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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 2)

To attract the attention of players and operators in a glutted market, some pinball manufacturers turned to machines that offered payouts to high-scoring (and high-paying) players in the form of returned nickels, or tickets and tokens redeemable by the operator. By the mid-1930s, lawmakers in cities and towns across the United States began to view pinball as a threat, claiming that the machines amounted to gambling. Even Hollywood got involved. In the 1936 Warner Brothers gangster film Bullets or Ballots, Humphrey Bogart played a lowlife who forced pinball machines on helpless owners of mom-and-pop stores.

Municipalities around the United States began banning "payout" pinball, in which an increase in coins played increased a player's possible return. Many cities banned pinball altogether rather than bothering to distinguish between payout and amusement versions. In 1941, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia delighted in photo opportunities in which he would smash machines with a sledgehammer or watch as they were dumped into the East River. By 1942, pinball was banned in Los Angeles, New York and, in painful irony, its birthplace of Chicago. It was a ban that would last for at least 30 years.

Production of new games was suspended during the Second World War, with pinball factories turning out aircraft parts and ammunition. A few entrepreneurs refitted old games, often with patriotic motifs--targets picturing Hitler and Tojo were popular. But at war's end, pinball was again off and running.

The game took a great leap forward one day in 1947, when a D. Gottlieb & Co. designer named Harry Mabs, working on a spring bumper, accidentally touched two wires together. The bumper jumped. Recognizing the potential of his discovery, Mabs created a swinging bumper, similar to the bats of arcade baseball games, that was activated with the press of a button. Three pairs of his first "flipper bumpers," as he called them, went into Gottlieb's 1947 Humpty Dumpty, and with it, Mabs turned a game of chance into a game of skill. No longer did players have to watch helplessly as the ball rolled to its inevitable "draining," that is, out of play. Although the flippers on Humpty Dumpty and other early games faced out, not in, and were placed in the middle of the game, the idea caught on instantly. Flipperless games disappeared from the market. On a 1948 machine called Triple Action, Genco designer Steve Kordek added power to the flippers and moved them to the bottom of the game, where they are still placed today.

The decade from 1948 to 1958 is known as pinball's "golden age," when pinball giants Gottlieb and Williams battled it out and a number of smaller firms--Genco, Chicago Coin, Marvel Manufacturing and United--contributed a few games of their own. Gottlieb controlled about 70 percent of the market during the 1950s, averaging a new machine every three weeks (compared to today's pinball manufacturer's average of about four a year). It was a time when pinball reached new heights of backglass artwork and game design.

"Gottlieb, far and away, was the Cadillac of the industry," says collector Gordon Hasse Jr., an ad agency senior vice president in New York City and owner of more than 100 Gottlieb pinball machines from that era. "It was a combination of superior artwork and superior design. The guy who was designing for Gottlieb through most of the '50s was a gentleman by the name of Wayne Neyens. He was probably the industry's primo designer, certainly at that time, and probably of any time. The collaboration between Neyens and the artist, Leroy Parker, was the most incredible and productive of any in the history of the game."

Yet even during its golden age, pinball had its detractors. "Bingo" pinballs offering replays angered lawmakers, who believed the games were created to dodge federal antigambling laws on payout pinball. On some machines, the player could win up to 999 free games in an afternoon, which operators thoughtfully redeemed for cash. Clergymen and mothers spoke out against the evils of pinball, noting the unsavory locations where machines were often found, such as pool halls and bars, and decrying the dangers of teenage boys wasting their time and money in front of machines that frequently featured scantily clad, busty women. What's more, pinball also had to compete with the latest fads, such as drive-in movies, coin-operated shuffle alleys and the resurgence of bowling.

The industry responded in the 1960s with new enticements for the player: an add-a-ball feature (which gave high scorers extra balls instead of extra games, satisfying players and lawmakers alike, if not the clergy), drop targets, spinning targets, score-to-beat counters, mushroom bumpers and other innovations. Bally, dormant through the 1950s, returned with a series of innovative games in the late 1960s.

The game received a huge boost in 1969, when The Who released the world's first rock opera: the story of a pinball wizard named Tommy. When the album was made into a movie in 1975, pinball soared once more. (The two games used in the film--Elton John played a 1965 Gottlieb Buckaroo and Roger Daltrey had "such a soulful wrist" on a 1965 Gottlieb Kings and Queens--and the two games inspired by the movie, Bally's Wizard (1975) and Captain Fantastic (1976) have all become hot collectibles.) In 1975, pinball was grossing 80 percent of the coin-op amusement industry income.

The following year, a pinball fan in New York City celebrated America's bicentennial with a little revolution of his own. "I grew up in Chicago and never played pinball," Roger Sharpe recalls. "You had all the manufacturers based in Chicago, providing thousands of jobs and considerable revenue, yet you couldn't play the game. It was kind of like not allowing people to drive cars in Detroit, or god forbid you ate cereal in Battle Creek." As an adult, Sharpe would have the last laugh. Testifying before the New York City Council at a hearing on pinball in April 1976, Sharpe, then a 27-year-old magazine editor in Manhattan, played three balls on a Gottlieb Bankshot, explaining to his audience as he played how pinball was a game of skill, not of chance. Then he took a gamble--the pinball world's equivalent of Babe Ruth's legendary called home run in the 1932 World Series against the Chicago Cubs.

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