Behind the counter at Porter’s Pinball Parlor on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, proprietor Brian Porter has erected a shrine of sorts, a series of questions and answers noting important moments in pinball history.
Q: When did the flipper get added?
Q: Who invented the plunger?
A: A Cincinnati kid
An English kid, actually, who had relocated to Cincinnati, where he engaged in the amusement business—or as his ads read: “Bagatelle, Toys, Novelties, Billiard tables, and Parlor games ranging from one dollar to a hundred dollars”—and engaged in some inventive thinking. Which brings up a number: 115,357. That’s not a high score posted at Porter’s (the patrons often score much higher, actually). It’s a United States patent number, dated May 30, 1871, and registered by one Montague Redgrave. The official patent is called an “Improvement in Bagatelles”: Replace a free-standing pool cue in the then-popular snooker-like game with a plunger (a spring-loaded mechanism, then called a “ball-shooter”) to launch a marble into play along the game’s right side, reduce the size of the playing board, incline it, and add sounds (little bells, no whistles), and you have the prototype of a modern pinball machine.
Redgrave’s innovation became so popular that a version of it was included in The Sears, Roebuck Catalogue in the early 1900s. By that time M. Redgrave Bagatelle Co. had left its original home in Cincinnati and relocated to Jersey City, New Jersey, and pinball had become a harbinger of the American Century. When modern pinball really took off, in the 1930s, Chicago was its primary home, the place where major manufacturers such as Gottlieb, Bally, Williams, Chicago Coin, and Stern were based. Other competitors surfaced—Atari and Data East, for example, flashed and tilted into oblivion, and smaller operations, like Jersey Jack, have been popping up lately. But of the majors, none but Stern survive in what’s left of the business today.
A scant few machines more modern than bagatelles were manufactured in Cincinnati. The Westerhaus Amusement Company in Cheviot “revamped” existing machines during World War II, creating overtly patriotic conversions to herald America’s rising post-war prominence: Marines-at-Play, Invasion, American Beauty, and Big Three (the U.S., Great Britain, and Russia). The revamps were motivated by a dearth of new machines and innovation during the war. “If you don’t keep new product in the customers’ view—and this happened in the ’40s—it’s the same old pinball machine,” says Bill Westerhaus, president of what is now known as Pioneer Vending. “You have to revamp them, rename them, whatever, to keep the players’ interest up.”
I speak of the past because much of pinball’s present, in Cincinnati and elsewhere, lies in this mixture of history and innovation. Once pinball was ubiquitous; every bar, bowling alley, mall arcade, and airport featured a selection of machines. Throw in myriad convenience stores, coin-op laundries, restaurants, barber shops, and beauty salons, and escaping clangs and beeps was nigh unto impossible. Then “in ’82 the bottom fell out,” says Larry Smith, a member of the fan group Cincy Pinball whose vast collection fills his house in Batavia. “That’s when videos took over and pinballs went to the wayside.”
The paradigm shift began with Pong back in 1972, followed by the invasion of Space Invaders in 1979, but the coup de grâce came with the arrival in 1980 of Pac-Man, which gobbled quarters and converted former pinball freaks with wokka-wokka-wokka freneticism. Bruce Walton, owner of Walton’s Games, a distributor of various coin-op machines in Sharonville, tells of a day when the take from a Pac-Man location was so massive the coins tore open the moneybag as he carried it out. Between 1979 and 1982, the $2.3 billion pinball industry slipped nearly 80 percent.
The industry struggled in attempts to recover, with sometimes surreal innovation. The Smiths have one specimen, an oddball 1982 machine called Varkon—a pinball housed in a video game cabinet. All of 90 were manufactured. Eventually, with the rise of home consoles, Xbox, Wii, and countless smartphone and tablet apps, arcades went from everywhere to nowhere, with pinball leading the slide.
But that was now, and this is then. The pinball machine never totally disappeared, and is now scrabbling—like vinyl records, landlines, newspapers, and other cultural artifacts of the last 100 years—to maintain a foothold in the 21st century. I used to joke that I had more pinball machines in my basement (two) than exist in all of Greater Cincinnati. Not any more. According to the crowd-sourced database on PinballRebel.com, there are 86 machines in 64 public locations within a 25-mile radius of downtown. Not the high score from the days when pinball was king, for sure. But as Cary Chaney, owner of The Place Retro Arcade in Deer Park, reports: “People love pinball. Pinball is huge right now.”
The fact that a place like The Place exists at all is a mark of the recent resurgence of retro-gaming. “Arcades were an integral part of my childhood in the ’80s,” says Chaney. “There was a video arcade a couple of doors down from where my arcade is now, [also] called The Place, that I used to frequent. It made me sad that my kids couldn’t hang out at the arcades, because that’s what everybody did back then.” To remedy that, Chaney and his wife Kim installed their private collection of classic video games (Galaga, Centipede, Dig Dug, etc.) in a cramped old flower shop across Galbraith Road from Dillonvale Shopping Center a year and a half ago.
Arcade Legacy, another arcade space in Forest Park’s partially abandoned Cincinnati Mills Mall, began in 2009 as Arcade Legends. Owner Jesse Baker’s vision was similar to Chaney’s: Seeing little in the way of gaming action, he started Legacy “so a new generation of people could play arcades.” Arcade Legacy features more than 60 games, of which six are pinballs. The next step for Baker and his team of gaming aficionados is Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition—or a “barcade”—soon to be opening in Northside. In addition to beer on tap and cocktails, Bar Edition will have five pins, including a vintage Black Knight machine, and about 40 video games on the premises. “We plan to start a pinball league, a weekly pinball event to get more people interested,” says Baker. “If we get the interest there, we might expand our pinball collection.” Another barcade operation—16-Bit, which hails from Columbus and has another venue in Cleveland—is slated to open at Mercer Commons on Vine Street in by the end of March.
One thing you may have noticed about all of these reborn arcades is the low ratio of pinball machines to video games. Despite the heat for the game described by Chaney, The Place has only one pinball machine (a Bally Fireball Classic) among its pantheon of amusements. In contrast, Porter’s Pinball Parlor, which opened quietly in November 2013 just across Main Street from MOTR Pub, features only pins—a testament to Brian Porter’s unabashed and abiding love of the game.
Porter’s first machine, purchased two years after graduation from law school in 1977, was Captain Fantastic from Bally, but it took him a while to fully embrace his inner pinball fanboy. After more than 20 years as an assistant professor of law, a computer systems analyst, and as proprietor of Strictly Classical, a music store in Dayton devoted to the works of the masters, he came back to his first love. “Basketball, football—I didn’t have those,” Porter says. “The only thing I could have was pinball, which I enjoy.” Why not enjoy your job?
Porter runs his Pinball Parlor in the same spirit that Chaney runs The Place—“as something of a museum and more than just an arcade,” says Chaney. A veritable library of books about pinball history, repair, and collecting line the counter next to the cash register in Porter’s Parlor. Posted above each machine is a short history, hand-written in chalk on a small blackboard; other sources of pinball information and assistance are posted on a corkboard nearby. And Porter keeps a healthy stash of quarters and cans of pop on hand as session fuel. The longest game he’s witnessed lately? “Two to two-and-a-half hours,” he says. “That’s the longest I’ve seen on a machine in a while.”
Compare the dozen machines in Porter’s Pinball Parlor to the treasure trove in Phoebe and Larry Smith’s Batavia home and you get a better sense of how pinball fever can take hold. Sure, it’s impressive to discover 16 machines in someone’s basement, but when that is augmented by another 15 on the first floor—and the rest of the 48-pin collection resting quietly in storage—you know you’ve entered serious obsession territory. “We were going to collect one Williams game per year from the ’80s, but we went overboard,” Larry says, gesturing around his basement at the glowing row of machines lining three walls. “We used to have a nice pool table here, but it’s gone.”
“They’re like potato chips,” says his wife Phoebe, “you can’t have just one.”
What’s even more impressive is that the Smiths’ stash can be matched by the collections of some of their fellow members in the Cincy Pinball group. Phoebe is president of the organization, whose membership numbers about 70 “pinheads” (her word) spread out from Cincinnati to Columbus to Louisville. They hold parties regularly—more than 50 attended a recent gathering—and the group even spawned its own league, complete with three divisions.
“We have fun just hanging out,” says Mark Combs, owner of Mark’s Pinball, which specializes in the sale and repair of modern solid-state machines. “Or we might have a problem with a game and someone else might have some ideas. They might say, ‘Hey, I had the same problem with my Spiderman machine—try this.’”
Pinball’s longevity is fueled by longevity itself. “Retro is huge right now,” says Chaney. The past is never past; there is nostalgia for the machines, certainly, but also nostalgia for the era, the overall experience. “I don’t know if you can call it a mid-life crisis,” Chaney adds, “but for me, collecting arcade games makes me feel young again. Everybody has a time and a place they can equate with a certain game, where they played it.”
So it is with long-time Cincinnati radio disc jockey and voice-over artist Jim LaBarbara, known as The Music Professor. In his long career spinning oldies, he’s got a major in music trivia and a minor in jukeboxes (he collects classic Wurlitzers) and pinball. “When I go down into my little game room with the old jukeboxes from the ’40s and the old rock and roll music and the pictures on the walls of the different artists—Neil Sedaka and The Crickets and Dion and everybody—it’s my own little man-cave. It’s a step back in time.”
A game can center you in the past, the way an old song can—and the “music” of an old game can sing in memory as loud as any song. “I’ve never gotten over the sounds that the old mechanical pinballs make,” says Bruce Walton. “Ding ding ding. Boom boom boom. The scoreboard clicking in the background. And when you get a high score, the hammer hitting the side of the machine. Those are the classic sound effects; once they get inside of your head, they’re locked in.” It kind of makes sense that one of the standard ringtones on the iPhone is “Pinball,” a raucous bit of jangling-and-clanging from an old-school machine. If you listen closely, you can hear the pinball itself rolling across the playfield.
How appropriate that The Music Professor relaxes in his basement while playing a 1966 Pitch and Bat machine and listening to the golden oldies—including, oh yes, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” But not too much. “You have to know how to shake the machine,” LaBarbara says. “It’s not just pushing the buttons. You gotta work the machine. You gotta be one with the machine. There’s a true art to it. To push it and nudge it so you don’t tilt”—that is, move it so vigorously as to trigger a shutdown mechanism. (As the handwritten sign near the entrance of Porter’s Pinball Parlor warns: “TILT. It is VERY bad! First time—Warning! Second time—Bye! Third time—You are no longer welcome here.”)
People who tilt “don’t respect the machine,” LaBarbara says. “They don’t know what the machine can do.”
“There’s a lot of reflex to it,” says Trent Augenstein, a Cincy Pinball member out of the Columbus area. “It’s an eye-hand coordination game.” And part of the challenge lies in variability. Pinball, says Augenstein, is “pretty much random, as opposed to a video game, which is pretty much predictable.” There’s no randomness to Augenstein’s method of play. He participates in more than 40 pinball tournaments a year, and is consistently ranked by the International Flipper Pinball Association as one of the top 10 players in the world.
“It’s a game of skill and luck,” adds Porter. Smiling broadly, he points to himself and says, “Never luck. Skill.”
Whether fueled by love or obsession or pure nostalgia, pinball players are true believers. There’s less money and more heartache in pinball than other arcade games. “That’s why you don’t see a lot of these games out anymore. They’re a lot of maintenance,” says Mark Combs. “Operators and vending companies don’t want to put the time in to keep them running. So they just put video games in without the maintenance. You just plug them in and get the money out. These have to be maintained. Balls get stuck, rubber bands break, light bulbs burn out….”
And a dormant machine isn’t collecting coins. Bill Westerhaus of Pioneer Vending laughs when he looks up what the pinballs his company operates (all 13 of them) take in. “We’re in the 50-50 business, and our half is $3 per machine.” That’s per week.
A further financial deterrent is the initial cost of the machines nowadays—usually in the mid-four figures. With all that expense, says Michael Walton, brother of Bruce and owner of his own vending operation, “when an operator runs a pinball machine today, he’s going to be spending more money, and his only hope is that he turns around and sells it to the home market. The home market [is] doing very well and pinball machines are going up in value.”
Machine care on the home market—where ownership is driven by passion rather than financial gain—often leads to more than mere restoration and repair. Phoebe Smith used to have a business restoring playfields, backglasses, even the figurines that sometimes are integrated into the games. From 2004 to 2011 she did hundreds of restorations. But the pace was too much. “I got overwhelmed and burnt out,” she says. Now she concentrates on customizing her own machines. Pinball customizers handle everything from modifying the lights to reprogramming the dot-matrix score displays. Phoebe points to a Spiderman machine where the stereo speaker covers have been replaced with spidey-web-like front foils.
“It’s almost like a car,” says Mark Combs. “We customize our pinball machines the way we like them, whether it be custom legs or LED lighting instead of incandescent bulbs.”
“This one’s kind of rare,” Phoebe says of a 2008 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation machine. Only 500 were originally produced by Stern, but her upgrades have made this particular unit unique. “I custom-painted everything,” she says—including the legs and the coin-door. The pièce de résistance is a yellow strip with black lettering across the very front of the machine: “Do Not Cross,” it intones with police-barricade authority.
Some of the customization is purely pragmatic. Factory-shipped flipper machines feature two buttons, one on each side of the cabinet: Left button activates left flipper, right button activates right. But at Porter’s Pinball Parlor all the machines have two buttons on each side, so a player can activate both left and right flippers with one hand. Brian Porter came up with the idea after suffering a stroke in 1998. He lost the use of his right arm, but as his condition improved—he was unable to speak for two years—he hit on the concept of dual-flipper buttons. In short order he had his favorite machines reconfigured.
Those games now form the core of his array at the Pinball Parlor: Last Action Hero, Phantom of the Opera, Playboy, Dirty Harry. Though plenty of machines over the years have been given generic themes (El Dorado, Ship Ahoy), almost any movie, TV show, pop star, cultural icon, or event you can think of has been honored (with license fees, of course) with a pinball theme: Harley-Davidson, Twilight Zone, The Wizard of Oz, Metallica, Popeye, KISS, Monopoly, even Skylab.
Jim LaBarbara wishes that the machines of his youth had had such tie-ins. “I don’t know if they were afraid to tie into or couldn’t tie into an Elvis Presley machine, but that would have been fun,” he says. Elvis the pinball machine, made by Stern, did eventually enter the building in 2004. Devout fans of the King can experience it at the Knotty Pine bar on the west side; it croons a few tunes and displays trivia as you play.
Giving games attractive and provocative names is hardly new. One of Montague Redgrave’s bagatelle games was called Is Marriage a Failure? If you’re hooked on bagatelles and pinball, maybe. Or maybe not. Phoebe and Larry Smith’s home is proof of that.
The story is told on the back of Phoebe’s trading card. (Yes, there are gamers’ trading cards—the “Twin Galaxies Superstars of 2014 Video Game Trade Card Set.”) On the front of the card, Phoebe is identified as a “Legendary Pinball Activist.” The back reads, in part: “Bowling alleys were a staple environment of pinball excitement in the early 1980s, and it paid off big for Phoebe Smith by meeting her future husband, Larry.” Phoebe nods at a version of the mechanical cupid from the bowling alley where Larry worked in the ’80s, now ensconced in their basement—a Space Shuttle machine.
“The first game we ever played together,” says Larry.
“That was the first game that we bought,” Phoebe says.
Further west, in Porter’s Pinball Parlor in OTR, sits another version of the same machine. The handwritten chalkboard legend above it reads, in part: “Produced 1984. Space Shuttle took everyone by storm after it looked like pinball was dead.”
It’s not dead yet.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue.
Photographs by Johnathon Willis