Sunday, August 15, 2010

Legends of pinball, vol. 1

There aren't many people I know of that I can call a legend of pinball, but there are a few I am familiar with for one reason or another. One of them is Tim, the proprietor of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

I'm not sure when I first learned of Tim's pinball museum, but it was sometime before January 2007.

I read about the museum somewhere and instantly became fascinated with a working pinball arcade that features machines from the past and present. I visited the museum for barely an hour in January 2007, and loved it. The museum looked like little more than a strip mall arcade. And that's really all it was. It was a jam packed arcade with dozens of pinball machines spanning several decades and a couple dozen video games from the 1980s.

I didn't get a chance to visit the museum again until November 2009. It was during that first week of November that the museum moved to a new, larger location. The new location promises space for up to 400 machines. I've been there twice in the past five months, and it's still a work in progress. The museum is still not filled to capacity with working machines.

It will take time, but there's no doubt the museum will eventually be filled to capacity, mostly with vintage pinball machines.

The museum is Tim's pet project. If I recall correctly, Tim made pretty good money in the arcade business back in the 1980s. He sold out while there was something left of his business at the end of the '80s and retired at a relatively young age. He moved to Las Vegas, taking with him hundreds of old pinball machines that he had collected and kept.

In Nevada he started hosting a game night in some sort of outbuilding he had for warehousing his pinball machines. When his game nights outgrew the outbuilding, a working museum was the next logical step.

The museum is operated as a nonprofit entity. Being nonprofit doesn't mean people working for the organization can't draw a salary, but I've never had any indication Tim cashes a paycheck for the many hours he works each month keeping the museum operational. The museum is not run like an arcade. There are no tokens, there is no concession stand, you won't win any prizes by trading in tickets won on a Deal or No Deal video game.

Even if Tim does cut himself a salary, it can't be much, because at 25 cents to $1 per game, the museum can't generate a ton of cash in any given month after paying the rent and utility costs. Yet the museum periodically donates profits to charity.

Tim is often at the museum, repairing one of the many machines in his inventory. He has a little of everything to choose from, from classic electromechanical machines to the latest solid state offerings. Nowadays there's just one pinball manufacturer: Stern. I can't promise every Stern machine of the past 10 years is at the museum, but it sure seems like it.

There are plenty of pinball machines from the 1950s and 1960s at the museum, most of which have rather generic themes. In the 21st century pinball machines have to be based on something people are familiar with, such as television shows or movies. There are machines based upon Family Guy, 24, Wheel of Fortune and World Poker Tour. Movies represented via pinball include the Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. And there are other machines based on commercial entities, such as the NBA, NASCAR, Monopoly and even Big Buck Hunter, one of the few successful arcade cabinets of the 21st century.

In the old days pinball themes revolved around simplistic ideas, such as bowling, carnivals, billiards or card games. And you will find plenty of those rather simplistic games at the museum.

There are several unique pinball machines to be found at the museum. There's a classic game that has rotating cars on an oval race track inside the backbox. The backbox is the top of the machine that typically displays scores, and as you hit targets on the machine's playfield, it advances the cars on the track.

There's a modern machine that has a vertical playfield in the backbox. There's also a machine that features head-to-head competition where players stand at either end of the machine, similar in fashion to playing air hockey.

One of my favorite machines at the museum, one you won't find anywhere else, is Pinball Circus, a prototype developed in the late 1980s. It was a pinball game designed inside a cabinet similar in size and shape to a Donkey Kong or Pac-Man machine. It was pinball's answer to the arcade game, but it was shelved instead of being produced for the arcade industry. Despite that, it's available for play at the museum for a buck a game.

The new location still has video games of the 1980s, as well as a few odd coin-operated devices of yesteryear that don't fall under the umbrella of pinball or video game. It's quite a collection Tim has assembled and maintained, and there are plenty more where they came from, which I find amazing.

The museum doesn't have tour guides or informational kiosks, but some of the machines have cards with tidbits and trivia about them. Others have that fancy code you can scan with your fancy phone. Doing so will call up information about the machine via your wireless device, a device that was once impressive simply for being able to complete phone calls without a cord.

I spent more than two hours at the museum last month, with three machines occupying most of my time. I spent less than $10 during my time there, which is almost a crime. I should be paying a lot more than that for entertainment in Vegas, entertainment I can't get anywhere else in the world. (Other than some DVD that has been produced, there isn't any merchandise you can buy to support the museum. It definitely needs something to sell as a souvenir.)

Tim was recently interviewed for a podcast, and during it he noted he had recently been treated for a health issue. He's fine, and back to work, but it reminded me that without Tim, there is no museum. If Tim dies tomorrow, is there anyone who will put hours of effort into maintaining pinball machines on an ongoing basis, for no pay? I've said this more than once: if Tim had to pay his bills and make a living operating the museum, he wouldn't. If he couldn't afford to donate his time, the museum wouldn't exist.

The Pinball Hall of Fame is the one thing on my must-do list every time I go to Vegas, and I hope it's something I am able to enjoy for decades to come.

There is plenty of information about the museum online, including two different pages on Facebook, an unofficial blog that hasn't been updated in two months, a brief Wikipedia page and two websites dedicated to the museum. The one that seems to be most official is this one:


Anonymous said...

Wow! I had no idea. I used to love pinball as a kid (more than video games). My best friend in middle school had this in his basement:

Great memories. I will definitely be visiting this place the next time I visit Vegas (which is another thing I love to do!).

- SeaStorm

Arthur Fonzarelli said...

I should write a blog some day about my video game memories... I was never much into pinball, with the exception of a few machines during my lifetime. But nowadays I enjoy pinball much more than a vidoe game. Sure, I'll try my hand at a classic Donkey Kong or Mario Bros. machine if I can find one (the museum has them), but I'm much more interested in finding a place that still has pinball.

I'm amazed at some of the places pinball machines end up... more about that in vol. 3.

The museum has some sort of old pinball-type baseball machine... not sure if it's the one you linked to. You can tell me when you return from your next trip to Vegas.