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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)

But, again, pinball came back. By 1992, players were feeding $2.5 billion into pinball games in the United States; overseas markets added $10 billion. (Sixty percent of the pinball production in the United States--the only nation making pinballs today--is exported.)

Filmmaker Houk offers his theories for the resurgence: "For a while, people had been in this virtual reality thing with video. Maybe people started to realize that pinball is reality; it's not virtual reality. The flipper smacks, the ball hits the glass, it goes around the thing; it's very physical, it's sexual, you're really getting into it, OK? Also, pinball fought back with multilevel games, dot matrix animation, more sophisticated voice sampling and playfield gimmickry that had never been seen before."

New York collector Hasse is one of many pinball aficionados who wasn't surprised by its comeback. "I love a quotation from [pinball designer] Harry Williams. Harry used to like to say, 'The ball is wild.' It's really true," the ad executive says. "There's nothing that is unexpected that can happen in a video game. It's all programmed. It's electronically predestined. There's ultimately predictability. And pinball is always unpredictable, because it's subject only to the laws of physics. There's no such thing as a preprogrammed ball. I think for that reason--the randomness, the unpredictability, the fact that each ball, each game will be subtly different than the one before--pinball will endure."

The past few years have been a mixed bag for pinball. The industry's four manufacturers--Williams Bally/Midway (an 800-pound gorilla, with a 70- to 80-percent market share), Premier Technology (which bought the Gottlieb name), Sega (which bought 1980s pinball maker Data East) and a video game-financed newcomer, Capcom, all based in the Chicago area--are experiencing a slump. Part of the reason is that they are victims of their own success. From a manufacturer's standpoint, the ideal pinball machine spends about a year in an "A" location, such as a high-profile arcade or amusement center, and then moves down the distribution chain--smaller arcades, bowling alleys, pizza parlors, convenience stores, bars, laundromats, airports and rest stops, finally ending in storage or the home market. But games such as Williams' Black Knight (1980), Pin.Bot (1986), Bride of Pin.Bot (1991) and Fun House (1990), with a taunting three-dimensional dummy on the playfield called Rudy, and Bally's Eight Ball Deluxe (1981), Elvira and the Party Monsters (1989) and Twilight Zone (1993) were such huge hits with players that the games lingered in locations far longer than manufacturers would have liked. They were flattered, but flattery doesn't sell new machines.

Perhaps the worst "offender" is Bally's 1992 hit The Addams Family. It has been voted the top-ranked pinball machine four years in a row and it set a flipper-era total production record of 22,000 machines. Based on the 1991 movie of the same name, the game features an electric chair, train wrecks, a haunted house and a clever script, with the voices of the film's stars, Raul Julia and Anjelica Houston.

"Addams Family is one of those enigmatic phenomena--the most successful, most honored pinball machine of all time," says Sharpe. "Obviously, Addams Familys that came out in '92 are still in active operation in most 'A' locations. You had something that had international notoriety--people remembered it from the [1960s] TV series or the old Charles Addams cartoons--brought to life in a pinball machine. You had some unique mechanical devices--Thing's hand coming out and reaching for the ball, "Thing Flips," which was an automatic flipper on the side of the cabinet where if you touched the button, if the ball came at the right time it would actually flip automatically for you. You had really solid game rules--there was a full chore-ography of events and activities from the logic of a pinball machine."

But most importantly, says Sharpe, "The guiding principle for a successful game in pinball design has always been: something that is easy to understand and difficult to master. If anything, The Addams Family resides as the quintessential example of that." Sharpe himself has designed about a dozen games. One of them, Sharpshooter, is on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Sharpe is pictured on the backglass with his wire-rimmed glasses and walrus moustache, dressed in Western garb. "It's my homage to High Noon," he says with a laugh. "I play Gary Cooper's part."

A recent tour of the Williams factory in Chicago with Sharpe offered a glimpse of where pinball is headed. Workers were busily assembling the 3,000 parts of one of Williams' latest games, Johnny Mnemonic, based upon a William Gibson science fiction story about cyberspace that became a 1995 movie starring Keanu Reeves. The machine features a launch button in place of a plunger and a pair of magnetic "data gloves" that snatch up pinballs, which the player than moves to a "Cyber Matrix" magnetic ball lock. Line up three balls and they're launched into "multiball," where all three are in play simultaneously.

"We're fortunate to have 10 design teams here doing pinball," says Sharpe. (There are fewer than two dozen pinball game designers in the world.) "So we have probably the lion's share of pinball designers, not the least of which is Steve Kordek, a legend and a true patriarch of pinball, who has been in the business since 1937. He heads up pinball design here. He's a font of wisdom and knowledge who, as he says, works with these 'young kids,' guys in their 40s and 30s, and some in their 20s. It's nice to have that perspective."

Unlike the simpler days of game-a-month, two-man pinball teams in the 1950s and '60s, today's more complex machines take a crew of creators nine to 18 months--and about $1.5 million--from concept to released machine. "With today's team," says Sharpe, "you have a lead designer, a programmer who is going to create rules, a graphic artist who is going to make it look wonderful and a sound [engineer] or two. Now, with the addition of dot matrix displays for scoring and other visual effects, you probably have one or two people on that, you have a mechanical engineer, a technical engineer, so you are probably looking at a core group of six to eight individuals who are married at the hip--or, more importantly, married at the brain; for what you are doing is giving birth to a creative idea."

Visit an arcade these days and you'll find pinball machines light years removed from what you remember growing up. Bally's Apollo 13, based on the hit movie, has a 13-ball multiball (with the potential for 13 balls in play simultaneously); Bally's Stargate has a 3-D pyramid on the playfield that swallows balls; while Bally's Attack from Mars, just released this spring ("a throwback to '50s sci-fi movies," says Sharpe), features flying saucers, a dot matrix screen with wisecracking women in peril, and, yes, little green men leaping around the playfield.

While commercial pinball is continuing its latest comeback, the collector pinball market is taking off. Home demand is "very high," says Steve Young, the 43-year-old owner of The Pinball Resource in Lagrangeville, New York, and collector, with partner John Fetterman, of about 300 classic pinball machines that he hopes to one day put in a pinball museum. The Pinball Resource is probably the world's largest supplier of pinball parts for the hobbyist (The Mayfair Amusement Co. in Ridgewood, New York, is another large supplier), with an inventory of about one million parts, from bumpers to bulbs, flippers to fuses. ("I think it's over a million," says Young. "Anybody who doesn't believe it can come and count 'em. I won't pay them to count 'em, but they can come count 'em.")

When you enter Young's sprawling split-level home, the site of The Pinball Resource, it's almost like walking into a pinball machine itself. Two machines sit on the living room floor with their guts spilling out ("I've been meaning to get to those," he mutters); backglasses and old bagatelles line the hallways. One room is filled with classic Williams games; another room is lined with classic Gottliebs. These games are in perfect working order, but to play them, you'd first have to remove the piles of schematic drawings of countless other pinballs sprawled across the tops of the machines. Young's office is crowded with file cabinets filled with more schematics, manuals, flyers and pamphlets. "We have all of the documentation that anybody ever had on pinball," Young says. The basement is room after room of shelves lined with labeled boxes--coils, rubber rings, bumper caps, etc. Another room is his workshop, where he makes replacement parts for particularly hard-to-find playfield pieces. "It's a controlled madhouse," Young admits. "I don't live in my house anymore. Pinball lives in my house."

With a customer base of about 5,000 pinball enthusiasts, Young is seeing a rise in collecting. But as of now, the price of a pinball machine is still quite low.

"You can buy these games at surprisingly reasonable prices," says Sharpe. "Brand new games? No. But you can get a good game for probably in the $300 to $500 range on up, and have something that's going to be very entertaining for a long period of time, that can become a very cherished possession."

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.

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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