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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

Sirens wail as bells ring and voices cry out in the darkness, taunting voices drawing you closer. Flashes of light and color compete for your attention, the faces of heroic men and beautiful women stare back at you from the glass, animated scenes dance across dot matrix displays. You step up to the machine and drop a quarter or two into the slot, press a button, and the machine rumbles to life. A ball pops into the lane, you hit the plunger and start to play.

Your eyes follow the silver steel ball as it careens around the playfield, diving down an alley, ricocheting off a bumper. Voices boom out of the speakers, guiding you as you send the ball up ramps and through gates. Lights flash on, revealing TRIPLE SCORE and EXTRA BALL, and quickly, teasingly flash off again. The score continues to mount as you send the ball back into the game with the smack of a flipper. Extraneous noises and distractions fade into the background. Now there are no deadlines, no bills, no career pressures. It's just you and the game. You're playing pinball.

The pinball obsession has gripped the United States (and a surprising number of other countries) since its explosive birth in the 1930s. In the past 65 years, pinball has gone from a simple marble game to the classic wood-railed beauty of the 1950s to the solid-state, digitized, multileveled, maddening machine that it is today.

The financial impact of that appeal is considerable. In 1994, pinball made up roughly 38 percent, about $3 billion, of the $8 billion-a-year U.S. coin-operated amusements industry (video took about 45 percent and the remainder went to skee ball, arcade baseball and the like). By comparison, the U.S. film industry grossed about $5.4 billion in 1994. But pinball reached its billions a quarter at a time.

A lot of these quarters didn't come from kids. Wander into New York City's Broadway Arcade any weekday evening, and you're as likely to see men in suits--lawyers, corporate executives, Wall Street brokers, Madison Avenue ad men--at the machines as well as kids in baggy jeans. (Although increasing numbers of women are playing pinball, it is still a male-dominated pursuit.)

But the action isn't just in the arcades and bars. The number of private pinball collectors is growing. For surprisingly reasonable prices (about $350 to $500 on average for a restored machine), pinball collectors, predominantly men between the ages of 25 and 55, are buying the machines they remember from childhood summers at the beach arcades, teen years at the local pizza joint or their college nights at the student pub. Whether they're searching out machines from their youth or gathering particular genres of pinball history, an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 collectors worldwide have created an expanding subculture, complete with books, magazines, conventions, clubs, competitions and Internet sites, all dedicated to the pursuit of the silver ball.

What is the appeal of that 2.8 ounce, 1 1/16-inch-diameter steel ball? Ask 10 collectors and you'll get as many different answers.

"Pinball gives three things Americans demand: instant gratification, fast response and aesthetics," says Richard Bueschel, a collector and author in the Chicago suburb of Mt. Prospect. "There might have been a pinball machine named Siesta," he says with a laugh, "but I can't think of it." (Bueschel, a historian of pinball and other coin-operated machines, is writing The Encyclopedia of Pinball. Volume one is due out in November.)

To Sarasota, Florida, physician and cigar aficionado Randy Silverstine, owner of about 120 machines, pinball's appeal is in its individuality. "Most lay people think, 'Pinball is pinball,'" he says. "They don't necessarily care which machine they put their money into. But each machine has its own personality; it plays differently, for collectors and others who play a lot of pinball."

Tim Arnold stopped counting when his collection of pinball machines topped 1,000. "It's beyond a hobby," he says. "It's a sickness." A former owner of amusement arcades near Lansing, Michigan, Arnold decided to keep his old pinball machines rather than accept the "insulting" $50 a piece offered in trade by dealers of the new machines. He bought a building and started stacking--and the machines added up. "The floors were sagging, the back wall was ready to come down," Arnold recalls. "There was stuff back there that I didn't even know I had." It took him about two years during the early 1990s to move his collection from Michigan to a specially built aircraft hangar behind his new home in Las Vegas.

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