in an eighteenth century parlor game of the French nobility called bagatelle. Using a small cue, or pusher, on a slanted table, players shot balls into holes on the playfield. When French soldiers crossed the Atlantic in the early 1780s to aid the American colonists in their revolution, they brought their bagatelles with them.

The game caught on, and for the next century, bagatelle and its variations would spread with American expansion to saloons and drawing rooms across the continent. (An 1862 political cartoon showed President Lincoln playing bagatelle in a sleazy saloon.) In 1870 a toy manufacturer in Cincinnati named Montague Redgrave brought bagatelle to the next level, replacing the cue with a spring plunger. Bagatelles for adults, and smaller versions for children (the plastic marble games you played as a child were a type of bagatelle) proliferated into the next century. But it took a worldwide economic collapse before bagatelle truly took off.

The year was 1931. The United States was in the depths of the Depression; breadlines and unemployment were the norm. But one industry was about to explode. In Youngstown, Ohio, a small company called Automatic Industries created a coin-operated bagatelle known as Whiffle Board (then known as a marble or "pin" game, for the pins surrounding the scoring holes), while Chicago's In & Out-Door Games Company Inc. presented the Whoopee Game. They were a hit, but the Whoopee, at $175, was prohibitively expensive. Later that year in a Chicago garage, a man named David Gottlieb and his family created a colorful marble game at one-tenth the price, called Baffle Ball.

What was once a fad became a phenomenon. For $17.50, druggists and tobacconists, barkeeps and barbers could buy a countertop-sized Baffle Ball that, at seven balls for a penny, often paid for itself within three or four days. "All of these other businesses were failing, but the people buying these machines, their problem was that they couldn't lift the machines because they were so full of pennies," says Mark Houk, who is filming a documentary on pinball with his partner, Howard Cook, and their Revere, Massachusetts-based production company, ESS Productions. "Everybody was out of work and out of luck, and here is this little device on a drugstore counter, and for a penny you could forget you were unemployed and just play your troubles away." The game's appeal was not lost on the literati of the time. In William Saroyan's 1939 play, The Time of Your Life, a "marble game addict" named Willie spends the entire drama trying to defeat a pin game in a man versus machine parable. In the end, he succeeds.

Baffle Ball sold 50,000 units in less than six months and set Gott-lieb on the financial path that would make his name synonymous with pinball; but he couldn't make nearly enough Baffle Balls to meet the overwhelming demand. Tired of the back orders, Gottlieb distributor Ray Moloney introduced a game at the 1932 Chicago Coin Machine Exposition that raised the stakes. It was called Ballyhoo, taking its name and design from a popular magazine of its day. The game was flashy, it had a hugely successful promotional campaign, it even had a jingle: "What'll you do in '32, Ballyhoo!"--and in the depths of the Depression 75,000 machines were sold in seven months. The company that grew from Ballyhoo took its name from the game, becoming the amusements giant Bally.

With the incredible success of these games, the pinball industry exploded. Home to the majority of manufacturers, Chicago became the pinball capital of the world, a title it still holds. By the end of 1932, there were about 150 pinball manufacturers (many of them one- or two-man operations), creating hundreds of different games. The competition was fierce, with companies stealing ideas from each other faster than you could say "patent lawsuit." Of the 150 manufacturers in business in 1932, only 14 survived to 1934.

The more successful firms offered innovations in sound, electricity, artwork and game design at a dizzying pace. Electricity, lighted backglasses, plastic bumpers and legs for the countertop machines were all in use by 1937. A young California game designer named Harry Williams (who in 1942 founded the firm that thrives today as Williams Electronics Inc., parent company of WMS Games) created the infamous tilt device in 1932--a ball on a pedestal that, when disturbed, would fall on a metal ring and stop play. Williams soon improved on his tilt with a pendulum device that is still in use today.

While many machines offered exciting new features, it was Bally's Bumper in 1937 that revolutionized pinball. On that model, the company replaced the playfield's pins and scoring holes with electrified bumpers that racked up points when hit by the ball.

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