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Wanna-be pinball wizards keep the silver ball rolling

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Written by PETER CORBETT, The Arizona Republic   
Wednesday, 20 July 2011 08:31
 The Who’s album ‘Tommy’ inspired this 1975 Bally pinball machine called Wizard. Images of Roger Daltry and Ann-Margaret, who both starred in the movie version of the rock opera, are pictured on the backboard. Heritage Auctions estimates it will sell for $4,000-$6,000 at a July 29 auction. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions. PHOENIX (AP) – Stuart Wright calls it “pin dancing,” the crouch of transfixed pinball fanatics playing the silver ball.

Players rock from one foot to the other as they trigger the flippers and nudge the game just enough to keep the ball in play without setting off the dreaded tilt mechanism that halts the blinking lights, sounds and action.

“You've got to get your mind into the zone,” said Wright, 46, a Scottsdale, Ariz., pinball-machine collector describing the focus of passionate “pinheads,” as they call themselves.

"Pinball wizard," immortalized in the Who's classic song, is a cringe-inducing cliche for these players.

Once a staple of American bowling alleys, bars and arcades, pinball has receded over the past two decades, a victim of the multibillion-dollar video-gaming industry that dominates arcades and home entertainment with its largely young, male audience.

Pinball play is being kept alive primarily by ardent collectors, at museums and in pinball leagues in members' homes. The International Flipper Pinball Association lists 38 leagues, mostly in the United States, but also in Canada, Germany, Spain and Japan.

Wright is one of the founders, along with Phoenix residents Mark Pearson, 41, and Jim Smith, 47, of the Arizona Pinball Players League, now in its third season.

There is a waiting list for the 32-player league, with monthly tournaments hosted by league members in their elaborate home game rooms. League members range in age from their 20s to 50s, with most being close to 40, young enough to have grown up with early video games. A handful of participants are women.

“We all come together for the love of the silver ball,” said Wright, a graphic designer whose work includes art for pinball restoration.

Wright's game room includes 47 pinball machines under black lights that accentuate the comic-book-like pinball graphics and special arcade carpeting that shows bright neon patterns.

Wright and Pearson both have a number of collectible pinball machines, including a remake of manufacturer CapCom's Big Bang Bar. The game sold on a special order for $4,500, but prices now top $10,000, Pearson said.

Chicago-based Stern Pinball is the only current manufacturer. Jersey Jack Pinball of Lakewood, N.J., plans to release a Wizard of Oz game or title within a year. Gottlieb, Bally and Williams are the big names of pinball's modern games that emerged after 1947, when flippers were added.

So-called electromechanical games were the standard until 1977, when solid-state electronics revolutionized pinball.

Pearson, the local league president, said older machines from the 1970s cost $600 to $800 while newer games with digital displays and more elaborate features sell for $1,000 and up.

At one time, there was “a stigma of wasted, idle youth” attached to pinball players, much like today's fears about video games, he said.

Pearson, a Phoenix pharmacist with 19 pinball machines in his basement game room, said his favorite game is Attack From Mars, a 1995 Bally machine that stands out for its playability and “campy, B-movie humor.”

Pearson grew up playing pinball and video games at the Pepperoni Junction pizza parlor in his tiny hometown of Hallock, Minn. His pinball interest resurfaced in 1995 when he attended the Wild West Pinball Fest at the now-leveled Safari Resort in Scottsdale.

Dann Frank, 58, who ran the Pinball Fest, said the event drew crowds of enthusiasts. They came out to play hundreds of pinball machines, including a soccer game called Flipper Football that he modified so players activated the flippers with their feet.

“For me, (pinball) is a hobby that has become a lifetime passion,” Frank said.

He is a pinball repairman who describes his home shop in northeast Phoenix as a mix between “Santa's and Dr. Frankenstein's workshop” with games and parts scattered in every room. That includes a 1934 Rockola baseball game called World's Series and a 1968 Gottlieb game called Funland, similar to the one featured in the opening scene of the James Bond movie Casino Royale.

Frank grew up in Maryvale and used to walk miles to an arcade called Keebler's Karnival at 27th Street and Camelback Road, picking up pop bottles along the way to turn in for pocket change.

Pinball machines were in arcades, bars and slot-car racetrack shops all over the Valley in the 1960s, he said, adding that there were even nickel games in what is now Terminal 2 at Sky Harbor Airport.

Castles N' Coasters near Metrocenter mall in Phoenix, with 27 pinball machines, is one of the Valley's only arcades left with more than a few of the machines, Frank said.

Castles N' Coasters arcade manager Steve Homco said pinball machines require a lot of maintenance, and most kids gravitate to the arcade's nearly 200 video games.

Frank and other pinheads insist there is really nothing like the visual and tactile sensations of playing pinball and the haphazard bounces of the silver ball.

“You shoot the ball, and you can affect the path to a large degree, but otherwise the ball does whatever the hell it wants to do,” Frank said.


Information from: The Arizona Republic,

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-07-19-11 0803GMT

 The Who’s album ‘Tommy’ inspired this 1975 Baly pinball machine called Wizard. Images of Roger Daltry and Ann-Margaret, who both starred in the movie version of the rock opera, are pictured on the backboard. Heritage Auctions estimates it will sell for $4,000-$6,000 at a July 29 auction. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 20 July 2011 09:11

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