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That Pinball Game In The Corner

Written by Craig Weiss

I​magine a fun place you've visited. Maybe a movie theatre with the smell of salty, buttered popcorn wafting through the air. Or an old fashioned pizza parlor with empty shelled peanut casings on the floor. Or a candy store with every type of candy you could ever imagine.

When I was four years old, Lollipop Palace was my most favorite place in the whole wide world to go to. I was so happy to run inside the store and rub my fingers all over the glass display case pointing at every candy bar that I wanted to eat. My brother Mitch was a few years older than me. He always liked looking at baseball cards and reading Mad magazine.  Every now and then, I would hear the sound of bells and chimes sounding off, but I didn't know exactly what it was or where it came from. He told me it was the pinball game in the corner.

I can still see the game in the corner against the wall where I remember it. I did not know what a pinball machine was, but I just remember it being really neat to look at. I would see people standing around it with excited looks on their faces. Sometimes other people were standing behind the person playing it waiting for their turn to play. Sometimes there was no one playing it at all.

My mom usually went shopping at the Safeway supermarket, which was a good walking distance from the candy store. Once we came up with a good meeting place my brother and I would run as fast as we could to the candy store. My mom gave me a quarter. Fifteen cents was for candy, ice cream and gum and ten cents was for the pinball game. I had to stand on a step stool to see up over the glass. I could barely get my hands on the side buttons and I stretched my arms as far as I could across the glass. My brother would tell me when to hit the little knobs on the sides to flip the flippers and hit the ball back up to the top. It was fun to watch the ball move around and hit little yellow buttons and hear the sound of a bell from time to time. I didn't know it then, but playing that pinball game would end up being my livelihood for a big part of my life.  

There is something about a pinball machine that makes them more than just a game. I wasn't really sure why I was so attracted to them, but I think it was because they were challenging and so much fun to play. By the time I was ten, I wanted a pinball machine so bad, but I had no idea how to get one. So, the next best thing was to make my own. My father cut a thick piece of plywood for me into a rectangular shape. I attached some nails, Sunday morning newspaper rubber bands, and two small blocks of wood made to resemble flippers pulled by string. It was fun creating my own pinball board, but I had to keep score by myself, and where were those bells?

I thought about buying a pinball machine of my own. The only thing that stood in the way was having the money to buy it. Then I had an idea. I worked odd jobs pulling weeds and saved my allowance for a few years. When my fourteenth birthday came along, I was ready to buy my first real pinball machine. My book marker was already set in the amusement devices section of the phone book. I had opened the book to that page so much it was well worn in. The paper was ripped and the ink was smeared. I circled the operators phone number and address so many times that it wore a hole in the paper.

It was 1978 and Playboy was the game I really wanted. I was never able to play it at the bowling alley. All the big kids had their quarters upon the glass reserving their turn to play. I was too afraid to put my money up there so I would just stand back and watch through the shoulders of the other kids. Yep, Playboy was the game I wanted to get.

The day had finally arrived for my dad and I to go look at the inventory of Stan Van, a local operator of pinball machines. I was so excited, I couldn't even imagine what would be there when we got there. I just remember my dad telling me that he had spoken to the man over the phone and they had a lot of games there to choose from.

When we stepped into Stan's warehouse, there were three Playboy pinball games side by side by side. My jaw opened wide. My heartbeat was racing so fast like I had just lit up special for the first time. I ran towards the games, "Dad, there it is!" I exclaimed and pointed towards the Playboys. I turned back to look at him and noticed he was nodding his head and admiring the artwork so much that I almost thought he was going to buy one for me. He inquired about the price, but winked at me and said aloud, "She won't be coming home with us today son." He put his hand on my shoulder and said "go take a look around."

I looked around the warehouse. Pinball machines were lined up side by side for what seemed like a mile. There were so many games there, I didn't know what to play first. I could hear my dad talking to Stan faintly above the noise of the chimes and bells. My dad was a professional salesman, and I think the wink I got from him gave me the impression he was going to try to talk him down on the price of the Playboy, but that never happened. I could hear More Than a Feeling playing on a radio off in the distance. It felt like I was in an arcade, but without all the people. I was having so much fun bouncing around from game to game like a pinball between the bumpers. I finally found a game that I liked and in our price range. My grandmother was generous enough to give me a gift of $100.00 for my birthday. I had also saved $100.00 and my parents gave me the rest and Gottlieb's 4 Square came home with us.

I will never forget the look on the faces of my friends and neighbors as we drove past them down our street. We were leading the charge and right behind us was our prized pinball machine in Stan's old '59 Ford pickup.

Word spread fast, and I was now the most popular kid on my block. I had a lot of friends I never even knew I had. It was fun at first, but a few months later, the rubber was getting worn, burned out lights needed to be replaced and then the unthinkable happened. One day I went to turn the game on and it did nothing. I had no idea what to do. When we bought the game I was never told what to do to maintain it.

This  time I called Stan myself and explained what happened. He had a service man over and in no time, after a few adjustments, it was back up and working again. The downside was the repair bill. I had to borrow the money from my parents and pay it back. So, I came up with a great idea. I would charge my friends a quarter to play. Suddenly, I was no longer very popular. I found out I really only had two or three true friends.

By the time I was a junior in high school, video games became the number one game to play in the arcades. Not too many people were playing pinball anymore. I couldn't figure out why. I couldn't believe what was happening to pinball. I noticed even the companies that made the greatest pinball games ever, were now jumping into the video game market. I felt heartbroken for pinball. I didn't think video games could be so popular . After all, it was the same screen over and over, just with harder levels. What fun is that, I thought.

Even my Mom loved playing pinball. I would come home from school everyday and find her in our game room trying to beat my high score. I could still hear her yelling at the machine when the ball would drain. "Darn it!" She would say. "I only needed 600 more points to beat your score!" She smiled, shrugged  her shoulders and said "I've had enough." She walked away turning the game over to me. She never did beat my high score on 4 Square.

Since the digital age came along, I wanted to upgrade my game. Again, I wanted to find the best pinball I could buy. I called C.A Robinson a local distributor in San Francisco, CA. I was after a brand new Eight Ball Deluxe, a game my friends and I really liked playing. We always called the local arcade to ask them how many letters were lit on the backglass before we drove down there to play it. Spelling D-E-L-U-X-E won you 3 free games. If there was only one letter left to go, we hopped in the car and raced down to the Malibu Grand Prix arcade and speedway as fast as we could.

The price of a brand new Eight Ball Deluxe in 1981 was $2,100.00. Again, a little too steep for me. I had to do some looking around. Electronic pinball games were still very much a new technology and prices on most games were still very high. I found one game that was in my price range made by Atari. Atari manufactured amazingly popular arcade video games, but was new to the pinball market. If there is one thing they will forever remain famous for, was introducing wide body pinball machines to the world. That, and getting out of Pinball as fast as they got into it.

We traded in the 4 Square and the next game my dad and I brought home was an Atari Space Riders. It had really cool sounds and challenging gameplay. Eventually the game broke down. I got my first taste of trying to repair electronic pinball machines. Which didn't go over too well because I didn't realize the complexity of an electronic game. There was circuitry involved I did not understand. I also did not know how to read a schematic let alone know how to pronounce the word. Needless to say, the game sat idle for a few months. Fortunately, I was able to take an electronics class in high school. With the help of my instructor, I was able to get the CPU board fixed and Space Riders was back in action.

Years later Space Riders was still at my parents house. I played it when I would visit them. One day, they called me and said they were going to move. Space Riders found a new home with me. That was the beginning of my new endeavor.

It began when my three roommates and I got tired of playing the same game over and over again. I called around to a few operators in the area. I was able to get some coin operated arcade video games and a Centaur pinball game. Now we had a nice selection of games to play. When one game got old I sold it. Then I decided to start buying and selling games. I also had to learn how to repair them. That was a huge uphill climb. There was no such thing as an internet where one could quickly find solutions to fix broken games.

I first began repairing games for myself. When my confidence grew, I repaired games in people's homes and businesses. Then I branched out to placing games in pizza parlors, bars and even a barber shop. My route grew to sixty pieces.  

By 2007 I had been in the game business for nearly twenty years. One day my wife Laurie came to me and convinced me to get a job that would provide health insurance and other company perks. I agreed and got a full time job. I still maintained my pinball repair business on my days off.

Fast forward 8 years and I am starting another endeavor. Pinball will always be in my life. Whenever I see a 4 Square now, I think back to the day my dad and I went to the warehouse to pick it up. And I will always remember playing that Magic City pinball game which stood in the corner at the Lollipop Palace in 1968. Those were the days.

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