Molly Atkinson, right, at Pins & Needles in Echo Park. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Tuesday night is league play night at Pins and Needles, a pinball club that Molly Atkinson runs out of her big costuming studio in Echo Park. A clamorous din of bells clanging, explosions booming, quarters dropping and hands slapping at buttons fills the room as rock music blares from speakers and about 30 people shout and talk over the machines. But this is no commercial arcade.
"People come here expecting an arcade sometimes, and it's more like going to someone's aunt's house for their Scrabble club," said Atkinson, 32, with brown hair tied back, an L.A. Dodgers insignia tattooed behind her right ear and big eyes that pop with excitement. "You just have to play by the crazy lady's rules if you want to be in there."
Lighted by the machines' colorful flashing displays and strings of Christmas lights strung about, Atkinson's space in Bedrock Studios is decorated by the host's "lifelong thrift-store collection of junk." She is quick to clarify that the place is not a bar, either, though some drinking certainly takes place here. By day, the space is her workshop as a Hollywood tailor, with piles of sewing supplies like sequins and lace trim. At night, the room is transformed into a private gallery and clubhouse that holds her personal collection of 32 classic pinball machines and one old rifle game. It's her dream, she says, and where she spends more of her waking life than anywhere else.
On Los Angeles Pinball League night, the rules are fairly simple. Beyond Atkinson's basic request that guests play nice with her decades-old machines, the gaming runs in eight-week seasons that include two weeks of playoffs and finals among three divisions based on players' skill-levels. As is common in the rest of the pinball world, players are ranked by their league scores.
Since opening a year ago, the league has attracted longtime pinball-lovers glad to finally find a home to "go flipping" or "pin it up," as they say, along with newcomers looking for a fresh hobby or social scene. The crowd is diverse — old, young, Oscar-winners, pot-farmers, fathers and sons, boyfriends and girlfriends, and still energized by the powers of scintillant lights, a painted board and gravity.
As a kid growing up in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania's Somerset County, Atkinson's pinball infatuation began early. Her neighbors up the hill had a machine but wouldn't allow kids to play for fear they'd break it. "The adults would have so much fun," she recalled, "I just thought pinball was the coolest thing in the world for a good decade before I ever got to lay my hands on one."
About eight years ago, her hobby hit a new level when she bought her first pinball machine, a Bally "Flash Gordon" game. Soon she was buying more, getting others as gifts, traveling for the Orange County and Riverside leagues and various tournaments across the country. She kept the games in her Echo Park apartment and soon started jettisoning furniture to make room. She'd been working as a stylist in reality TV shows but was admittedly unhappy and so came up with a "harebrained scheme" to take off on her own as a freelancer and start a pinball league.
Atkinson's silent partner in all this is her boyfriend Keith Elwin, the world's top-ranking pinball player. The two met several years ago when he approached her at the California Extreme pinball tournament in Santa Clara. They co-own several of the machines and as a professional pinball machine repairman he's motivated her to fix them herself.
"It's rare to see so many pinball machines in working order in the same room," said league regular Kane MacAniff, 28, who's been playing at Pins and Needles since Atkinson's original, smaller location opened down the street on Sunset Boulevard.
"The ones that are out in locations a lot of the times are in really bad shape," added Dave "Mustang" Lang, 31, a goateed musician from the neighborhood. "So for anybody who even takes it semi-seriously, they're not even fun to play. [Proprietors] just don't really care because people just get drunk and only play it once."
"I looked at cities like Portland, Seattle and Pittsburgh, and I saw all these really vibrant, fun pinball communities," Atkinson said. "And I thought, why doesn't L.A. deserve one?"
She turned to Lang next to her, and asked, "Do you come because you have to because you're my friend or because it's a good time?"
"Oh, I come because it's a good time," he assured her. "I wish I could come more."