The Art of Attractions - April 2018

ARTHUR LEVINE

Tim Arnold, founder of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. (Credit: Arthur Levine)

Flipped Out Over Pinball

By Arthur Levine

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve played the silver ball …

While other kids were getting savings bonds and more practical gifts, my parents—bless them—gave me something idiosyncratic for my bar mitzvah: a pinball machine. Not some watered-down home version ordered from the Sears catalog, mind you, but an honest-to-goodness, circa-1965 “Buckaroo” model manufactured by Gottlieb.

For every 100 points scored, a bell would toll and a mechanical bronco would kick a cowboy in the tuches on the animated back box. The satisfying sound of the clanging bell is imprinted in my brain. I spent endless hours torturing the poor wrangler. But that didn’t stop me from pumping fistfuls of quarters into other machines at bowling alleys, amusement parks, pizza parlors, arcades, and anywhere else I could flex my supple wrists. Perhaps I should have spent more time studying in college and less time trying to rack up replays in the student union, but I was mad about pinball. I still am.

That’s why I was thrilled to visit the Pinball Hall of Fame (PHoF) in Las Vegas. Players may be in the spotlight at other halls of fame, but here it’s the machines. There are dozens of lovingly restored models, representing every decade from the game’s inception in the 1930s to the present day, waiting to be played in the cavernous hall.

There aren’t any actual spotlights in the dimly lit building; overhead lights are turned off to prevent ambient glare on the glass-covered playfields. There’s no distracting background music, either. “It’s been designed by pinball players, for pinball players,” says Tim Arnold, founder of the nonprofit PHoF (proceeds are donated to charity)—also the guy lovingly restoring the machines. Developing the hall, he says, “was a complete journey into stupidity that somehow worked.” 

Arnold sees himself as a museum curator rather than an arcade operator. He’s not big on customer service. “Our ethos is: You’re lucky to be here. Shut up and behave.” But Arnold and his band of volunteers are helping to preserve the legacy of pinball, which ebbs and flows in popularity. In the late 1990s, the surge of video games nearly wiped it out altogether. Only one major manufacturer, Stern Pinball, remains. Nostalgic adults and curious kids, however, have fueled an uptick in interest, and machines are finding new homes at “barcades,” collectors’ shows, and havens like the PHoF. Boutique manufacturers are even popping up and building new models.

Save some space at your venues for the venerable machines. I’ll see you at the parks. I’ll be the one playing a mean pinball.


A lifelong park fanatic, Arthur Levine has been writing newspaper and magazine travel features about the industry he loves since 1992. He’s been the Theme Parks Expert at About.com since 2002, and is a regular contributor for USA Today.