For a Pinball Survivor, the Game Isn’t Over

By MONICA DAVEYAPRIL 25, 2008

 

MELROSE PARK, Ill. — Being inside a pinball machine factory sounds exactly as you think it would. Across a 40,000-square-foot warehouse here, a cheery cacophony of flippers flip, bells ding, bumpers bump and balls click in an endless, echoing loop. The quarter never runs out.

But this place, Stern Pinball Inc., is the last of its kind in the world. A range of companies once mass produced pinball machines, especially in the Chicago area, the one-time capital of the business. Now there is only Stern. And even the dinging and flipping here has slowed: Stern, which used to crank out 27,000 pinball machines each year, is down to around 10,000.

To most, the story seems familiar — of a craze that had its moment, of computers that grew sophisticated, of a culture that started staying home for fun, of being replaced by video games. But to pinball people, this is a painful fading, and one that, some insist, might yet be turned around.

“There are a lot of things I look at and scratch my head,” said Tim Arnold, who ran an arcade during a heyday of pinball in the 1970s and recently opened The Pinball Hall of Fame, a nonprofit museum in a Las Vegas strip mall. “Why are people playing games on their cellphones while they write e-mail? I don’t get it.”

“The thing that’s killing pinball,” Mr. Arnold added, “is not that people don’t like it. It’s that there’s nowhere to play it.”

 

Along the factory line in this suburb west of Chicago, scores of workers pull and twist at colored wires, drill holes in wooden frames, screw in flippers and tiny light bulbs and assorted game characters who will eventually move and spin and taunt you.

Eddie Hivo, left, and Fernando Herrera checking a pinball machine at Stern Pinball Inc. in Melrose Park, Ill., the last company to mass produce the devices. 

Credit

Sally Ryan for The New York Times

Though pinball has roots in the 1800s game of bagatelle, these are by no means simple machines. Each one contains a half-mile of wire and 3,500 tiny components, and takes 32 hours to build — as the company’s president, Gary Stern, likes to say, longer than a Ford Taurus.

Mr. Stern, the last pinball machine magnate, is a wise-cracking, fast-talking 62-year-old with a shock of white hair, matching white frame glasses and a deep tan who eats jelly beans at his desk and recently hurt a rib snowboarding in Colorado.

The manufacturing plant is a game geek’s fantasy job, a Willy Wonka factory of pinball.

Some designers sit in private glass offices seated across from their pinball machines.

Some workers are required to spend 15 minutes a day in the “game room” playing the latest models or risk the wrath of Mr. Stern. “You work at a pinball company,” he explained, grumpily, “you’re going to play a lot of pinball.” (On a clipboard here, the professionals must jot their critiques, which, on a recent day, included “flipper feels soft” and “stupid display.”)

And in a testing laboratory devoted to the physics of all of this, silver balls bounce around alone in cases for hours to record how well certain kickers and flippers and bumpers hold up.

Mr. Stern’s father, Samuel Stern, spent his life in the pinball business, starting out as a game operator in the 1930s — when a simple version of the modern mass-produced pinball machine first appeared. Dozens of companies were soon producing the machines, said Roger Sharpe, widely considered a foremost historian of the sport after the 1977 publication of his book, “Pinball!”

Photo

Gary Stern says half of his company’s machines now go into homes and not a corner arcade. 

Credit

Sally Ryan for The New York Times

The creation of the flipper — popularized by the Humpty Dumpty game in 1947 — transformed the activity, which went on to surges in the 1950s, ’70s and early ’90s.

“Everybody thinks of it as retro, as nostalgia,” Mr. Sharpe said. “But it’s not. These are sophisticated games. Pinball is timeless.”

Perhaps, but even Mr. Stern acknowledges that demand is down. The hard-core players are faithful; the International Flipper Pinball Association keeps careful watch of the top-ranked players in the world. But the casual player has drifted.

“The whole coin-op industry is not what it once was,” Mr. Stern said.

Corner shops, pubs, arcades and bowling alleys stopped stocking pinball machines. A younger audience turned to video games. Men of a certain age, said Mr. Arnold, who is 52, became the reliable audience. (“Chicks,” he announced, “don’t get it.”)

And so for Mr. Stern, the pinball buyer is shifting.

In the United States, Mr. Stern said, half of his new machines, which cost about $5,000 and are bought through distributors, now go directly into people’s homes and not a corner arcade. He said nearly 40 percent of the machines — some designed to appeal to French, German, Italian and Spanish players — were exported, and he added that he had been working to make inroads in China, India, the Middle East and Russia.

Mr. Stern said the notion underlying this game was universal, lasting.

Ask him about the future and Mr. Stern offers a rare pause. In 10 years, he said, pinball will be fine. His company will be here, cranking out pinball machines. Fifty years hence? It is too far away to think about, he said. But pressed to ponder it, he said he was certain of one thing: Pinball will be around.

“Look, pinball is like tennis,” said Mr. Stern, noting that a tennis court could never, for instance, be made round and that certain elements of a pinball play field are equally unchangeable and lasting. “This is a ball game. It’s a bat and ball game, O.K.?”

 

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