Pinball Wizardry

Walking from work in Manhattan one dark, cold night, I peer to my right and stop in my tracks. The sight is unexpected, and brings me back to my youth—rows and rows of pinball machines, shining behind panes of glass. Bright lights wink at me from angled cabinets of gleaming steel, a siren’s call begging me to come inside and spend some time.

I cross the street and step into paradise, a room brimming with pinball games. I step up to a 300-pound beauty, its bed themed after the rock band AC/DC. I ogle its bumpers for a moment before grasping the plunger and sending a steel ball on a crazy ride through a man-made forest of bumpers, spinners, ramps and drains, the hard rock sounds of the band playing along with the cacophony of pings and dings as my score rockets higher. My fingers work the flippers, catching the ball here, flinging it there, trying to prolong the ball’s descent into darkness.

Looks like I’m going to be on the late train.

This is Modern Pinball, and its rotating array of lovingly restored pinball machines is available for play and sale. Prices range from around $6,000 to $17,000, but most customers opt to simply play for an hour or so for a fee that can be credited toward a future purchase.

Modern-day pinball machines were created in 1947 (previous versions lacked flippers) and the loud, colorful and delightfully addictive machines survived bans before soaring in popularity in the 1970s and ’80s. The rise of video games hurt the industry, but like a ball hurtling past your flippers and into the drain but revived with an autosave, the industry is being revived by passionate modern-day enthusiasts.

Turns out the pinball wizards of the past are adults now who want to bring the pinball arcade into their homes. “It used to be if you saw someone with a pinball machine in their house it was used—now we make pinball machines for collectors,” says Jody Dankberg, of Stern Pinball. Stern is the last of a long line of the great Chicago pinball machine makers, and the company makes new pinball machines ranging in price from $5,000 to $10,000. In the United States, some 70 percent of its sales go to collectors.

Stern has no shortage of pinball aficionados filling their man caves with new games. “The average enthusiast has five to 50 machines,” explains Dankberg. “Some have 100 plus.” The International Flipper Pinball Association, which ranks players, counts more than 30,000 in its rankings.

Stern’s machines are hand-assembled in Melrose Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, long the big bumper of pinball production. Each is a work of art and engineering. Says Dankberg: “You’ve got to put your hands on a pinball machine to see how much fun it is.” Just don’t push too hard—tilt and you’ll lose your turn.