Why People Flip Over Vintage Pinball Machines

By Maribeth Keane and Ben Marks September 16th, 2009


Clay Harrell talks about collecting vintage pinball machines, and his personal road to pinball wizardry, from Gottlieb to Williams to Stern. He can be reached via his website, PinballHQ.com, or check out some of his personal collection.

Detail of back glass, Gottlieb Grand Slam, 1953.

I didn’t really get into to pinball machine collecting until maybe 15 years ago, but when I was a freshman in college, video games were really big. I went to Purdue University. They had a huge arcade there. I always said that Space Invaders and Pac-Man took so much of my money—money that I really didn’t have—that it would have been cheaper to just buy one of those machines.

So one day I went to an auction of coin-operated video games. They had pinball machines there, too, including a 1980 Spider-Man machine. This is about 1988, so the game’s only eight years old. They started bidding at a hundred dollars, and nobody’s bidding. I drag it home and set it up, and sure enough a few things don’t work on it. And of course I don’t know how to fix it, but I go through it, figure it out, and it’s rewarding.

So I started buying these machines, tried to figure out how to fix them, and started to network with other guys who were buying games. I’d say, “Hey, I have this problem, how do you fix that?” You couldn’t find anybody to repair them. As time progressed, I just started buying more games, figuring out how to fix them, and I would run an ad in the paper—“Buying pinball machines, broken or working.” I would get a zillion calls.

Over the course of talking to people, I was developing this library of repair information. Then, in about 1995, I got a new job, and they had this crazy thing at work called Internet access. I’m like, “Wow, I can post all my repair stuff on the Internet.” I made a database and it just kept growing until I ended up with this huge website called PinRepair.com.

As part of the hobby, I went to the Pinball Expo in Chicago. This was about 1999, and they had all these seminars with people involved in the industry—programmers, game designers, service guys. The next year we presented a demonstration at the show about repairing games. As a joke, we said, “We’re going to make a videotape,” just a goofy, comedy videotape on pinball repair. And so we came up with this Norman-Shaggy thing, where I was Shaggy, the guy with long hair, and Norm was the guy who you never, ever saw, but he talked with a Boston accent. It was loosely based on This Old House, so we called it This Old Pinball. It was a weird morph of a bunch of ideas.

We showed the tape after our repair seminar, and people just went nuts, saying, “Hey, can I get a copy?” And we’re like, “We’re not selling this. It was just a one-time thing.” So then this guy comes up to me and says, “Look, I’m running this pinball hall of fame thing in Las Vegas. I’ll sell your video, and I’ll give some of the money to the Salvation Army and some of the money to our nonprofit pinball hall of fame, and you’ll help a lot of people out.”

So we started making these videos, and we turned them into nine, two-hour DVDs. We’ve sold 5,000 of them, or something. It’s unbelievable.

Collectors Weekly: How long does it take to repair the average pinball machine?

Harrell: The quickest I can restore a machine is maybe a week, and that would be the best-case scenario. It takes time to tear them down. All the mechanical assemblies have to be taken apart, cleaned, and the parts must be replaced and put back together. A lot of times I’ll touch up the play fields with clear coat so it doesn’t look like it’s been touched up.

Most of the machines are commercial devices designed to make money for an operator, and most operators just ran the games into the ground. They didn’t really maintain them or take care of them. When they got done with them, they sold them at auction, or maybe cleaned them up a little, ran a rag across them, put new rubber on, and sold them to a homeowner, who then played the bejebus out of it. Or their kids did. Most of the games that you end up with tend to be pretty tired by the time you get them.

Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of pinball machine collectors?

Detail of back glass by Roy Parker, Gottlieb Flipper Cowboy, 1962.

Harrell: It is a fairly small hobby. I’m the co-editor of one of the pinball magazines, and the subscription number is 1,200 people worldwide. Now, I know not every collector subscribes, but that gives you an indication that the hobby is not huge. There are people who own pinball machines, but they’re not collectors. I would say there’s a difference between a pinball collector and a pinball owner.

We categorize collectors by digits: single-digit collectors, one to nine machines, or double-digit collectors, 10 to 99 machines. Well, I’m a three-digit collector, which is just sick. There’s something wrong with me. If you’re a three-digit collector, you’ve got issues. I think the largest collection known is around 1,500 machines. But the problem is that after you get so many machines, it’s hard to keep them all working and operating or even to have them all restored in the first place because they are a huge time suck.

We started a pinball club, a local Detroit pinball club. We call it the Detroit Pinball Collectors Club. We’ve got a little clubhouse, and so I’ve got a bunch of games there, too. And I’ve got games at a friend’s house. I’ve got games all over the place, unfortunately, just because the one single thread in pinball collecting is you can never have just one, and you always run out of room. If you’re a real collector, it seems like you’re just always amassing more games. I have a really great time restoring them and playing them. I’m probably an average pinball player, maybe above average, but I’m not great. But it’s fun. It’s a fun thing, and it doesn’t become old quickly like, say, video games.

Collectors Weekly: How did pinball evolve in the United States?

Detail of back glass, Williams Wonderland, 1955.

Harrell: It was a game that morphed from the French game of bagatelle. In the 1930s, it really exploded as a gambling thing, and that’s where pinball got this gambling association.

Coming out of World War II, the gambling laws were changing in the United States. In particular, in 1950, the Johnson Act made it difficult for slot machines or any sort of gambling device to be used in public. It was a federal offense. So, pinball had to shed its gambling association to become a game of skill. In 1947, they came up with this crazy idea of adding flippers to the machine.

Gottlieb came out with the first flipper machine. Instead of just letting the ball fall into a hole worth points or money, now the player actually had some control over the ball. With flippers, you could steer the ball into different point areas. All the companies jumped on this flipper technology—Gottlieb did not patent it. Soon everybody was using flipper machines, and it made all the pre-flipper machines of the ’30s and early ’40s—the pre-1947 stuff—obsolete.

In the ’60s, games became more technologically advanced, and in the ’70s they were still using the same electromechanical principles of coils (which are magnets), relays, and stepper units, which are, more or less, one-bit memory units, in a mechanical sense.

By about 1977, 1978, the companies all dropped the electromechanical stuff and went to solid state, using microprocessors to control the games as opposed to having everything hardwired with relays and stepper units. I collect the pre-solid state games.

Collectors Weekly: Who were the major manufacturers?

Harrell: During the 1930s, there were literally hundreds of companies making pinball machines. After World War II, though, there was only a handful. The key players were Gottlieb—the biggest, and pretty much the Cadillac of pinball—and Williams, which was substantially smaller but still an up-and-coming game company. They were the two prime manufacturers. There were smaller players like Chicago Coin, Keeney, and United that made pinball. But really, it was Gottlieb and Williams. Even Bally only made a handful of pinball machines during the 1950s. They made mostly bingos. They looked like pinball machines, but they were really gambling devices. They didn’t have flippers.

Gottlieb Skee-Ball-Ette, 1940.

The artwork on pinball machines, especially in the ’50s, was fairly racy because the players they were attracting were mostly male bar patrons, ages 20 to 50. There were always lightly clad, well-endowed women on the back glass. The general thought is that Gottlieb had the best artwork. There are some people who collect the machines just because they like the artwork. For them, Gottlieb is pretty much the king.

In the 1960s, Williams started making more machines, and Bally started to get into the market more aggressively. As the bingo machines became clearly illegal, Bally shifted its production over to pinball, and by the mid-1960s, it was starting to make a lot more pinball machines. So now the big three players were Gottlieb, Williams, and Bally, with Chicago Coin as a runner-up. United was bought out by Williams, and Keeney was out of business.

By the 1970s, Gottlieb was still the leader because of its artwork, game play, and quality. Williams was second. But Bally began pushing the envelope as far as artwork was concerned. The company hired a new artist named Dave Christensen, a guy who had been doing slot-machine art in the Bally slot-machine department. They shifted him over to pinball and he really brought Bally pinball machines to the forefront because of his racy artwork, which was much more realistic than the cartoony art that Williams and Gottlieb were creating. The women Christensen drew looked almost real, maybe a bit super-human.

For a while, Bally was up-and-coming, but as soon as the crossover to solid state happened, when companies dumped electromechanical technology for microprocessors, Bally and Williams really took over. Gottlieb fell behind because the operators didn’t view their system as being reliable. Gottlieb’s approach to game design also lagged, but the company eventually went out of business in 1995 because they could never get past the reliability issue.

Collectors Weekly: Did Williams and Gottlieb have their own artists?

Harrell: Yes, they had preferred artists. During the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, artwork wasn’t always created in house. Williams or another company would design a game, and then they would hand the game over to another company that just did art. This second company had their own staff artists. In the case of Gottlieb, they used one particular artist, Roy Parker.

“Gottlieb came out with the first flipper machine.”

So the look of each manufacturer’s machines took on a personality based on the artist—the theme was almost irrelevant. The art really didn’t have anything to do with the actual game play. It could be about almost anything. Clearly some games were designed with a card game like poker or blackjack or something like that in mind. But with a lot of the themes, the art could’ve been anything. The art company would often come up with names for the games, and they would do all the artwork based on the actual whitewood, which was the name for the raw prototype game without art on it. They would pretty much do whatever they wanted, but they knew what the companies were expecting, so that’s why the companies used the same artists over and over.

There were different artists in different years. Gottlieb started out with Roy Parker, who died in 1965 of cancer. Art Stenholm took over and did a lot of Gottlieb artwork through the rest of the ’60s. So you had these artists who would do games for a particular manufacturer for years and years. By the ’80s, the games were getting more sophisticated with voice and speech, and the theme of the game was more set in concrete, so an artist couldn’t really re-theme a game. So a lot of the artists were brought in house and actually worked at Williams or Gottlieb or Bally, and the artwork on the games became much more entwined with the theme.

Collectors Weekly: When did movie promotion begin?

Detail of gobble hole in playfield of Gottlieb World Champ, 1957.

Harrell: Bally was the first company to do that. They were the first company to get an official licensed theme. During the 1950s, Gottlieb had done some unlicensed themes. They had a game called Guy’s Dolls, and it just happened to come out at the same time as the Broadway play called Guys and Dolls. So they were trying to wrap themselves in the popularity of pop culture at the time without actually having to pay any money for it.

In 1975 Bally was the first company to pay for a license. The game was Wizard, which was based on the Tommy movie by the Who. They paid very little for the licensing at the time, but they were able to promote the machine around the movie. And since it was called Wizard, they actually would go around to different cities and give the machines away at pinball tournaments. They would host pinball tournaments to try and increase the popularity of their brand.

Then all the other companies followed suit. Gottlieb got a license in 1979 for Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Williams did it to a much lesser extent. Bally was the key player in licensing themes. They really felt that they could bring new people in to play pinball if they recognized the theme.

Today, the only pinball manufacturer left is Stern out of Chicago. Just about every game they put out, if not every game they put out, is a licensed theme because they are really strong believers in the idea that themes attract new players to pinball. In other words, you can get somebody to play an Indiana Jones pinball machine because they just walked out of the Indiana Jones movie, that sort of thing.

Bally also did a lot of games based on rock groups. They did a KISS machine, which was hugely popular, and one with Ted Nugent. The payments to these guys were so small. For the Ted Nugent game, everybody on the road crew, the management, and the band got a machine. That was the licensing fee, probably 15 machines. Stern did the Ted Nugent deal.

Collectors Weekly: What were some of the other most popular themes?

Harrell: Gottlieb was really good at card themes. They were known for that. Card games like poker, you’re trying to get different hands, a royal flush, they used that name a bunch of times—Card Whiz, Royal Flush, Pop-a-Card.

Exterior paint on Gottlieb Harbor Lites, 1956.

In the 1950s, Gottlieb would run a machine for maybe three or four weeks in their factory and then make anywhere from 500 to 1,500 machines. They would produce maybe 10 different games a year. By the 1960s, production numbers began to bump up. One thousand was now a low production number, and 2,500 to 3,500 was a good run for any particular game. The games were becoming more popular. They were selling more of them.

By the 1970s, some of the machines were breaking sales records, especially the early Bally licensed stuff. They were selling 10,000 machines, 15,000 machines, and this is an incredible number of machines compared to what they were selling just a few years before. But in the mid-’70s, video games were just on the horizon, and by 1979, microprocessor games like Space Invaders, which was a black-and-white game, really started to cut into the pinball market share.

When Pac-Man came out in 1980, pinball really took a dive. Where just a couple years before they had been selling 8,000, 10,000, 12,000, or 15,000 machines, now manufacturers were having a hard time selling 2,000 machines. So the popularity would go down, and pinball would constantly have to reinvent itself. By the late 1980s, Bally was almost out of business, and Williams bought them just to get the name and basically kill a competitor.

By the early 1990s, pinball was on upswing again. Manufacturers were selling boatloads of machines, with the Adam’s Family being the most popular game of all time. And then in the mid-’90s, home-gaming consoles became popular and once again pinball’s popularity started to slide. People weren’t going out so much to be entertained. Arcades were having a hard time, some even closed.

In 1999, Williams/Bally stopped making pinball machines. They just stopped. They said, “We’re just making slot machines.” Remember, Gottlieb had already gone out of business in 1995. So now there was only one pinball manufacturer left, a company called Data East, which in 1995, was bought by Sega.

By 1999, Sega wanted out, so they basically dumped the pinball company. A long-time Data East guy, Gary Stern, picked it up for a very fair price. So now, Gary Stern is running Stern Pinball. There are no stockholders to answer to, it’s just Gary. Because of that autonomy, his pinball machine company has been able to survive. He’s been able to keep his company afloat even during these poor economic times. That’s good because if Stern Pinball goes under, there’s nobody left making any new machines. There almost has to be a new pinball manufacturer out there to keep pinball alive as a pop cultural icon.

Collectors Weekly: When did multi-player games appear?

Detail of animated metal umpire and pitcher from Williams Official Baseball, 1960.

Harrell: Originally, machines were all single-player games. It was one player at a time. But starting in 1954, Gottlieb came up with the idea to have two or even four people playing at a time. Player one would play ball one, then player two would play ball one. Then player one would play ball two, and player two would play ball two. Suddenly it was more competitive.

The problem was that with electromechanical architecture, the amount of circuitry needed to support multi-player games came at the expense of game play. Basically, it meant that the games couldn’t be as complicated as far as game play and game features were concerned. So there was always this kind of wresting match—do you have a multi-player game that people can play more or less head to head, or do you have a single-player game where the rule set can be considerably deeper but with only one person playing at a time?

As far as collectors go, most collectors like single-player electromechanical games because the games are more involved and they have a deeper rule set. There’s more to do. With the advent of solid-state microcomputers and microprocessors, all games became multi-player just by default because now the game could remember.

Collectors Weekly: Did the transition from wood rail to metal rail change game play, or was that just the frame?

Harrell: No, it was purely aesthetics. At first the games didn’t have a lot of security. There was a coin box. The coin doors were wooden. The legs were wooden. The side rails that held the top glass in place were wooden, and that’s why they call those games wood rails. Most games from the 1950s cost a nickel to play. So you only had a few bucks worth of nickels in the coin box. By 1960 the price of games had gone up to a dime, so now there’s more money in the coin boxes and they just felt that they needed more security. Also the cost of wood was going up. Metal was actually cheaper to produce. It’s also harder to pry them off, to get the glass up, and then get to the coin box.

Collectors Weekly: How do you choose new games to collect?

Harrell: There are games that I’m looking for, clearly. The one thing that’s very interesting about this hobby is it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can buy machines off Craigslist or out of the want ads, or wherever, for anywhere from $50 to $500. These are decent games that are restorable; something to work on and have fun with. And when you’re done, you got a game to play.

I tend to try and look for things that I can afford, that seem interesting and that maybe I don’t have a lot of experience with because it is a huge learning experience, the whole thing, working on the different games and learning their ins and outs.

Collectors Weekly: What do you look for in game play?

The bingo machines, Wonderland Arcade, Kansas City, 1968.

Harrell: I’ve never played a pinball machine that didn’t have some sort of objective. The game play always has an objective. With pool themes, those are pretty generic. You need to try to get all the stripes or all the solids. And once you get all the stripes or all the solids, in some games, anyway, then you want to get the 8-ball. Some Games are actually called 8 Ball or the 8-ball is an important part of the theme. But there’s always some objective, and sometimes there’s an order to the objective.

One thing that’s unusual about pinball compared to a lot of other amusement games is that you can actually win something from playing it. This goes back to that 1930s gambling association. The machines couldn’t pay out, but they could award a free game. So what’s a free game? I guess some people thought it was something of value, but really it’s just another game you get to play for free. So in a lot of games like Flipper Pool or Bank-a-Ball, both 1965 Gottlieb games, if you had hit all the targets associated with all the solids or all the stripes, you would get what’s called a replay. You would basically win a free game. And on some machines, you can win multiple free games if you accomplished enough things.

Some people remember playing that game. They’d put in a dime, rack up 10 credits, and play the rest of the afternoon for free. There are a lot of people who have that sort of recollection from their youth. Even today, if you get to a certain replay score, you can still win a free game. In some states, pinball machines were outlawed because winning a game was viewed as winning something of value. It felt too much like gambling. So Gottlieb figured that instead of rewarding the player with an extra game, they’d just reward the player by making the current game last longer. So you would win additional balls instead of winning free games.

Collectors Weekly: Finally, what was a conversion machine?

Harrell: There were really three types. Back in 1947, when flippers were invented, a lot of the non-flipper machines were converted to flippers with a kit. That was one style of conversion machine. Then in the 1970s, there were a couple experiments where you could buy a machine, say a Bally Mata Hari, and you could flip a different playfield into it. They would sell just the playfield, which is the wood portion that the ball rolls on, plus a different score glass and a different set of chips for the computer. It let you convert a base machine into an entirely different game.

The idea didn’t go over so well. Bally/Williams tried it again in 1999 with Pinball 2000. Again, you would buy a base machine, and in order to make it into a different game, you could basically flip in a new playfield, some new memory cards, and the new back glass art. None of these ideas seemed to work all that well. Pinball 2001 took this idea further and probably was the one format that could have worked, but Bally/Williams closed its pinball division in 1999, so it never really took off. So there you go, three different types of conversion machines.


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