By LOGAN MABE, Times Staff Writer
The quarter drops into the slot. The plunger slides back with mechanical grace. Then the silver ball hurtles up the chute like a silver bullet.
Then, and only then, all things are possible. For this moment, you are transported back to a time when Slurpees came in just two flavors (Coke and cherry), when Saturday morning meant cartoons, and when the game world was dominated by Royal Flush and Old Chicago, not X-Box and PlayStation 3.
Back then, all it cost was 25 cents to become a pinball wizard.
Today, it costs a lot more. Oh, but it's worth it.
RISE OF THE MACHINES
Back in the day, we used to ride our bikes to The Mall. And at The Mall, there was always an arcade. And in the arcade, before Pac Man and Asteroids and Joust, there were pinball machines.
Lots and lots of pinball machines, lined up on either side just waiting for someone to come along and post a new high score.
If you were good, and it took most of the early to midteen years to get good, you could play all afternoon on a machine for a handful of quarters. Pummeling the flippers, nailing the spinners, catching that extra ball, always, and I mean always, using just enough body language and oomph to coax the ball through its paces.
It was fun in a visceral way. The pinball machines of the '70s and '80s were a synergy of technology and physicality. You had the lights, the ringing bells and the action of a machine magically coming to life coupled with the dark inevitability of gravity that sent all those balls down the "drain."
Those days were perhaps pinball's heyday. Popular since the 1930s, pinball seemed to reach its pinnacle at a time when the boys and girls of the baby boomers had enough change in their pockets to feed the industry.
But the advent of video games sent the pinball machine into exile, and the uprising of home game systems cemented its place in the gaming gulag. It very nearly became extinct.
But not quite.
KEEPERS OF THE FLAME
In 1975, Andy Kline was a business major at the University of South Florida when he stumbled across the entrepreneurial opportunity that would come to define his professional life.
Kline sat in classes all day long listening to professors exhort the theories of guns and butter. But a newspaper advertisement held more promise for him than any lesson in macroeconomics.
The ad said something like, "Be your own boss in the fast-paced world of arcade games." Kline called the number.
"I bought five Space Invaders, and that was the end of my college career," said Kline, who at 48 now sports a ponytail and the few extra pounds that long hours and middle-age success afford. In the beginning, Kline positioned his new machines around town, collecting quarters and running his route.
"Five games went to 10 and then 20 and then 700 machines," Kline said. "This became my career."
And slowly things changed.
"I needed a way to get rid of old games," Kline said. "Then all of a sudden, people started buying stuff."
And that's how Kline came to be the owner of Game Gallery Amusements and Rentals, one of the largest pinball sellers around.
With more than 9,000 square feet of showroom and repair space, Game Gallery Amusements and Rentals, at 7941 N Armenia Ave., serves clients around the globe. Turns out there are a lot of guys who played arcade pinball machines during the 1970s who would like to own a piece of their youth.
"It's the kind of guy who can finally afford something," Kline said of his typical customer. "He wants to remember his past, so he buys a machine he played as a kid."
That's what John Russo, 39, has learned as the owner of Apollo Amusements, which has showrooms in Brandon and Bradenton.
"Our customers are contemporaries who have just enough money to do themselves harm," Russo said, trading on his industry's inside joke. "It takes them back to a place in time, a pinball parlor."
That is a familiar sensation for Russo. In the mid 1980s, he sold waterbeds. "I was setting up a bed for a guy who ran a coin-operated route," Russo said. "I traded a waterbed for a Royal Flush (pinball) machine and a Defender video game. It was quite literally my hobby and it grew a life of its own. Before you know it, I had rooms full of them. It was ridiculous."
Russo and Kline now vend their pinball machines, many of them hard-to-find collectibles, internationally.
But with only one remaining pinball manufacturer still doing business, finding machines can be a challenge.
"When operators began pulling machines off the street, the collectors filled the gap," Kline said. "Now, pinball machines are great investments because of the very limited supply. My fear now is getting supplies."
Kline said he has traveled to South America, Europe and Japan looking for "pins," which he ships back to the United States, where the supply is largely exhausted.
"Anybody can sell it," Kline said. "The hard part is buying it."
HALF A MILE OF WIRES
Finding and buying a vintage machine is often just the beginning of the odyssey. All those years and hard play take a toll on older models.
Again, that's where guys like Kline and Russo step in. Reconditioning old pinball machines has almost become a lost art, said Jim Nyers, a self-taught pinball and video game technician who works at Kline's Game Gallery.
"I started as a collector, but nobody knew how to fix them," said Nyers, who has been a pin fixer for eight years. "It's nice to have a hobby that's also an occupation."
Nyers knows his way around every inner inch of a pinball machine, which is no small feat considering the electronic complexity and the fact that no formal training exists in pinball repair.
According to Stern Pinball Co., the only remaining pinball maker in the world, the average machine contains about:
Half a mile of wire.
1,200 screws, nuts and washers.
Throw in 70 switches, 100 connectors, 88 terminals and 357 tie wraps to hold it all together.
The guts of a modern pinball machine look like multicolored angel hair pasta for 20.
"An electronics background helps, but you've got to love it," says Apollo Amusement's Russo. "It's so time consuming and each game is so unique unto itself. You have to make sure everything is just so. You've got to dig it. To make it like new, you've just got to dig it."
With prices ranging from $1,500 for older machines to $5,000 for the hot new Sopranos model, it takes more than a fistful of quarters to own your favorite pinball machine.
But the market for home game rooms has kept sales on an upward climb as the children of the 1970s "Me Generation" graduate to today's "Mine Generation."
Russo said Apollo Amusements did nearly $1.5-million in sales last year. Kline moves five to 10 machines in and out of Game Gallery Amusements and Rentals each week.
Customers run the gamut, from families looking for an alternative to Mario Kart and Madden Football to professional athletes looking to trick out their home game rooms.
Kline says one of his best customers is Boston Red Sox pitcher David Wells, who has a home in Tampa.
"It's become a very fashionable thing to have in your home," Kline said.
Game Gallery sales manager Linda Cascone said she's not surprised that people are eager to furnish their present with games from their past. Growing up in Tarrytown, N.Y., Cascone would go to a pinball palace almost every night to compete against her brothers. Decades later, she still takes her turn as a "product tester," running up an impressive score on the new Sopranos game.
It's still fun, Cascone said. And she's a lot better now than when she was a kid.
The pinball industry has always been susceptible to cycles of boom and bust.
According to PinGame Journal, the earliest machines date back to the 1870s. During the Depression there were as many as 150 pinball makers. By the mid 1930s, there were 14.
The 1950s were pinball's golden age, and the 1960s brought technological advances that ushered in the kinds of games featured in the Who's Tommy, the original pinball wizard.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, the period when I spent most of my pinball quarters, the machines went totally electronic and entered the microchip age. Then video games came along and wooed us all into their Pac Man-shaped world.
Sure, video games were fun. For one thing, they had characters you could pull for, digitized alter egos you could champion. They had increasing levels of difficulty that kept you dropping more quarters to achieve mastery. They had explosions and endless ammunition and hyperspace speed.
Video games were MTV to pinball's American Bandstand.
And to a large measure, they still are. Tampa Lanes bowling center on N Dale Mabry has something like 100 games in its expansive arcade. Four of them are pinball machines.
But there's still something alluring about pinball machines, even though logic would suggest their extinction.
"Ten or 15 years down the road, I think they'll go the way of the dinosaurs," Russo said, "but the advantage will always go to pinball over video games. You never know exactly what's going to happen with that ball."
When you're standing there with your fingers twitching on the flipper buttons, you never feel quite as alive as when that ball is careening up and down, back and forth from bumper to bumper. And nothing feels quite as deflating as seeing that ball disappear down the drain and the words "Game Over" on the screen.
Then there's only one thing you can do.
Dig for more quarters.