Were You a Pinball Wizard? (A sign of a Misspent Youth) Zen and the ART of Pinball.

Along with the ability to play pool, being skilled at pinball when I was a youth was viewed by some people with a certain level of suspicion.   In the 50’s and 60’s it was associated with some of the unsavory aspects of teenage culture along with 49 Mercurys, leather jackets with lots of zippers, greasy duck-tails (the 50’s idea of a mullet) and bad attitudes.  Certainly not the clean cut youth pictured on the Rack-A-Ball table in the  photos below.  Part of this aura was also do to the association of Pre-Flipper pinball machines with gambling.  (Pinball machines, even the ones with flippers, were illegal in New York City until 1976)  When I was a kid, these were called “payoff machines”.  They didn’t have flippers, and they were also illegal.  But there was one in the local ice-cream store/telegraph office in my hometown that had a sign on it that said “For Amusement Only“, but everyone knew it was a payoff machine, and us kids weren’t allowed to play it.   The local authorities looked the other way.

Needless to say, I was one of the “‘victims”.    Somewhere around the age of 11,  I ended up playing one of these machines at the local ice cream parlor and teenage hangout, and from that point on, no loose change was safe around my house,  nor stayed “loose” for long.   The table pictured in the 3 photos below, is my favorite table of all time:  RACK-A-BALL

Rack-A-Ball Backglass

Rack-A-Ball Upper Playfield

Rack-A-Ball Lower Playfield

This model of table was introduced in 1962 and happens to be the first pinball machine that I was to become familiar with.   It was located in an ice cream shop and teenage hangout in Lebanon, Oregon known as the 24 Flavors.  It is just beyond the “golden age” of pinball machines, which connoisseurs feel was from 1948, with the invention of the flipper, until 1958.  What’s significant about 1958 is beyond me but I do know RACK-A-BALL was one of the last single player machines made during the electro-mechanical heyday before the machines became solid state electronic devices with electronic digital scoreboards (instead of the rotating mechanical numerals) electronic sounds and other elaborate features.  The next paragraph is an explanation of how the machines work, if that stuff bores you, you might wish to skip that paragraph and just watch this video:  RACK-A-BALL

The Golden era was defined by five devices: Flippers, Bumpers,  Kickers, Targets, and Rollovers.  Flippers had buttons in the sides of the table that worked little 2 1/2 “paddles”  operated by electrical solenoids (sort of like a motor)   Kickers were 1/4 rubber bands augmented by a relay actuated solenoid that was triggered when the ball hit the rubber band, shooting the ball off in the opposite direction.  The Bumpers acted in a similar fashion.  Points were also “scored” whenever the ball hit either a kicker or bumper.   Rollovers were little switches in a pathway the ball was channelled through. that both racked up points, or caused something to happen.   In the above machine, they also caused a ball to roll into the little rack on the “scoreboard”   The “Targets”  in RACK-A-BALL  both scored points and increased the point values of the kickers and bumpers.   The flippers were the element of skill in the game as better players developed the ability to “aim” the little ball into targets and back up to the top of the game surface as the object of the game was to keep the ball going as long as possible.

I thought of explaining the rules of this particular game, then realized that people who’ve played it would already know how, and those that haven’t probably would find it a little esoteric (IE: BORING).   In addition to the flippers, skilled players also know how to give little bumps to the machine at the right moments to influence the movements of the little ball.   The trick was knowing how hard to hit the machine without triggering  the “tilt” mechanism.   There was a little pendulum inside the machine that ended the game if someone either rocked the table a little too vigorously or tilted it up enough to slow the ball down.   The owners would have this set so you could “rock the table”  (Which players often called “beaters”, and playing them was referred to as “beating the beaters”)  a little bit, as doing so was part of the fun.   Having a “hair trigger”  mechanism made the machine a lot less fun to play, and people weren’t as likely to put money in a “dead” machine.

The whole point of playing pinball was to win “free” games.   RACK-A BALL had several ways to win.   Scoring “points” by hitting targets, bumpers and rollovers.  Hitting the “Special”, which meant running a ball over a rollover that was “lit up” by hitting all three targets. You could also win by running over nine different rollovers that send balls down the little ramp on the back-glass scoreboard.   The last was to win was by “matching”.   At the end of the game (When the last of five balls went “down the drain”) the machine would generate a random number, if that matched the last number in your score, you won a game.

In Pavlovian fashion, the machine made a loud, distinct mechanical “pop” whenever a free game was awarded.  Much like the sound of coins coins going into a metal tray on a slot machine, this sound becomes part of the payoff as much as the free game.    I’ve had friends that had pinball machine in their houses, and they just aren’t anywhere as much fun when there isn’t the element of needing to “win” to keep playing to keep your interest up.   It just isn’t the same.   I think my peak years for pinball were probably 11 through 15.  I usually could find other ways to pass my time after that.  Girls, cars, and playing guitar come to mind.

The interesting thing, though, about pinball machines is that they are one of those “in the moment” sort of activities that completely engages you.  You aren’t worrying about your grades or absent mindlessly drifting away.  You’re paying attention to that little ball and plotting strategy and trying to decide your next move.   The only difference between it and modern video games is that there’s a physical aspect to it and it’s a real physical object bouncing around in there.  It’s like comparing a hot rod 57 Chevy to a modern Camaro.  The Camaro is faster, but the experience is a lot more remote: less noise, vibration and drama.

More machines came out that were multi player, up to four people could play at a time, which increased the social and competitive aspects of the game, but they were also less intense than the single player machines, especially when you were on a roll, as you could “cool off” while waiting for the other players to finish their turn.   But after about 1965 or so, you usually found multi player machines, and it became more of a group activity.

In the late 60’s, pinball became a fad in London:  the queen of the pinball scene was a 15 year old girl who went by the name of “Arfur“, who supposedly had an almost supernatural ability to keep the little silver ball in play.  Rock  critic and writer Nic Cohn wrote a novel with Arfur as a main character.  He also introduced her to Pete Townshend, who was an enthusiastic pinball player, and there is speculation that this is where “Pinball Wizard” came from.

There was a brief pinball boom in the 70’s, with Celebrity tie ins like Elton John, Kiss, Charlies Angels, Playboy, The Addams Family, etc.    The machines had all sort of clever features, trap doors, multiple balls and other crazy stuff.   The last table I actually remember by name and actually playing any number of times was called Fireball, and it was in another ice cream store in Lebanon called the Freezer.  It was made in 1972, one of the last gasps of the electro-mechanical era of machines. It’s most unique feature was a spinning disc in the center of the playing field that added a somewhat random element to the game.    BALLYS_FIREBALL_PINBALL_MACHINE_WORKING_JUST_FINE_03_uq

At any rate, for me, at least, the newer machines had too many gimmicks that detracted from the fun, compared to a simple machine like RACK-A-BALL.   As the 70’s progressed the machines acquired microprocessors, which added all kinds of new features and I suppose they needed them to compete with Pong, Asteroids, and a whole host of new video games.   By this time the flippers were longer and, I think, less responsive.  The were easier to learn, but lacking the ultimate ability to be accurate that the shorter ones had.  More a question of “feel” than anything else.   I can’t remember the last time I played a pinball machine.  Maybe at Dave and Busters?  I don’t know.   I’d like to track down one of the old school machines and see how close it comes to my memories.    (It’s probably just as well that I won’t ever get around to it.)