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Keeping the ball in play

In a dim Vegas arcade, a man's love for a faded pastime is alive and pinging. Behold the Pinball Hall of Fame.

July 01, 2008|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Tim Quintana hunches over a pinball machine and stares down Spider-Man's archenemies: Kingpin, Lizard and Scorpion. He pulls the plunger and a silver ball shoots onto the playfield, a maze of brightly lit bumpers and targets.

The ball darts over a comic-book-style drawing of Spider-Man reaching for his lady love, Mary Jane. The machine beeps: Blip-blip-blip-blip. The ball clangs off two mushroom-shaped bumpers. It plows into three square targets. Blip-blip-blip-blip.

With each blip, Quintana's score rises: 448,400. 448,500. The ball bumps a target decorated with a small spider web. A green dot lights up. More blips. More points. More blips.

Silence. The ball is stuck.

It shakes Quintana out of his pinball trance. A welfare caseworker, he whizzes through his lunch breaks in this dim strip mall storefront called the Pinball Hall of Fame.

"It makes you feel like a kid for an hour," he says. "Forget work, forget everything for one hour."

Quintana seeks out the games of his youth -- like The Amazing Spider-Man -- among the 200 machines belonging to a pinhead named Tim Arnold. People come to his arcade to relive childhood afternoons. His Hall of Fame has also become a memorial for a pastime upstaged by Xboxes, PlayStations and Wiis.

Pinball, once a pop-culture touchstone, is sputtering. Only one manufacturer remains -- Stern Pinball Inc. in Illinois. In the early '90s, the company made up to 40,000 machines annually. Today, it turns out just 10,000, and about 40% of them are sold directly for home use.

Roger Sharpe, co-director of the International Pinball Flipper Assn., blames the decline on the machines themselves. The newer ones have a half-mile of wiring and about 3,500 parts. It's inevitable something will break.

Arnold's arcade is a throwback, with Mike and Ike candy machines, mismatched carpet, change machines rescued from Dumpsters, and posters for mid-'90s games such as Congo, whose slogan is: "Hippos, Snakes and Killer Apes. (And that's just the first ball)." The Hall of Fame is open daily for at least 12 hours, and Arnold is there much of the time. There's no phone: He fears pinball fanatics would take up his days with stories.

The customers, about 300 daily, are mostly male and middle-aged. Some are recovering gambling addicts who find the lights and pings a substitute for slot machines. They gawk at a slick Wheel of Fortune and an eerie Pinball Circus, which has a clown with an exposed brain and a figurine twisted like a Cirque du Soleil performer. Only two circus games were made.

"This is history, though it may be more whimsical," says Sharpe, whose group runs pinball tournaments and oversees player rankings. "But it's got its place in our culture and shouldn't be forgotten."

Sharpe says Arnold, who spends afternoons poring over coffee-stained blueprints to fix his machines, is helping "to keep this game alive."


When Arnold was growing up in Michigan, pinball was immensely popular. But, he recalls, his parents cringed at how much he liked playing the games. Many government officials equated pinball with gambling. It was banned in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago until the '70s, when Arnold was a teenager.

This, of course, made the game even more appealing.

Arnold had an entrepreneurial streak and at 16, he was buying gumball machines and installing them in stores. He, his brother and a friend emptied their wallets to buy their first pinball machine, Mayfair, for $165. The game is based on the movie "My Fair Lady," and its bygone-era artwork depicts ladies in feathers and gentlemen in top hats.

Arnold eventually owned so many pinball games that his parents bought him a Dodge van so he could transport and install them in pizza parlors and arcades.

He was so dreading college in the mid-'70s that he and his older brother indulged in what seemed a boyish fantasy: They opened an arcade. His parents weren't thrilled, but they appreciated their sons' money-making bent -- Dad was a salesman who peddled miniature replicas of the Statue of Liberty.

The arcade was a disaster. People swiped money from the games. The building's electrical wiring caught fire. In about three months, the arcade closed.

A few months later, in 1976, the brothers heard about a shuttered arcade in East Lansing. They rented the space, installed 28 machines and named it Pinball Pete's. Near Michigan State University and a bar teeming with college kids, this arcade was far more successful. Pinball was also booming. The Who's campy rock opera "Tommy" spawned the hit song "Pinball Wizard" and a machine with back glass depicting the movie's stars. The brothers opened another Pinball Pete's. And another. They ran seven, all in Michigan.

Arnold eventually grew tired of juggling the businesses, and he loathed the onslaught of graphics-heavy games: He thinks they dumbed down arcade play. He retired in 1990 at age 35 with about $1 million. Arnold and his partner, Charlotte Owens, lived comfortably off his investments.

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