Subscribe to Cigar Aficionado and receive the digital edition of our Premier issue FREE!

Email this page Print this page
Share this page

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.

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.)

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."

Where do you shop games? The answer is easier than you think. "You can run an ad in the papers saying, 'I pay cash for pinballs,' and the phone will ring off the hook," says Arnold. "People have 'em in their basements, they've had 'em there for 30 years, they haven't run them, they wanna get rid of them. Distributors--the manufacturers' selling arm--have huge quantities of them. They're around, and it's no real trick to find them. But usually, an operator would never park a game that works. I've never heard of it. And usually the stuff you get out of the basement is in pretty bad shape, 'cause it's been sitting there for 30 years." Attending pinball conventions and coin-op shows and meeting other collectors is a good way to scout out sources.

But caveat emptor. Know what to look for in a pinball. Is it fun to play? If you buy a game that bores you a week after you bring it home, you're stuck with a 275-pound paperweight in your rec room. And when considering the condition of the game, the most important concern is the appearance. "For the serious collector, cosmetic condition is paramount," says Hasse. "We can do almost anything by way of getting the machine working again, but if the playfield is badly scratched, or if there's a lot of paint missing," leave the game where it stands. The same goes for the backglass. If it's peeling--and the way to check is by looking at the glass from behind, not from the front--then either forget the game or prepare to shop for an artist or a reproduction backglass--if it's available. But unless the game is valued at $800 or more, it's rarely worth the expense.

How else do you judge a game? "You should do the 'sniff test,'" says Arnold. "Stick your nose inside, and if it smells like it's been wet, or you can visibly see rust on any of the mechanisms, that's a big no-no." And beware of pinball games sold in home versions by Sears, Montgomery Ward and other retailers in the 1960s and '70s. They were designed with highly inferior materials and poorly constructed; collectors call them the absolute dogs of the pinball world.

Now comes the haggling. Collectors and distributors may drive a harder bargain than the casual game owner, but chances are you're getting a machine in far better condition. Prices generally range from $300 to $500 for a decent game in fine condition, but they can top $1,000 for games in great demand. New games still in commercial distribution usually run about $3,000 or more.

When you find the game of your dreams, there's a satisfaction in it that you can't get from many other collectibles. "I know most of the major collectors," says Hasse, "and I don't know anybody who's in it for the [financial] return."

People collect pinballs because they are seeking a piece of their youth, a piece of Americana. It's an art form you can knock around. It's a collectible that doesn't sit on a shelf; it is made to be played. And when that game is home and humming, you can follow Randy Silverstine's suggestion. He fires up a La Gloria Cubana or Moore & Bode, turns off the lights and plays. In the darkness, all you can see is the glow of his cigar and the glow of the game. How To Get Rolling

 

For further information on the world of pinball, consult the following sources.

BOOKS

(All are available from Silverball Amusements, 37 Velie Road, Lagrangeville, New York 12540; or check with bookstores)

Arcade Treasures by Bill Kurtz (1994, Schiffer Publishing, $39.95) This book examines arcade collectibles in general--video games, shuffle alleys, baseball machines--but it also offers extensive and well-illustrated coverage of pinball collectibles, including a price guide.

Collector's Guide to Vintage Coin Machines by Richard M. Bueschel (1995, Schiffer Publishing, $39.95) Extensive coverage of coin-operated machine collectibles, with an excellent chapter on pinball machines. Plenty of color photos; with a price guide. Great for beginner collectors.

The Encyclopedia of Pinball, Volume I by Richard M. Bueschel (Nov. 1996, Silverball Amusements) The first volume, covering 1930-'33, in a planned series on the history of pinball.

The 1997 Price Guide by Larry Bieza (Nov. 1996) The authority on the buying, selling and grading of pinball machines.

EVENTS

The following is a selective listing of pinball-related shows, courtesy of pinball aficionado Mike Kerns of Chalfon, Pennsylvania. The show of the year is the Pinball Expo '96, held from Nov. 14 to 17 in Rosemont, Illinois. It's the pinball world's 12th annual expo, and the largest of its kind. Contact Rob Berk at 800/323-3547 for more information. Many of the following shows cover the arcade or coin-op collectibles market, not just pinball. Dates and locations are accurate as of press time. It is best to call ahead and confirm.

Sept. 13-14, Dallas Gameroom and Collectibles Show, Dallas, Texas. Contact: Walt Baxley 214/243-5725.

Sept. 20-22, Coin-Op Supershow and Sale, Pasadena, California. Contact: Rosanna Harris 303/431-9266.

Oct. 11-13, Pinball Wizards Convention, Whitehall, Pennsylvania. Contact: Brian Hein 610/435-2860.

Oct. 11-13, Hackensack Collector's Expo, Hackensack, New Jersey. Contact: Bob Nelson 316/263-1848.

Oct. 19-20, Orlando Collector's Expo, Orlando, Florida. Contact: Chip Nofal 904/928-0666.

INTERNET

A recent search of the Internet found more than 200 pinball citations, although most were just player chatter about new games. For access: http://pinball.org.

MAGAZINES

Gameroom (1014 Mt. Tabor Road, New Albany, Indiana 47150; 812/945-7971, fax: 812/945-6966; 12 issues a year--$26 in the United States) If it's in an arcade or amusement center, it's in here. Articles about collecting pinball machines, arcade games, jukeboxes and more.

pinGame journal (31937 Olde Franklin Drive, Farmington Hills, Michigan 48334; 810/626-5203; roughly 12 issues a year--$30 in the United States (add $20 for first-class delivery), US$34 in Canada, US$63 in Europe

This 40-page quasimonthly (publishing schedules are rather casual) put out by physician and pinball collector Jim Schelberg is a must-have for anyone interested in collecting pinball machines. It features articles on new machines, repair tips, old games, pinball shows, letters from collectors and a great classified section of machines and parts for sale.

ORGANIZATIONS

Pinball Owner's Association

P.O. Box 122 Cambridge, CB1 4AH, England

This 19-year-old group claims to be the world's largest pinball machine collectors club. International membership. Annual dues include subscription to Pinball Player magazine. Dues are $US55 in United States and Canada, £16 in Ireland and the United Kingdom, £22 the rest of Europe.

PARTS and SUPPLIES

The Mayfair Amusement Co.
60-41 Woodbine Street
Ridgewood, New York 11385
718/417-5050; fax: 718/386-9049
Pinball flyers, parts, schematics, manuals and more.

The Pinball Resource
37 Velie Road
Lagrangeville, New York 12540
914/223-5613; fax: 914/223-7365
More than one million parts in stock, everything from bulbs to bumper caps, coils to custom parts. Also a complete line of machine schematics and manuals.

Share |

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Log In If You're Already Registered At Cigar Aficionado Online

Forgot your password?

Not Registered Yet? Sign up–It's FREE.

FIND A RETAILER NEAR YOU

Search By:

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

    

Cigar Insider

Cigar Aficionado News Watch
A Free E-Mail Newsletter

Introducing a FREE newsletter from the editors of Cigar Aficionado!
Sign Up Today