Pinball goes underground
RAYNHAM - At first glance, it’s a nondescript basement in a comfortable suburban home.
But then Joe Fix, 60, starts plugging in pinball machines and vintage lights promoting vintage beers, and in just a few minutes it could be one of the roadhouses in the Randolph area that Fix and friends frequented in their younger years.
“I remember playing those games in bars and vowing that, when I had the money and the room, I’d buy a jukebox and a pinball machine,’’ he said. “I gave up on the idea of listening to scratchy records on a jukebox when the technology changed, but I always wanted a game.’’
He begins playing the Getaway, a 1992 production by Williams Electronics Games and the first such game he purchased nine years ago on eBay. As lights flash and points pile up, one of the game’s “toys’’ - distinctive features of modern solid-state games that make use of computer chips - kicks in, and Fix is in a trance-like state as pinball chaos breaks out, with multiple balls careening across the playing surface. Fix furrows his brow and ratchets up his intensity as the game enters a higher level, with even more lights flashing and more points ringing up. His frenzied goal is to beat his former high scores, which the machine records.
To Fix and a passionate coterie of other enthusiasts, the lure of the pinball machine is powerful stuff, lingering well beyond the machine’s heyday, which ran from the 1950s to the 1990s. What’s happened in the past 20 years is this: The machines have marched steadily out of arcades, bars, and restaurants and into the basements and garages of people like Fix.
Today there is a thriving Internet community of buyers, sellers, and collectors. It’s about as far as you can get from the atmosphere that prevailed from the early 1940s to the 1970s, when pinball machines were banned in most large US cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the birthplace of pinball and the historic home to virtually all machine manufacturers.
The games were often associated with gambling and were considered games of chance, instead of skill, even after the invention of the flipper in 1947 changed the way they were played. The bans stayed in place in Chicago until 1973, Los Angeles until 1974, and New York until 1976.
Because of the bans, the pinball machine became a symbol of youthful rebellion, played by cultural icons such as The Fonz on the TV show “Happy Days’’ and the pinball-playing hero of The Who’s rock opera “Tommy,’’ which debuted in 1969, a time when the machines were still banned in much of the country.
Today, many of the surviving machines have settled in comfortably with small-time collectors such as Fix, who owns seven of them, including a few of what many industry observers believe are the best pinball machines of all time.
While he has enjoyed playing the earlier electromagnetic games from the 1950s to the 1970s - he even restored one called Play Ball that had been headed to the junkyard - six of the seven games he owns are solid-state games of the 1980s and 1990s, which feature the computer chips that led to a new golden age for the machines.
“The solid-state games have many more levels to them,’’ he said. “And then there’s the ‘toys.’ ’’
According to the Internet Pinball Database, The Getaway, for instance, boasts such features as a left-ramp diverter and habitrail, (a cagelike path), a diverter on the upper right side of the playfield, a left outlane kickback, a kick-out hole, 3-ball multiball, an autoplunger, a video mode, and a “Supercharger’’ magnetic ball accelerator.
As a retired electrician, Fix has the time, patience, and expertise to restore machines that might have been left behind, scouring the Internet for parts and making stops at arcades, bowling alleys, and miniature golf courses, forever hoping to find a machine in the back just collecting dust.
Fix found himself playing in June in a competition that billed itself as The New England Pinball Championships - aka “Pin-Maine-i-a 4’’ - in Gorham, Maine. More than 50 contestants gathered in the basement and garage of John Reuter, 55, of Gorham, one of the leading pinball collectors in New England.
Fix competed in the B division and finished with a 5-7 record in head-on competition.
He marveled at the skills of the best players. “One player was playing three balls with his right flipper while using his left flipper to move a ball up and down an exit ramp, continuously scoring points.’’
Reuter has been collecting since 1988 and owns about 110 machines, between 80 to 90 of them in working condition. He estimates that about half the machines sold now are going to private collectors and aren’t being used in arcades or other for-profit businesses.
“Economically, it just doesn’t make sense to run them anymore,’’ he said. “Back in 1975, it cost a quarter to play a game. Now the gas to haul them around is $4 a gallon, and you have to hire a tech to fix them. You’d have to charge $2 now, and kids who grew up on video games don’t care about pinball.’’
He does get revenue from some of his machines to defray maintenance costs of his collection. He also trades and sells games, sometimes finding a game he likes that is in better condition than the one he owns.
Reuter also heads the Boston Pinball Association, a 350-member group, and is involved in two online forums for collectors: the New England Arcade Collectors Forum and the New England Pinball Forum.
When he was in Las Vegas in 2005, Fix had a chance to visit the world-famous 1,000-machine collection of Tim Arnold, a former arcade owner in Michigan who runs the Pinball Hall of Fame just off The Strip.
Arnold has about 450 rebuilt machines ready to play; at any one time, about 250 are in the Pinball Hall of Fame and another 50 in an annex at the Riviera Hotel. The profits from those facilities, fund-raisers, and the sale of tapes and DVDs on how to repair games go to the Salvation Army in Las Vegas, which has been given about $2 million since 2001.
“It’s more of an attraction for adults,’’ Arnold said by phone. “The kids grew up playing at Chuck E. Cheese and think they should get tickets and prizes for playing.’’
The present hall wasn’t built during Fix’s visit, but Arnold allowed him to visit a huge warehouse where he houses some of the machines. “He turned on the lights, lit up the machines, and told me to have a ball,’’ said Fix.
One of Fix’s machines is The Addams Family, the most popular pinball game of all time with more than 20,000 units sold.
It was part of his 50th birthday package for his wife, Cheryl, 57, who is director of physicians’ billing at Children’s Hospital in Boston and grew up playing pinball machines in Maine and at Nantasket Beach in Hull.
She had enjoyed playing the game, and her husband found it in a Bourne warehouse owned by Ryan Family Amusements.
“I don’t know any other women who have received pinball machines as birthday gifts,’’ said Cheryl Fix, who said she has never had a problem with her husband’s hobby.
WMS Industries, which manufactured games under the Williams and Bally brands, closed its entire pinball operation in 1999, leaving Illinois-based Stern Pinball as the world’s sole manufacturer of pinball machines.
Still, the games seem destined to be around a long time, especially when there are people like Fix, Arnold, and Reuter who will spend the time and money to collect and restore them.
Even in our video age, when you can summon video pinball games onto your iPhone or iPad, Fix said there is something about the actual hands-on pinball games that makes them unique.
“It’s the spin of the ball,’’ he said. “In electronic video games, every action provides a similar reaction. A pinball is never guaranteed to go the same way. Then there comes a time in the game when you start getting hot and you catch fire, and away you go.’’
Rich Fahey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.