Pinball wizardry

Photo by Julian Lozano

My love of pinball all began with Sesame Street.

While each episode featured a number and letter of the day, there would be a fun pinball animation for each episode featuring the numbers two to 12 — it wasn’t noted why the number 1 didn’t get a featured segment of its own.

The song “Pinball Number Count’ was sung by The Pointer Sisters accompanied by a steel drum solo by Andy Narell. I was mesmerized by each adventure that steel ball would take and the story that would be told.

There seems to be overlapping history on where and when pinball originated. In Europe, in the 1600s, a variety of pub games — similar to lawn bowling or croquet — were played that have a similar pinball feel to them. Bagatelle, Devil Among the Tailors and Skittles are just a few examples.

Each European country had its own variation of the game and some of these games are still played today. Last year, I had John in the Kerby Centre Woodworking Department build my husband a Skittles game board, top and pin pieces from instructions I found online from the 1960s.

I did all of the finishing and learned how to create a smooth glossy surface for the top to successfully spin, increasing the chance of it staying in motion longer – which in turn increases your chance of knocking over more pins in “rooms”.

In the 1930s manufactures started creating versions of “marble/pin” games. The first-ever mechanical machine was 1931 Gottlieb’s “Baffle Ball.”

In time, games would be transformed by adding on additional features like bumpers, flippers, lights, bells and score wheels. EM (Electromechanical) machines were gaining popularity. Most machines produced from the 1940’s – mid 1970s are EM pinball machines. (I am the proud owner of 2 EM pinball machines). In the late 70s – early 90s SS (Solid State/Computerized Pinball Machines) were being created, followed by DMD (Dot Matrix Display/More advanced computer system/graphics).

Now you even have the option of Virtual Pinball machines.  

Pinball was banned throughout several American cities from the mid-1940s to mid-1970s. At the time it was considered to be a game of chance, not skill; which was viewed as a form of gambling.

Lawmakers and leaders at the time believed pinball to have connections to the mafia. It was also suggested that pinball would have a negative influence on children for taking their money and encouraging gambling at a young age.

During this time, thousands of machines were destroyed by sledgehammers in police raids and many machines went into hiding. It was still legal to privately own a machine in your home. Some businesses operated secret underground pinball games during that time. In April 1976, in a Manhattan courtroom, Roger Sharpe (Writer for New York Times and GQ was the star witness for the AMOA — Amusement and Music Operators Association) testified before the court that pinball was, in fact, a game of skill and not just chance.

He set out to prove that patience, hand/eye coordination and reflexes are all essential in gameplay. In the court, he had two pinball machines set up to demonstrate his point. To prove his point, he stated that in his next play his goal was to get the ball to travel down the middle lane of the playing field (which was not an easy task for this particular game).

He successfully made the shot, proving his point, and was victorious in winning the case and having the ban on pinball overturned. Roger Sharpe is often referred to as the “Babe Ruth of Pinball”.

1975 Williams’ “Big Ben” is the first machine that I purchased a few years ago. The previous owner was downsizing and wanted to ensure it was going to a good home.

She told me the story of how she and her husband opened up a cafe in Calgary in the 1980s and after a few years had to make the hard choice to close up shop. She had purchased the machine for her cafe and loved how much joy it brought to her customers as well as her children and made the choice to keep it in her home for the next 35 years for her children and grandchildren to play.

I made a promise to her that I would take good care of it and it would get plenty of love in our home. I spent the next few months learning about the care and maintenance of pinball machines. I did some minor paint touch-ups, cleaned and waxed the playing field and replaced all the rubber rings. It looked as good as new. It always brings me joy hearing the ball roll across the playing field and hearing the dings, rings and fun sounds of gameplay.

A few weeks ago, I got the chance to give another machine a home. My Uncle’s friend had 1967 Gottlieb’s “Sing Along” stored in her garage over the last 20 years. My Uncle knew that I would be thrilled to fix it up and give it a new life and that has been my current project.

It has brought me so much joy learning, building and fixing up something so rich in history. Many times, when I’m working away at my machine, I have the song “Pinball Wizard” by The Who stuck in my head. I love breathing new life into vintage items. I have enjoyed seeing friends and family experience the nostalgia and fun that pinball has to offer.