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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 6)

Next you should decide on what type of machine you want. Are you attracted to the classic lines and the nostalgia of the older electromechanicals, or has the flash and speed of the newer solid-state machines caught your eye? Are you collecting a certain theme, such as games with a billiards or poker motif (both very popular areas)? Do you want a collection of "firsts": first flippers, bumpers, drop targets, etc?

Or perhaps you prefer pinballs for their backglasses. With the electromechanicals, that pretty much means two artists: Leroy Parker and George Molentin.

"Leroy Parker, probably one of the best backglass artists of all time, was great at drawing those Vargas-type girls," says Mark Houk. "There's no such thing as a flat-chested woman on a backglass. The reason for that is that pinball has always been geared toward young males. Everybody says, 'Oh, pinball's for everybody.' Baloney. Look at the backglass--it tells you one thing: it's geared to young men. There's not one backglass around, hardly, without beautiful women on it."

Arnold also singles out Parker's particular style. "His specialty was always--we call them 'Parker babes'--women in various stages of undress. It was just amazing the quality as well as the quantity of what he did. And he did it not only for Gottlieb. He did it for Genco, Chicago Coin, Marvel Manufacturing, a lot of the Williams games and a lot of the United games--the backglass art, the playfield art and the cabinet designs. As far as we can tell, [his prolific output] would only be humanly possible if he came to work at 8, sat down and drew till noon, took a half hour off for lunch and drew till 5, from 1937 or '38 through 1964." Arnold estimates Parker did the artwork for more than a thousand games.

Molentin, an artist at Williams during the 1950s, had a very different style than Parker, says Hasse. "Molentin was much more in the mold of the great fashion illustrators, whereas Parker was much more in the genre of the cartoon, or panel artists--the Milt Caniffs, Wallace Woods, Alex Raymonds. Parker tended to draw his women in kind of a very stereotypical, cartoon, leering sort of way. They were always wasp-waisted, melon-breasted, just fabulous-looking women. George, on the other hand, his women were at once more realistic and yet more romantic. He drew them a lot softer; they were clearly no less voluptuous, but they were always ladies. You always had a sense that there was a refinement to George's illustrations that was lacking in Parker's. It was a more sophisticated approach, to be honest with you."

Some collectors collect nothing but backglasses, dubbing them an art form. "They are the Tiffany glass of tomorrow," predicts Bueschel.

To the big question: Do you want to collect a certain manufacturer of a certain era? If the answer is yes and the make is Gottlieb electromechanical flippers from 1947 to 1960, be prepared for a lot of company. Games from pinball's golden age still dominate the market, and Gottlieb dominates those games. Many of the machines pictured on these pages--the Dragonette (a 1954 spoof on the popular Dragnet radio serial of the day), Grand Slam (1953), Happy Days (1952), Lady Luck (1954) and the 1953 Queen of Hearts (all five are from Gordon Hasse's collection)-- are Gottlieb single-player games with wood rails, among the most popular of their time and in great demand among collectors today. According to Young, Gottlieb wood-rails are running about $900 each in restored condition.

So what is it about the electromechanical Gottliebs?

"The feel of the game, first and foremost," says Arnold, who boasts 382 of the 384 types of electromechanical flipper games Gottlieb ever made. "It feels more solid, the parts are definitely beefier. And there was always more power to the flippers and bumpers. Also there was a continuity of design. Every game from '47 through '83 was designed by one of three guys. One guy did 162 games in a row. Also, the Gottlieb game was always more of a player's game and less of a punter's game. The Bally games were more for guys on dates and guys in the bus station who were killing some time. They were faster playing, and there was less risk and reward."

But Steve Young sees the demand for electromechanicals changing. "The hobby's moving. The guy who's 40 years old now, 15 years ago he played a solid-state game, not an electromechanical one. He's looking for Kiss or Playboy or Mata Hari or Black Knight or Firepower, because that's the game he remembers playing," Young says. "It changes the flavor of what the collector base is, andthe new collectors tend to collect newer games. If you go to shows, you see a lot of newer games. And a person who likes the '50s games may be disappointed, because there may not be a representation of '50s games like what we're hoping to see."


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