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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 8)

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.

For Roger Sharpe, director of licensing for WMS Games Inc., parent company of pinball and amusements giant Williams Bally/Midway, pinball's appeal is metaphysical: "In pinball, I am the mad scientist. I am the one that's creating those things and getting the thing to reach out or the Borg ship to fire back at me in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I am the one who's effecting what is happening, what's taking place. That's the part that's magical."

Sitting in his office at the Williams factory in Chicago, surrounded by pinball artwork and plastic figures of comic book characters, Sharpe, 47, warms to his subject. "We look at the brave new world of interactive entertainment with its 'total immersion.' What's more immersive than being in a pinball machine? If you're really at one with the game, if you're really in sync, or as an old buddy of mine once said in Sports Illustrated, if you're really in 'the zone,' you are the pinball machine. There's no two ways about it. For that 10 seconds or 20 seconds or a minute, where everything is just kind of clicking, there's no difference between you and the game. Both of you have the same rhythm; it's almost as if both of you have the same heartbeat. So if you could lose yourself in that world, in that reality, you don't need a headset."

Pinball as we know it today is a Chicago-born child of the Great Depression, but its ancestry lies in an eighteenth century parlor game of the French nobility called bagatelle. Using a small cue, or pusher, on a slanted table, players shot balls into holes on the playfield. When French soldiers crossed the Atlantic in the early 1780s to aid the American colonists in their revolution, they brought their bagatelles with them.

The game caught on, and for the next century, bagatelle and its variations would spread with American expansion to saloons and drawing rooms across the continent. (An 1862 political cartoon showed President Lincoln playing bagatelle in a sleazy saloon.) In 1870 a toy manufacturer in Cincinnati named Montague Redgrave brought bagatelle to the next level, replacing the cue with a spring plunger. Bagatelles for adults, and smaller versions for children (the plastic marble games you played as a child were a type of bagatelle) proliferated into the next century. But it took a worldwide economic collapse before bagatelle truly took off.

The year was 1931. The United States was in the depths of the Depression; breadlines and unemployment were the norm. But one industry was about to explode. In Youngstown, Ohio, a small company called Automatic Industries created a coin-operated bagatelle known as Whiffle Board (then known as a marble or "pin" game, for the pins surrounding the scoring holes), while Chicago's In & Out-Door Games Company Inc. presented the Whoopee Game. They were a hit, but the Whoopee, at $175, was prohibitively expensive. Later that year in a Chicago garage, a man named David Gottlieb and his family created a colorful marble game at one-tenth the price, called Baffle Ball.

What was once a fad became a phenomenon. For $17.50, druggists and tobacconists, barkeeps and barbers could buy a countertop-sized Baffle Ball that, at seven balls for a penny, often paid for itself within three or four days. "All of these other businesses were failing, but the people buying these machines, their problem was that they couldn't lift the machines because they were so full of pennies," says Mark Houk, who is filming a documentary on pinball with his partner, Howard Cook, and their Revere, Massachusetts-based production company, ESS Productions. "Everybody was out of work and out of luck, and here is this little device on a drugstore counter, and for a penny you could forget you were unemployed and just play your troubles away." The game's appeal was not lost on the literati of the time. In William Saroyan's 1939 play, The Time of Your Life, a "marble game addict" named Willie spends the entire drama trying to defeat a pin game in a man versus machine parable. In the end, he succeeds.

Baffle Ball sold 50,000 units in less than six months and set Gott-lieb on the financial path that would make his name synonymous with pinball; but he couldn't make nearly enough Baffle Balls to meet the overwhelming demand. Tired of the back orders, Gottlieb distributor Ray Moloney introduced a game at the 1932 Chicago Coin Machine Exposition that raised the stakes. It was called Ballyhoo, taking its name and design from a popular magazine of its day. The game was flashy, it had a hugely successful promotional campaign, it even had a jingle: "What'll you do in '32, Ballyhoo!"--and in the depths of the Depression 75,000 machines were sold in seven months. The company that grew from Ballyhoo took its name from the game, becoming the amusements giant Bally.

With the incredible success of these games, the pinball industry exploded. Home to the majority of manufacturers, Chicago became the pinball capital of the world, a title it still holds. By the end of 1932, there were about 150 pinball manufacturers (many of them one- or two-man operations), creating hundreds of different games. The competition was fierce, with companies stealing ideas from each other faster than you could say "patent lawsuit." Of the 150 manufacturers in business in 1932, only 14 survived to 1934.

The more successful firms offered innovations in sound, electricity, artwork and game design at a dizzying pace. Electricity, lighted backglasses, plastic bumpers and legs for the countertop machines were all in use by 1937. A young California game designer named Harry Williams (who in 1942 founded the firm that thrives today as Williams Electronics Inc., parent company of WMS Games) created the infamous tilt device in 1932--a ball on a pedestal that, when disturbed, would fall on a metal ring and stop play. Williams soon improved on his tilt with a pendulum device that is still in use today.

While many machines offered exciting new features, it was Bally's Bumper in 1937 that revolutionized pinball. On that model, the company replaced the playfield's pins and scoring holes with electrified bumpers that racked up points when hit by the ball.

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.

Sharpe tells what happened next: "'Even down to this plunger,' I told them, 'there's skill. If I pull this back the right way, I should be able to send the ball into the middle slot.' I actually specified a lane, which, in retrospect, I probably should not have done. I pulled back the plunger, and wouldn't you know, boom boom, it went straight down where I had said [it would go]. These people kind of threw up their hands and said, 'All right. Enough. Fine, thanks.'"

The council reinstated pinball in New York City that summer and Chicago followed suit a few months later. (Los Angeles had legalized pinball in 1972.) After nearly 35 years, it had taken a Chicago native son to bring pinball home again.

At the same time, pinball was undergoing its own revolution. The mid-'70s saw the introduction of solid-state pinball machines. The numerous advantages of solid-state circuitry, with its ability to create sound and more sophisticated playfield action, increase machine memory, produce cost savings in design and construction and (usually) effect greater machine reliability, led to the twilight of pinball's 40 years of electromechanicals.

But the computer revolution was a two-edged sword. While pinball was going high-tech, the greatest threat in its history was invading arcades in the guise of digital space ships and dot-chomping circles. Video games had arrived.

The Pac-Mans, Space Invaders, Asteroids and other video games of the early '80s dealt a staggering blow to the pinball industry. Pinball creators fought back with increasingly innovative game designs, even borrowing concepts from video games, but to no avail. By 1984, pinball's 80 percent share of the amusements market had plummeted to 5 percent. To nonbelievers, the game seemed doomed to pop culture's scrap heap.

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.)


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