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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 5)

The first order of business is to choose what game you want. Since the invention of the flipper in 1947, the U.S. pinball industry has created about 1,200 different machines. One of those is the game that, for whatever reason, haunted your adolescence. For some collectors, it's the first game they ever played; for others, it's the game they couldn't beat. The search for that game is the way many collectors get started.

Before you set out, a few caveats are in order. First, collecting pinballs can be addictive. Just ask Gordon Hasse, Steve Young or Randy Silverstine. Or Tim Arnold, with his 1,000-plus machines. "It's not your average hobby," Arnold says. "Two or three in the basement is an average hobby. We kind of define collectors as one-digit, two-digit and three-digit collectors. The one-digit collector has a couple in his basement, while the two-digit collector, he no longer has his cars in his garage. The three-digit collector is spending all his money on a storefront or a bunch of U-Store-Its and has no money left at the end of the month."

And what do they say about four-digit collectors? "Financially and timewise, it makes absolutely no sense to have that many," he admits.

Second, pinballs are not stamps or coins. At six feet high, four and a half feet long and 275 pounds (on average), adding a pinball to your collection may mean adding a wing to your house. So if you live where extra space is hard to come by, grab a tape measure.

Third, take a little self-appraisal. How handy are you? Pinballs are a fabulous conglomeration of wood and metal and glass and wires and solenoids and coils and transformers and microchips and circuits and plastic and paint and--well, you get the idea. For many collectors, that's part of the attraction. Arnold has totally rebuilt about a fifth of his collection--"180 of 'em, up and running," which he claims is the largest operating collection in the world. Each game takes about 40 to 80 hours to recondition. When he rebuilds 400 to 500 of them, Arnold hopes to open a pinball museum, or as he calls it, "a big-ass pinball arcade," in downtown Las Vegas.

Hasse also has dreams of opening a museum one day. "I love to repair them," says Hasse. "It's therapy for me. All of my work during the day is head work. It's refreshing to be able to do something tactile, physical. I love nothing better on a rainy Saturday than to grab a six-pack of beer and tinker with one of these things."

But Hasse warns, "You almost have to become self-sufficient if you want to become a major collector. First of all, it's very hard to find people who can work on these things, and it's even harder to be able to afford them. Generally speaking, the only people available to do this are people who are route mechanics for current operators or distributors, and the only time you're going to be able to get them to do anything with your stuff is on their off time."

Assuming that you have a barn in your yard and you teethed on Allen wrenches as a baby, your next step is do your research. "Don't buy a game you don't know something about," says Dick Bueschel.

The first step is to subscribe to Jim Schelberg's pinGame journal, a "casually monthly" magazine published in Plymouth, Michigan, by Schelberg, 46, a podiatrist with about 50 pinballs in his collection. He started the magazine in 1991, about a year after he received his first game, a 1959 Gottlieb Straight Shooter, from his wife as a birthday gift. "I've always liked to take old things and make them look new again," he says.

PinGame journal is a pinball collector's sourcebook, with features on pinball events, machines new and old, letters from other collectors, industry news and a classified section called "The Good Stuff." It's a great place for the budding collector to become market savvy.


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