IN THE COTTAGES
Pinball has come full circle. Pinball is now the cottage industry that it started out as. This is proved by two different aspects; industrial and pop-culture.
The pinball industry has dwindled from its once almost heroic existence. And, it is the extreme effort and deep desire of a few individuals to contribute to and keep alive our once pop-culture icon and now mere hobby - pinball.
In 1992 Midway Manufacturing (WMS) sold just over 20,000 of "The Addams Family" pinball machines. Then in 1993 WMS only sold about 15,000 "Twilight Zone" pinball machines. After 1993, WMS "never came close to matching the sales numbers". By the year 1999, there was just one company which manufactured pinball machines on a full time basis; Stern Pinball, Inc.
In 2000, after a sixteen year respite, a company called "Stern" started building pinball machines again. They produced their new first game “Striker Xtreme”. In 2005 Stern was, according to Gary Stern, “striving towards (producing) 10,000 machines a year”. Even without any other pinball competitors, just to stay in business, Stern has had to supplement its pinball production with redemption games. In 2007, Stern will “keep our doors open” by producing small runs of 100 machines; pinball or other. Even when pinball machines are produced, it's estimated that up to twenty percent of those few machines are going into the homes of collector/enthusiasts rather than on routes or in public places; such as bars and restaurants.
The number of pinball machines produced, by even the sole remaining factory, has severely dwindled in the past five years. And, the few machines that may be produced do not need to be replaced nearly as often. This is because many more of the few machines are going into homes for light private use; rather than out for heavy public use.
So it's the hobbyists at the grass-roots level, and not the industry, who are keeping pinball alive for players and collectors; as a cottage industry. Let's meet a few of those who live in the cottages that make up the village.
Because pinball machines are mechanical works of art, one person who promotes pinball with his artistic talent is Michael Belofsky of Purcellville Pinball and Slots. According to Michael, his "...full time job is a Manager at a financial services company....".
But Michael does more than just 9-to-5. His, "2 favorite machines are Star Trek: The Next Generation and Monster Bash"; both of which he owns. Michael's, "3rd favorite machine is Lord of the Rings"; which he bought new for himself.
Michael, "loved pinball as a kid" but he didn't get as deep into pinball as he is now until 1998, when he realized that he, "could buy a machine (from Lloyd at Coin Op Warehouse)". After that he, "started getting others (pinball machines) and realized that there really was no one that knew how to fix them". Currently he admits to being, "pretty good, not great but good" at repairing pinball machines and is proud to admit that he has, "been able to fix every machine". Michael's specialty is considered by some to be the repair and restoration which he miraculously and meticulously performs on the painted and finished surfaces of games.
Because his confidence was building, in 2004, Michael opened Purcellville Pinball and Slots . Michael puts the word "business" in quotes because his efforts are more to provide a service for, "the local community".
But he does more than just revamp and sell games, "Plus, I like teaching. If the person is interested, I can give them some of the knowledge they need to do basic maintenance on their machines". And from his web site, Purcellville Pinball and Slots, you can see that Michael likes to, "focus on selling 'retail' to the local community". Michael's only, "goal is to get people to enjoy pinballs and feel confident about owning a game since there is someone that will fix them". Michael gets, "all of my business from the web site and referrals. Since this is a small business, I am not concerned about volume, just quality". For Michael, the point of doing business, ("besides the fact that I truly enjoy pinballs and want to play, own, fix and /or sell every one made eventually") is just, "to make enough money to buy the machines I want to keep until it is time to get a new round of machines". He admits, "I do not make a lot of money. I don't even make enough to cover the hours I spend." But as long as Michael don't lose money, "I am very content", he says.
Michael asked me, "What other 'hobby/business' can you get most, if not all, of your expenses covered so you can enjoy doing what you like?" I could only agree and asked Michael in return, "If you were a pinball machine, which one could you be and why?" Michael responded, "Monster Bash is a fun game for kids, adults, beginners and experts. It never gets old. The playfield usually remains vibrant and always looks great. The multiball modes are enjoyable. There are many toys on the playfield (and under). With good maintenance, the toys can last a long time." I suppose the answer is like one of Michael's restorations: great to enjoy and long lasting.
One person who supports pinball in our little berg is Bob Frysztak, of Bob's Pinball Mods. Bob takes time away from his family; "a wonderful, and highly successful" wife and his fifteen year old son and eighteen year old daughter, to make many different pinball modifications.
When Bob was in high school and college he worked in a bowling alley. That is where he learned how to fix coin-op machines including; "vending, video and pinball" . This work exposed him to many different pinball machines during the 1970s. After graduate school and starting a family, a celebration brought Bob back to pinball. It was then he bought his first pinball machine, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Bob made the decision to sell his goods and services after fixing and cleaning his first game. This came from Bob's desire to, "dress my ST:TNG up a bit - personalize it" by making "the plain toys look more realistic and life-like." The decision came after seeing "all the interesting and creative things done by other folks", at Expo and after finding RGP. Bob set up a picture-filled webpage with the original idea to share his "ideas and creations" with our little group. But, the exposure to the public eye changed an act of sharing to requests.
But don't think that Bob is just about appearances. When asked, "If you were a pinball machine, which one could you be and why?" Bob responded, "I suppose I would like to be one that people R E A L L Y enjoyed playing, regardless of how I might look." And he did name two such games. The first was Medieval Madness. The second was Star Trek: The Next Generation .
Although, "many pinball enthusiasts have told me to quit my day job and do this (pinball mods) full time", Bob "really can't see myself doing that any time soon". He went on to hint that maybe "creating" was something that he could do during early retirement.
Bob explained, "But I am not in a 'business' to make money. I am just trying to keep a favorite hobby of mine alive by helping fellow hobbyists. Most of my 'creations' are more or less 'break-even' on the money side."
Now that Bob is in a time of his life where he can fulfil his: desire to create, eagerness to share, and willingness to "barely break even", he has solely realized mods for over twenty-five machines and has "created mods for other 'machines' besides pinball".
Another person who owns a pinball cottage business is Cliffy of "Passion for Pinball". Cliffy is a forty-seven year young father of six and grandfather of one. Even with all of his family, Cliffy still takes time to make many different playfield hole protectors.
To understand Cliffy's desire to make and sell pinball protectors, I asked him, "If you were a pinball machine, which one could you be and why?" When pressed for an answer, Cliffy responded, "I would have to say I would be a Banzai Run." He explained that the game is, "incredibly complex as pinballs go" and went on to say, "It's tough as nails and keeps on playing despite all of its technical intricacies . It's true to its theme, it's honest." Cliffy summarized the game (and perhaps himself) by asking, "Dare I say 'inspirational'? "
By the time he was just seventeen, Cliffy knew that he liked working with metal more than anything else in his eclectic life. Lessons from that life taught Cliffy to, "Buy broken or dead and make it work".
Cliffy started his self-described "niche" home business of making playfield protectors from the necessity to replace missing parts for his "Strange Science" pinball machine. The selection of protectors grew because, according to Cliffy, "Of course, as we all know, pinball is the Lays potato chip of hobbies. You know you can't eat just one!" As his pinball collection grew, so did his determination to, "save as many games as I could from the firewood pile".
Cliffy's in-home business started when he made a much needed ramp protector set for his WMS solid-state "FunHouse". In fact, he ended up making a complete six-piece protector set. When a few people noticed the protectors on Cliffy's "FunHouse", they encouraged him to make and sell the six-piece set. But due to the fact that producing the set was very labor-intensive, Cliffy really had his doubts. However, after John Butler of Arizona saw pictures of Cliffy's "FunHouse" à la protectors, John did everything that he could to have Cliffy make him a set. John got his set at Pin-A-Go-Go.
When Cliffy started filling his, "endless list of requests to make protectors for other games", he did so by use of relatively crude templates and simple hand tools: tin snips, hole punch, and a hand vice. Because of his current apprenticeship / partnership with Martin Reynolds, Cliffy is now working smarter; producing protectors via CADD templates and laser cutting.
Cliffy's relationship with Martin has grown along with his list of requested pinball protectors. Currently Cliffy is proud to make what he considers a "small contribution" to "saving a piece of Americana", by making pinball scoop hole and ramp protectors for nearly 30 games.
Though Cliffy now works with a partner and has expanded the list of protectors he makes, Cliffy knows that his is a niche business.
Our Village Elder has got to be Lloyd Olson (Lloyd the Great – LTG to his friends). Lloyd is a fifty-three year old hard working single man. In his own words, "I'm a people person and one of the friendliest game-room owners you'll ever meet".
Lloyd was literally born into the coin-op industry. This starts our first good pinball story about Lloyd. I'll let him tell us in his own words. "My earliest memories of pinball were building my first machine when I was about 4 years old, scared the heck out of my dad when I was going to plug it in, as I knew nothing about electronics yet. And having my dad drag home a Kentucky Derby and sticking it in the basement so I had something to learn on".
Lloyd started running his own arcade, SS Billiards (see report), over thirty-five years ago. It is out of this arcade where Lloyd dispenses his copious amounts of pinball specific and coin-op general information on the newsgroup, Rec.Games.Pinball – (RGP). Lloyd decided to start his own arcade because, "It's mostly what I grew up around. My father bought the Rifle Sport Arcade (812 Hennepin Ave, Minneapolis) when I was about 8 years old, so all I learned was around an arcade. My only street-op experience was in 1972-73 when I worked for one of the largest ops in the midwest".
Lloyd may spend fourteen continuous hours in his arcade, but he is so ubiquitous that he seems to live on the internet. He has the most posts and best rating of anyone on RGP. Lloyd uses the newsgroup to freely dispense the coin-op knowledge that he has gained for nearly fifty years. He has helped seemingly countless numbers of pin-heads; novice and expert alike.
If you attend one of Lloyd's events, or just visit him, you will see that he is very willing to give free repair advice. And he has even been known, on several occasions, to help local collectors who have gotten themselves into trouble with pinball boards repairs. Lloyd even provides more local help by selling pinball parts. Novices, who usually don't have manuals for their games, can just start talking about a broken part. Then, more often than not, he will retrieve a brand new replacement part to sell.
The ironic thing is that all of the free help that Lloyd gives tends to keep people out of his arcade. Maybe that explains which pinball machine he would be and why? According to Lloyd, "Hands down I'd be Kingpin blasting away with my Tommy gun, and getting sheer pleasure as you go into timed sudden death and slow down and die."
There can be no two ways about it; Martin Ayub is our town crier. Martin keeps us informed about the world of pinball, on an almost weekly basis, through his hobby, Pinball News. Martin is a forty-two year old single graphic designer who works for the West London division of the BBC. Like most of us, Martin discovered pinball while he was attending college. The first pinball machine that he ever played was Jungle Lord.
But, Martin does not just write about the pinball machines that he plays. He has accumulated a small collection of pinball machines. Martin uses some of the machines in his collection at European pinball tournaments; which he also helps organize and run. Martin also helps organize and run: the UK Pinball League, the UK Pinball Show, the UK Pinball discussion group. And, he is one of the UK 's IFPA Country Directors. In Martin's own words, "I think there may be a theme developing there! ;-)"
When I asked Martin what kid of pinball machine that he'd be any why, he responded, "Hmmm, well first thought is - it's going to have to be a widebody! :-) Next, with lots of deadlines both at work and online, I suppose it needs a clock. Then, with all the gadgets I have around it needs to have a lot of toys. It would need to be totally impractical for today's market. Finally, with my lack of musical keyboard skills, something that plays itself would be good. Something like a player piano for instance." Then Martin concluded, "Yes, I would be a Twilight Zone."
Martin is the person who is most responsible for promoting pinball by sharing understanding and concrete information via his free on line pinball magazine, Pinball News. According to Martin, he stared Pinball News (PBN) because he couldn't find enough corroborating information to the questions about the future of pinball, which arose after he attended the 1999 Pinball Expo and Williams' subsequent decision to exit from pinball. Martin explained, " I wanted information about what was happening and nobody was providing it. I figured, if I wanted to know what was going on, so would others. " Martin started researching the answers to his questions in pinball-associated magazines. He realized that the information was never as up to date as web-based resources.
So, Martin started independently researching the industry. He posted the information that he could verify on his limited but free webspace. He soon filled all of his free webspace and acquired, "www.pinballnews.co.uk". The new webspace was mainly used to inform UK collectors and operators about the current state of pinball but in less than one year, due to the amount of overseas interest to the UK base site, Martin started "www.pinballnews.com", which we know today as Pinball News.
Pinball News currently has a higher "hit count" than the combined subscriptions to paper pinball magazines. One reason for the greater subscription base may be Martin's personal commitment to always keeping Pinball News a free pinball magazine.
Though Pinball News has relied upon and appreciated its contributors, Martin as the editor, explained his personal commitment by summarizing that, "Pinball News was never about making money, but about promoting pinball and keeping it an exciting and developing game in the mind of those who support the industry and the hobby".
One person leading the 'new again' pinball cottage industry is Herb Silvers of Fabulous Fantasies. Herb plans to have his first retro pinball game available by the summer of 2007. According to Herb, "anyone will be able to buy or be a seller." Not going for the large sales potential of route sales, Herb hopes to put, "a pinball in every home".
To understand what is driving Herb's desire to make a start in producing and selling pinball machines, I asked him, "If you were a pinball machine, which one could you be and why?" He responded, "Bally Fireball. Because I like throwing everything in a devilish spin. Just kidding. I like the idea of going one way and then changing my mind and going the other. In the end I can have other people work with me to achieve a common goal. Hopefully that is not too corny."
Where as Stern has but a hopeful wish to produce 10,000 pinball machines a
year, they only manage to keep their doors open by making 100 of any
coin-op machine at any time. Herb explained his more solid plan, "We are
starting off with 250 limited and numbered Gold Editions (different
software also). Then the regular run starts about 2000... and much more if
Gottlieb's "Kind of Diamonds, "A Retro Pinball by Fabulous Fantasies"
Herb is using nostalgia and the popularity of playing poker as the deciding factors which influenced his choice to produce, "King of Diamonds". This retro game will have the availability to host four players with use of a single four-digit score reel.
To summarize what he is trying to do, Herb explained, "That we are making these games to help promote interest of the hobby to everyone. By keeping the cost down it will be affordable to everyone. You do not need be a tech to repair it either. We have 5 more titles waiting in the wings. We hope to have 2 to 3 a year and start up the Gottlieb company again".
Through playing up a current pop-culture craze and playing to a sense of nostalgia, Herb hopes to restart the pinball industry.
The people in this article, and many like them, are keeping pinball alive at a grass roots level.
Do you wonder what you can you do to support our beloved hobby and help keep it alive? I can only answer by asking the obvious, "In order to ensure that resources will be available for you and your pinball machine, isn't now a good time to visit some cottages; before pinball is completely gone?"
© Pinball News 2007