Few things in life compare to the joy of multiball.
Armed with a miniature treasure chest full of quarters, I set out one week in May to find the best places in Ventura County to pursue the joy that comes from sending shimmering steel orbs caroming across a sea of bumpers, flashing lights and rails. Scouring the streets in search of pizza parlors and arcades that might have pinball machines, I discovered corners of this county I might never have found, revisited a string of memories connected to the fading amusement and, after a few phone calls, met others in and out of the region who share a passion and curiosity about the game.
Driving across a back road that cuts through the mine-chewed hills between Fillmore and Moorpark, the barren landscape reminded me of how a machine that was once ubiquitous is fading into history.
Whenever I stumble across a pinball machine I am drawn to play. The game has colored much of my life. Often, if I find nothing else to do, I know I can enjoy myself if I find a pinball game to play.
As a child I would send the cacophony of an old Galahad machine ringing through my parents’ office. My brother and I had a running competition to see who could get the highest score. A sign of the game’s age, the now 10-year-old record only reached 7,647 points. Current games offer 1 million points before the ball barely even moves.
Later in my life, while I spent a summer working at a campground outside Yellowstone National Park my then-girlfriend and I would escape the inanity of serving gas guzzling RV drivers and our ridiculous employers by pumping quarters into a South Park machine in the property’s game room.
A few years later, fresh out of college and living in Portland, Maine, I would trek through the snow to play a billiards-themed game at a favorite dive bar, Amigos. I made countless friends over that game. Then, one day it was replaced with a Terminator 3 machine that never worked.
The night I decided to leave Maine I braved a summer thunderstorm and thought I’d go see what was up at Amigos. Something felt right that night, and I fantasized about the possibility the old pinball machine would be back. Sure enough, it was there waiting for me. I played well that night. My mind cleared. I resolved to take the next step in my life. That move eventually brought me back home to Ventura.
Pining for pinball
After over two years here, I’ve spent some time searching for hometown pinball offerings. My mom still has the Galahad machine, but I have to admit that I am a sucker for multiball, and Rube Goldberg-like machines featuring rails twisting this way and that.
On the same morning I journeyed across the northern reaches of state Route 23, it took me hours until I found a pinball machine to play. Granted, I may have missed some locations because I was nervous about stepping into every bar from Santa Paula to Agoura to ask whether or not they had a pinball machine.
But I was looking hard, and it wasn’t until I stumbled into Harley’s Simi Bowl in Simi Valley late on a Sunday afternoon that I found two machines. These machines — a Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and, coincidentally, a Harley-Davidson-themed table — were the only machines I would find in an entire day spent in East Ventura County and the stretch of Route 126 between Santa Paula and Piru.
If only I’d found Bob Taeger sooner, it might have been different.
“I have always talked about [pinball machines] and played whenever I saw one,” said Taeger, a golf course superintendent who lives with his wife, Terri, in Oxnard. “They’re in every room of my house now.”
About five or six years ago Terri bought a replica copy of a pinball game called Fireball for Bob’s birthday. As a child, Fireball was Bob’s favorite game, and the gift started a new hobby for the couple.
“Once the wife bought one, I knew I was good to buy another one,” Bob Taeger said. “I admit I think I found my first addiction in life.”
The Taegers now have nine machines scattered about their house. Bob has learned to repair the machines from a mechanical standpoint, and Terri may soon learn to paint and refurbish the artistry on the playing field and back glass. Their focus is electro-mechanical machines, older-style machines that rely on electricity-driven switches. Newer machines — known as solid state pinball — are powered by computer chips.
“The reason I like the electro-mechanical ones is because you can fix them really with a piece of wire,” Bob Taeger said. “The computer ones, the solid state ones, mostly you just have to replace the small [chipboard] that goes bad. It’s expensive, and there’s really no art to it.”
Bob Taeger said repairing old machines is intimidating at first, but with the help of Internet hobbyist groups and online repair guides, erstwhile pinball mechanics can learn the ins and outs of an electro-mechanical system quickly.
“Really, to me, it’s just therapy,” he said. “It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle. What I like to do is turn on the music, open up a beer and fix the machine.”
But pinball isn’t just a pastime Taeger shares at home with his wife and friends, who come over to compete on a pinball-like game called shuffle bowling. He enjoys playing any pinball machine, even the solid state ones.
“I like them all for what they are, a mix of skill and a mix of luck,” he said. “It kinda blends luck and skill together. I like that. I’ll play anywhere we go.”
“The ball is wild,” said Harry Williams, the legendary pinball designer who founded Williams Electronic Manufacturing Co.
Play pinball long enough and you understand what Williams meant.
You lose interest in greedily grasping at high scores and bonus rounds and, instead, you absorb a connection to the playfield. You develop an inherent, almost primal, understanding of the interplay of physical forces like velocity, gravity, elasticity and friction. Flashing lights and ringing bells cause your heart to beat faster, but a deep breath here and a calm, well-timed pressure thrust of the flipper there slows it down again.
Pinball is best when you let go, when you draw back upon the plunger and release the ball, when you are driven not to win but simply by the pleasure of playing. It is best when all you desire to do is enjoy the sensation of the ball bouncing and rolling and sliding across the table, up and down, suspense building as it nears the bottom and eased with a quick, confident flick of the wrist.
“It’s a kinetic game,” said Marc Schoenberg, a spokesman for Melrose Park, Ill.-based Stern Pinball Inc. “Unlike video games, you never know what is going to happen two games in a row. People like the tactile feel of actually holding a machine with a mechanical device and moving it around.”
Schoenberg’s company is the only manufacturer of pinball machines left in the world. Current titles include Pirates of the Caribbean, the Simpsons Pinball Party, and its newest release, Spiderman. Its founder, Gary Stern, launched the company in 1999, enlisting the help of Williams’ best designers (Stern’s father, Sam, joined Harry Williams in 1946 to found Williams Manufacturer) after that company shifted its focus to machines used in the gambling industry.
“These people here are absolutely amazing,” Schoenberg said. “It is kind of like a little family. They’ve all been together for about 20 years. These people get up every morning and do it not to get rich but do it for the passion of the game.”
Stern Pinball is a profitable company, Schoenberg said, and it releases about 10,000 machines a year. As pinball fans like the Taegers grow older, Stern Pinball has found an emergence of old pinball fans building game rooms in their basements (Stern focuses on solid state games, not the electro-mechnical ones at the heart of the Taegers’ collection). Although expensive, they offer a pleasure not replicated by video games.
“A pinball machine will end up costing you $4,000, but it is a piece of artwork unlike anything else, and these designers here put a lot of effort to come up with some very challenging and interesting designs,” Schoenberg said.
Before coming to Stern, some of those designers tried to keep pinball alive at Williams. That attempt is chronicled in Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, a documentary set for DVD release just as this article is published in late May. The film tells the tale of the Williams Pinball 2000 project, which attempted to fuse video games with traditional pinball, resulting in the Revenge from Mars and Star Wars: Episode 1, the Phantom Menace games.
“These guys were charged with trying to save the industry by producing something remarkable,” Greg Maletic, the film’s producer, said. “They still ended up failing anyway, but they did a great job and didn’t sacrifice what pinball was.”
End of an era
Although many people think that pinball’s death knells were sounded in the 1980s with the beeps and bloops of video arcades, 1993 was the game’s record year in terms of sales thanks to a rise in solid state games and licensed tie-ins with movie and television favorites. But by the late 1990s, Williams had become a publicly owned company, and stockholders steered the company toward the more lucrative world of electronic games for the booming casino industry.
“The project was doomed, I think,” Maletic said. “I don’t think investors had any appetite claiming they were going to revive the pinball industry. It’s a widely accepted truism that pinball is an antiquated device.”
It was also expensive to coordinate separate teams of pinball designers and software developers. Although both Pinball 2000 games were successful, Maletic said (Revenge from Mars sold about 7,000 games — in the world of pinball, 3,000 is usually about break-even and 5,000 units would be considered a success), it was just too late.
“I don’t think pinball’s best days are ahead of it,” he said. “It isn’t clear there is room for anybody else in the market for more than just one company.”
Damon Claussen, an editor for television and a Ventura resident, said that pinball machines are becoming rare because operators are finding it is cumbersome to transport and maintain machines that don’t have a huge return on investment. Claussen is a collector of arcade video games.
Although he has a Revenge from Mars game that he loves and a South Park-themed pinball machine, he normally flips pinball machines to collectors from L.A. and other parts of Southern California. A former competitor on the television show Starcade, he launched a game restoration business in Santa Maria in 1997 with the help of Stephen Beall, another Starcade contestant.
“Unfortunately, the social experience of showing off your skills to others at the arcade just can’t be replicated at home,” Claussen said.
Claussen said arcades in general are on the decline, thanks to home consoles and a focus on design driven more by marketing than creativity.
“It’s not about creating a crazy fun concept and seeing if it will work,” he said. “Many of the new pinballs today are just extensions of movies, TV shows, extreme sports, trendy things. Video games are no different.”
These days, you have to look long and hard to play a good game of pinball. And when you do, most of the games you find are themed games. On my search, almost every machine was a tie-in. I saw Baywatch, X-Files, Austin Powers, Lord of the Rings, Elvis, even a tie-in with the classic board game Monopoly. But a lack of originality in theme didn’t necessarily translate into a less elaborate game.
That could be its own problem, though. With rails and levers and bumpers galore, pinball machines are difficult to maintain, and they take large amounts of space.
But pinball isn’t something easy to play at home, so in one way, Maletic said, it has an advantage over video games, which are quickly becoming replaced by advanced home consoles.
“There is something about pinball that is still appealing,” he said. “Everybody seems to have a latent interest in pinball and what happens in it. They don’t really know where all the pinball machines have gone.”