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COLUMN ONE

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

Arnold had long aspired to open a pinball repository. His rationale was similar to that of a kid with the newest video console: What's the use of having cool games if you're playing them alone?

His pinball palace, Arnold figured, would only work in a tourist-packed city. New York and Los Angeles: too expensive. Orlando: too humid. In 1990, he and Owens bought a house with a tennis court on 2 1/2 acres in Vegas, whose neon Strip resembles a pinball game's playfield.

He lined his tennis court with games and covered them with tarps. He built a 10,000-square-foot windowless hangar in his backyard. To get there, you walk by other evidence of Arnold's affinity for cast-offs: 2,000 sun-cracked bowling balls; a turnstile from the New York New York casino, and a 10- to 12-foot-long fiberglass hand that Arnold rescued from Caesars Palace.

He has packed the hangar with 800 or so of the bulky machines, some stacked 18 feet high, while they wait to be fixed. Many were rescued from drained swimming pools, swap meets, car dealerships and tobacco warehouses.

For years, Arnold lugged the machines into the backyard for parties to raise money for his repository. In 2006, 16 years after moving to Vegas, Arnold opened the nonprofit Hall of Fame in a dowdy plaza a few miles east of the Strip. A devoted volunteer known as Hippy helps care for the 4,500-square-foot space. Arnold wishes he could move to a bigger place with room for 600 to 800 games (including one each of all 384 produced by his favorite manufacturer, D. Gottlieb & Co.).

Arnold doesn't charge admission. Each month, he takes in about $16,000 from the games played, but some months that's barely enough to get by. Proceeds go to charities (mainly the Salvation Army), which led Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative weekly, to name Arnold one of its "local heroes."

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On this afternoon, Mark Scheffki walks into the Hall of Fame, and nostalgia takes over.

Scheffki, 46, drove here to determine the worth of his parents' 1970s machine, Bali-Hi. But he was drawn instead to the decade-old game Scared Stiff. Elvira -- the self-proclaimed "Mistress of the Dark" -- skulks on its back glass with a black cat, a skull, a frog and a hand waving a machete. Scheffki sprints through levels that are "Hair Raising!" and "Skin Crawling!" Elvira's voice shouts: "Frogs everywhere!"

The ball shoots past a coffin and two Elviras with low-cut dresses and come-hither stares. The machine mimics a bubbling caldron: pop-pop-pop-pop. The ball wriggles through a ramp, skirts flippers designed to resemble bones, and disappears.

Scheffki, a plumber weaned on pinball as a kid in Chicago, fishes into his camouflage shorts for quarters. He racks up 3,042,230 points. The machine jams.

Elvira: "You just don't listen, do you?"

Arnold, 52, hears this from across the room, "like how mothers can sense when their kids are in trouble."

He hustles over, unlocks the machine and plucks out a stray part. Scheffki asks Arnold about the Bali-Hi machine, and Arnold says it could fetch up to $1,000 online.

"Lucky it's not an eight-track tape player," Arnold says wryly. "Then it would have no value."

Fans are whirring overhead. A machine somewhere is humming the theme to "The Lone Ranger." In the row behind Scheffki, Quintana gives up on Spider-Man. He heads to a machine immortalizing the band Kiss.

"I'm the biggest freaking Kiss fan," Quintana says in a near-whisper. He strokes the glass. A notecard says this was the 11,381st of 17,000 Kiss machines made -- "a true classic." Gene Simmons' tongue unfurls in one corner; Ace Frehley glares from the other. Kiss babes preen in black bodices. Snakes spit fire. Quintana's game is over in less time than a song. "There's nothing worse than putting three balls right down the middle," he says.

Quintana, 30, who has a short ponytail and a soul patch, got hooked on pinball a year ago when a friend stumbled onto the Hall of Fame. Quintana steps outside to smoke. His phone rings. It's his wife.

"I'm playing pinball," he says.

She understands, and tells him to call her later.

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ashley.powers@latimes.com

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