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AutoMatters & More: Pinball at San Diego Comic-Con & the Pinball Hall of Fame

As you read this and enjoy the photographs of the brightly lit, colorful works of art that are pinball machines, imagine the sharp staccato sounds of their clanging bells and electronic music, as their shiny silver pinballs zoom up ramps and make hard contact with flippers, bumpers and other assorted electro mechanical switches.

Compared to video games, there is something uniquely satisfying about pressing the flipper buttons at just the right time, to knock the pinball back up the slope, to rack up points on its way down.

The Simpsons
The Simpsons Pinball Party Jan Wagner

At San Diego Comic-Con 2018, a ballroom was filled with people playing pinball machines. Taking all that in and playing a few games myself reminded me of good times that I spent playing pinball as a teenager, so many years ago in Mac Hall – the students’ union building at the University of Calgary (Alberta, Canada). It’s too bad that grades were not given out for pinball, because I got pretty good at that over the four years that I was a student there.

Stern Pinball

Stern Pinball traces its history back to the early 1930s. Back then, Sam Stern co-owned and presided over Williams Electronics – one of several key players in the pinball industry that included Bally and Gottlieb. In the decades that followed, the industry pioneered many new innovations, including multi-player games, score reels and increasingly sophisticated mechanisms, solid-state electronics technology and beautiful graphic art. Companies acquired other companies, and company names changed, eventually leading to Gary Stern purchasing the business back from Sega in the 1980s, and renaming it Stern Pinball, Inc.

Stern, as well as Williams, Bally, Midway and Gottlieb, thrived – until the recession hit just after the turn of the new century. Stern Pinball survived the recession and led the industry’s revival.

Zachary Sharpe is the Director of Marketing of Stern Pinball (http://www.sternpinball.com). He told me that the games I played back in my college days were probably EM – electro-mechanical, with physical score reels. Reliability improved as the technology progressed to solid-state digital displays, then DMD – dot matrix displays, and now LCD displays – which can be seen on their Batman ’66, Star Wars, Aerosmith, Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Maiden pinball machines.

Pinball machines
Row of vintage pinball machines at the Pinball Hall of Fame Jan Wagner

Pinball Hall of Fame

The Pinball Hall of Fame, with its many vintage pinball machines and other games – all of which visitors are encouraged to play – is located in Las Vegas, Nevada. This family-friendly museum is not-for-profit, raising money for charities, including The Salvation Army. It is staffed by volunteers, including its owner, Tim Arnold. Patrick, a museum volunteer who I interviewed for this article. He told me that he and his fellow volunteers especially enjoy seeing young people experience playing pinball for the very first time.

Tim was an arcade operator in Michigan. Over several decades he has assembled a vast collection of over 1,000 vintage pinball machines and other games, saving many of them from decay and destruction. In Las Vegas he realized his dream of sharing these pieces of American popular culture with the world.

Some of the machines are prototypes. For example, the museum’s “The Pinball Circus” machine is one of only two ever made. It is played on multiple levels., with ramps and elevators.

Their non-pinball, arcade style machines include air hockey, foosball, bowling, baseball and arm wrestling.

Pinball Circus
The Pinball Circus multi-level pinball machine Jan Wagner

The Pinball Hall of Fame is very popular with visitors and locals alike, from individuals and small groups, to birthday parties, clubs and large, convention-related celebrations during CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) and the SEMA Show. It is so popular, in fact, that it has outgrown its current, longtime location. Hundreds of vintage pinball machines and other games sit in storage, so a much larger plot of land has been acquired for a new museum (see https://www.reviewjournal.com/business/pinball-hall-of-fame-to-move-near-south-end-of-las-vegas-strip/).

Getaway machine
The Getaway pinball machine Jan Wagner

The Pinball Hall of Fame is open seven days a week, including holidays. It is located at 1610 East Tropicana Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89119. Take a 360-degree tour at pinballmuseum.org. Better yet, visit the museum in person, play some games and have fun. By doing so you will help raise money for charity. That is a true Las Vegas win-win.

Find the most photos at www.drivetribe.com. Enter “AutoMatters & More” in their search bar and click on TRIBES. Send comments and suggestions to AutoMatters@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2018 by Jan Wagner – AutoMatters & More #556

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