Pinball machines move from arcades to game rooms
Pong and Space Invaders mounted their invasion of game rooms some 35 years ago and pinball machines were the first casualties. With bells and flashing lights and scores that spun on clunky steel spindles; with steel balls clanging against hard rubber bumpers who can forget that gratifying "thunk" of a solid hit of flipper-on-ball? Pinball machines, at least those kinds, are relics. They've been replaced by arcade games that use big video screens and hand-held guns; joysticks instead of flipper buttons; all sorts of sounds and sophisticated electronic gaming rules designed to entrance novices while keeping the interest of the more experienced players. But don't write that pinball machine obituary yet.Old pinball games - the ones built before 1975 - that run with motors and relays are now found in game rooms of homes, where middle-age guys reliving their glory days bang away. These pinball wizards - or pinheads, as they prefer to be called - still work on perfecting that hip nudge to steer the ball without causing the machine to tilt. They are the new market for the old machines. Tom Errico in his early 50s, has eight pinball machines scattered throughout his roomy Citrus Park home. In the living room is Demolition Man and Funhouse, in which a rude clown in the playing field ridicules the player; in his bedroom, The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling's voice eerily pipes up when the game starts. In another room, four are lined up against a wall, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which includes a hologram of the creature swimming up into the playing field. All were built by Williams/Bally in the 1990s before the manufacturer went out of business. In his closet, he has a Williams Football machine, a 1967 model that is disassembled. The used machines cost between about $1,000 and $2,000, some maybe a little more, some a little less. Errico is a mechanical/electrical sort of fellow and knows how to fix, maintain and refurbish them. He admits spending hours and hours playing the games, sating an itch he has had since he was 5 years old, when it only cost a dime to play. "I loved the mechanical aspects of the games," said the production manager at Astra, an electrical-mechanical assembling plant in Oldsmar. He moved into his home in 1987 and his wife bought him the used football game for $99, he said. He beamed talking about it. "It's got relays and solenoids," he said. "There are no circuit boards." And just like that, he got re-hooked. Now is a good time to buy, he said. Arcades no longer are buying them, because maintaining a pinball machine is costlier than a video game, he said. The ball banging on bumpers and flippers takes its toll. So, pinball machines are easy to find on the Internet. Fixing them is not all that hard, he said. With all their bells and whistles and lights - and a half-mile of wiring in each game - the machines are fairly easy to understand. "There are lots of tutorials online," Errico said. "I love fixing them as much as I love playing them." All that aside, it's just fun playing the rough-and-tumble machines. He tried to explain it. "Every game is different," he said. "The interesting thing about pinball is that you can't program it." The only control you have over the ball is the nanosecond the flipper hits the ball. From there, it's all chance, he said. "The ball is wild," he said. "You can play five games and not one will be the same. It's the connection you have with the ball. When a game is going well, you connect with the ball." Andrew Kline, owner of The Game Gallery on North Armenia Avenue has felt the pinch of the economy and has shut down his showroom and now just does Internet and phone sales. He has noticed a shift away from commercial pinball machines. The new games have taken over, he said, and they rule the arcade. "The market has changed," he said. Commercial operators "no longer can afford pins." He said the shift started about five to seven years ago. "The income was not bringing in enough money to keep up with depreciation, the maintenance." The machines became too expensive for the amount of people plunking in quarters or tokens to play them, he said. "It was the expense (of maintenance) versus return on investment," he said. In that respect, the newer games, with advances in technology and intricate games that operate on several levels, have won, he said. "They're not as much fun to play," he said, talking about pinball machines. "They're one level, non-dimensional." But the games live on, in a new market of private collectors who see the older machines as collectables. "It's a huge increase," he said, "a big rise in the past 20 years. I have some customers who have 10, 20, 30 pins in their house." All pinball machines are coin operated, he said, even those sold to private individuals. They can set the machine to play for free or they can "use it as a bank," Kline said, "a piggy bank for the kids." Kline has three subcontracting repairmen who go out to fix and maintain machines and they are busy all the time, traveling sometimes out of state to perform mechanical surgery. Rates range from $85 an hour on up for repair service. Jody Dankberg, spokesman for Stern Pinball in Chicago, the only manufacturer left still making pinball machines, said the games have been built the same way for the past 30 years, though the playing field and themes are constantly updated. "They still all are made by hand with all the gadgets; there's nothing digital," he said. "They're pretty modern, but still a pretty good throw back." Each year, Stern puts two to four new games on the market, usually based on popular culture, movies, television shows and such. This year's new models are Iron Man and Avatar. "Pinball is making a huge comeback," he said, even though the market in the United States has changed dramatically recently. Years ago, only bars and arcades bought the machines. That's no longer true, he said. "The one thing interesting about pinball," he said, "it used to be a coin-operated thing, people would make money off it. Now, we're finding that in America, 90 percent of the machines end up in someone's house." The popularity trends go up and down, he said. Generally the history of pinball shows big rebirths after big recessions, he said. After the Great Depression, pinball was very popular. Same for the 1970s and early 1990s, he said. A surprising number of people have pinball machines, which new cost between $4,000 and $5,000, in their house. And many don't know who to call for maintenance or repairs. Stern has authorized 150 repairers throughout the nation, he said, and "these guys are capable of servicing not only new machines but old ones." Pinball-machine maintenance mostly involves replacing the rubber bands that protect the flippers the bumpers and other areas frequently struck by the steel ball. Changing out the balls also is a way to make the machine last longer. Nicked steel balls can wear bumpers and flippers. "These machines can last a lifetime," he said, "if you take care of them."
Reporter Keith Morelli can be reached at (813) 259-7760.