Feb 272017
 
Ghost Busters Pinball

Pinball, where have you been? This once crazy popular game has been in hiding the last dozen or so years, falling out of favour for a time, but now appears poised to make a comeback. Slowly but surely, building speed and growing with each passing day we see more and more of these machines, out there in the wild, more people talking about them, more interest in the pastime. It sometimes borders on the fanatical. Are we on the threshold of something?

Ever so cautiously, we ask…you, the devotes, dedicated players, enthusiasts, owners, is it true? Rumour or idle chatter, is pinball back? Is it a thing again? The answers comes quick, all agree, some with a bit of reserve, others with glorious full-on enthusiasm, YES. The reply we hoped for. Time to rejoice pinheads. Break out the quarters! Good to have you back dear friend…damn…you’ve been missed.

Keeping the Faith: a peek inside pinball culture in Alberta. Researched, written and photographed by Chris Doering and Connie Biggart. (BIGDoer/Synd/Canada.com)

Follow us as we hang with the faithful, as they allow us into their world, their temples to the game, for a moment or two. We’ll attend service and just watch and listen and document. Expect it’ll be a great ride (ed: it was).

First…

Pinball’s been destroying minds since the 1930s. I’d venture to guess most of you reading this post recall the “golden era”, that span between the early 1970s to mid-1990s when the game was at its peak of popularity. Back then, when one craved a fix, they only need head down to the nearest local arcade – every mall, shopping centre or retail block had one. While some were nice family friendly places, many were seedy, dark and dirty, hangouts for troubled, but generally harmless, youth. Arcade=low class.

At this point, pins were king. An arcade might have a wall of them, dozens and dozens of machines, most in use, stretching off as far as the eye could see. Ding, ding, ding, the noise was deafening. These places were always packed. The distinctive “clack” heard on earning a free play always turned heads. Could he be…a pinball wizard?

Calgary Pinball

The AMAZING Alex Bakker Collection.

Of course there were other places to play. You might find a machine or two, variously, in a store, theatre, pub, bus terminal, bowling alley, or anywhere people congregated (little temples to the game). They were everywhere. An avenue of last resort – the local pool hall – every neighbourhood had one of there was always a few machines shoved in back. Most of these establishments were pretty questionable, even down right unsafe, dingy and smokey, populated by ne’er-do-wells and toughs looking for trouble. All but the hardest core pinheads, one’s who could hold their own in sketchy environment, dared venture inside. Your author did. But he was big fellow, even as a youth, and was no stranger to roughing it up so it was no big deal. Most players gave them a wide berth.

Scroll down for more photos and to comment.

Arcade video games (aka vids) tried killing off pinball in the 1980s. The scheme didn’t fully succeed. Still, from that point forward pinball sorta played “second banana” even if the game still remained reasonably popular. Just not like it was.

Fast forward to the 1990s, home gaming is now huge. By the last years of the decade it pretty much nukes the arcade industry. Pinball has a brush with death and once the dust settled, there was but one manufacturer left (for most of the modern era, there were many).

Then a strange thing happened. Slowly. Since people couldn’t play at the arcades, there were none, they started collecting. New machines and old, the latter found socked away in back rooms and storage lockers, resurrected and brought back to playing condition. And it was not just pins, old vids, jukeboxes, they were all being snapped up. Arcade machines, pinballs in particular, were cool again. And it wasn’t just the old guys and their sentiment driving the market. New comers, ones who may never have known the real arcade experience, joined up.

Soon on a second manufacturer started producing games. And there’s rumour, started here folks, of a possible third. We made some calls and one former maker told us there’s been some serious “talk”. And while it’s unlikely the industry will ever reach the heights of old, it’s a rebirth of sorts.

Basements and back rooms, garages and spare bedrooms became the new arcades. Some collectors might have a machine or two, others a dozen or more. Some only stop when they run out of usable space (cough, cough, Alex, Josh). Some collectors like pins from specific eras or manufacturers, others it’s what ever they find. Taking up the hobby, it pays to learn a bit about pinball repair – the machines are not low maintenance. You can hire an “old school” tech if it’s beyond your skills.

Clubs are formed. Member’s float from collection to collection, for organized group play. They trade machines – it’s easy to get tired of one and want something different – help each other with repairs and act as an advocacy and support group. They put member’s machines on location, in pubs typically, since no one else does that any more, not to make money but to introduce them to a new audience or those who thought the game was dead.

Locally (as of early 2017), the Calgary Pinball Enthusiasts have machines at the Atlantic Trap and Gill Bar in South Calgary, that you can play. Go, play!

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Early November, the Bakker temple. It’s a club meeting. We arrive before everyone, to get a lay of the land, get some pre-people shots, chat up our host, that sort of stuff. Later it’ll be hopping but for now it’s quiet. We’re taken aback by the machines. Clearly our host, Alex, is serious when it comes to the hobby (dare we say a nut…in the best way possible). Passionate, proud, he’s a collector’s collector, his stable of machines impeccable. They’re like new. They’re better than new. Shiny, fast, spotless, each plays perfectly. Some have been highly customized. Who knew this was even a thing?

Williams Rollergames

Based on a cheesy, short lived TV show.

His collection includes machines from many of the big makers. Most are from the 1980s-1990s, a couple quite a bit newer. Themes run the gamut. Some are licensed tying in with films or TV shows and stuff like that, other come straight from the mind of the designer or the firm producing them. A couple real old machines wait in the garage to be fixed up.

Club members arrive, the church lights dim and the play begins. The noise, music, flashers, the over saturated colours, glare, reflections, pop artwork everywhere…it’s a sensory overload. Church is in! No one notices the guys with the cameras. Pinball face, absolute laser beam focus, complete concentration, that lost-in-the-game blank stare look. The world could be ending and they wouldn’t even notice. Everyone playing gets it. Flies on the wall, we take it all in. This is magic.

Later that same night. A stop at the Palamino Smoke House downtown to check out the games there. Some of the club’s come down to meet and greet with a pinball artist. This fellow, “Dirty” Donny Gillies will make an appearance in a follow up article. We ran out of space here and if I type one more word, my publisher will have my ass on a plate. Right Mike?

Mid-November, Edmonton, Yellowhead Inn. We’re in town on another mission. Unknown to us, where we’re staying, a dive hotel, is also home to some games. Cheap accommodation and pinballs? We’re blessed. These machines belong to the local pinball club, the Die Hard Pinball League who put them on location much like the Calgary group. Machines are mostly post 1990s, right up to brand new.

One pin is being worked on. Thanked the fellow for keeping the faith. This pinball, Embyron was a particular favourite of this author way back when. Loved the theme, the artwork, the sounds, the play. It always put up a fight as I recall, but it could be beaten. Plunked in a couple quarters once the fellow’s work was done. God I hate that machine. Couldn’t win to save my life. Need to practice more (damn fine advice).

Outside some club members hanging with the fixer-upper guy, Connie and I were the only ones playing. Most people in the bar seemed drawn to the VLTs instead. Silly rabbits!

Late December, the Brown place Calgary. Again, this was a meeting of the Calgary club and we were along to watch. Arrive early. Josh, tonight’s host, has a nice mixed collection of pinballs and vintage video games. Wasn’t a big vid player, but dabbled in it. Even the hard core pin guys experimented. His basement in pretty much full of machines. We’re out of room! Something a collector never wants to hear!

Much like the earlier club get-together, we blend into the background. That’s not a bad thing, in fact it’s the best place to be if a photographer hopes to get a candid look at things. No notices us, not even the kids. After all, there’s games to be played. More pinball face. Serious, stoic, unconcerned with what’s going on outside the game. More noise, chaos, frivolity. This is not some seedy arcade of old, we’re not scrounging for quarters (free play here), but we’re taken back. It’s just like we remember. This gig won’t make us much money (starving artist, starving writer, same thing), but for the fun alone, we’d have done it for nothing.

Rollergames Pinball

Ball in motion…

January, various times, in Calgary, with Gary Makota Repair. Gary’s been at it a long time. Working in the industry since the 1970s, there’s not an arcade machine he can’t repair, pretty much regardless of condition, make or era. Naturally this makes him a popular fellow, the only tech in the general area who’s got the skill, expertise and experience to do it all. Some collectors can fix their own machines and many hard core ones do, but some can’t. He’s there to help when it’s the latter. For those keeping the faith, this guy’s pope. A healer of souls…and machines. Kept us on the edge of our seats with his stories from the old days.

He allows us to tag along as he makes the rounds (thanks to the owners too) and we simply watch in awe. Get the feeling he’s done this before. Over a two day period, a video is fixed up, a pinball problem is addressed (Capt. Fantastic, a fav of your author in the “electro-mechanical” or “EM” era). Recall the pinball themed movie Tommy? This machine is based on it. The art designer was a little obsessed with, ahem, an “overly developed” representation of the female form. Russ Meyer approved!

Lastly, an old jukebox, one nightmarishly complex piece of machinery, is made to work again. How the hell does he do it? Tighten this, adjust that, replace this, all instinctively, and appearing as though effortless. A few minutes later Roseanne Cash is heard belting out a tune…

“Well, he couldn’t ride or wrangle, and he never cared to make a dime…but give him his guitar, and he’d be happy all the time…the little dark-haired boy who played the Tennessee flat top box. And he would play…”

And they would play…

_____________

Author notes: Going into this project we had great expectations we’d be able to capture the full “pinball experience” in one neat and tidy article and share it here. Foolish us. Not even close! We didn’t scratch the surface and could have added dozens more pics and pages more text and not touched on it any better than we did. It’s too broad a subject. Realize that now. Still, hope we sorta captured the spirit of it all. At least a wee bit. In hindsight that’s about the best we can hope for. We thank everyone involved for allowing us in. Know we were a pain, a distraction and appreciate being so welcomed and accommodated by everyone involved.

Machines featured prominently in this article…

Metallica (Stern, 2013/2014), Batman Forever (Sega, 1995), Baywatch (Sega, 1995), Rollergames (Williams, 1990), No Good Gophers (Williams, 1997), Pinball Magic (Capcom, 1995), Laser War (Data East, 1987), Who Dunnit (Williams, 1995), Monopoly (Stern, 2001), Duette (Gottlieb, 1955), Big Buck Hunter (Stern, 2010), Ghost Busters (Stern, 2016), Pinbot (Williams, 1986), Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends (Data East, 1993), Capt. Fantastic (Bally, 1976), Elektra (Bally, 1981), Embryon (Bally, 1981), Golden Axe (Video, Sega, 1989), Street Fighter (Video, Capcom, 1987), BurgerTime (Video, Bally-Midway, 1982), Vectrex (Home Machine, early 1980s), Sybaris (Jukebox, Rock-Ola, 1970s).

You’ll like these posts…
Ymir, Friday Nights.
The Clearwater.
Soul Work.

If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!

Date: November 2016 – January 2017.
Location: Calgary and Edmonton AB.
Article references and thanks: Stern Pinball, Scientific Games Corporation, Internet Pinball Database, Alex Bakker, Josh Brown, Darryl Minsky, Gary Makota Pinball Repair.

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Sparky Metallica Pinball

A fully customized “Sparky”, Metallica Pinball.

Pinball Interior

Oh Lord, all those wires – a look inside the box.

Capcom Pinball Magic

Capcom Pinball Magic, an owner’s manual is a good investment.

Pinball in Calgary

In a basement but looking like an arcade of old.

Pinball Tilt

Tilt!

Playing Pinball in Calgary

Simply playing…

Sega Pinball

Sega made pinballs in the 1990s.

Flipper Freaks Fraser Valley

A Flipper Freak wearing club colours.

Pinball Magic Capcom

Artwork seen on Capcom’s Pinball Magic.

Data East Laser War

Playfield details, Data East Laser War.

Calgary Pinball Club

Wine break between games.

Gottlieb Duette

A 1950s Gottlieb Duette awaiting work.

Palomino Smokehouse Pinball

At the Palomino Smokehouse waiting on “Dirty” Donny.

Yellowhead Inn Pinball

Pinball @ Yellowhead Inn Edmonton.

Bally Embryon Pinball

Embryon, Bally 1981. Amazing art and great play.

Ghost Busters Pinball

Your author, with more hair than usual, at work.

Pinball Collecting Calgary

Our host, Josh, gets in a quick game before the crowds arrive.

Kids and Pinball

No kid can resist the urge.

Collecting Pinball Calgary

They never notice the guy with the camera.

Pinball Arcade Calgary

Again, not an arcade, but a basement collection.

Pinball and Kids

Small in size, but a seasoned player.

Stern Ghost Busters

Xmas Connie tries her hand at Ghost Busters.

Pinball Face

Pinball Face, that look of complete concentration.

Metallica Pinball Sparky

More “Sparky”.

Playing Metallica Pinball

Metallica, a popular machine.

Gary Makota Repair

Tools of the trade – with Gary Makota Repair.

Capt. Fantastic Pinball

Capt. Fantastic Pinball, Bally 1976, a tie in with the film “Tommy”.

Elvis Pinball

The King liked to play.

Pinball Coin Mechanism

Dropped a lot of coins in these slots…

Capt. Fantastic Boobs

Big boobs, a running theme on Capt. Fantastic.

Gary Makota Pinball Repair

Gary tests the machine after some adjustments.

Vectrex Game

Pinball of sorts – a 1980s Vectrex Home Gaming machine.

Pinball Repair Gary Makota

Looking a bit “devilish”…

Bally Pinball Scoring Reel

An “EM” scoring reel.

Capt. Fantastic Repair

Deep inside a maze of wires, relays and stepping motors.

Capt. Fantastic and Elektra

Class photo, the Capt and Elektra (Bally, 1981). Jimmy approves.

Rock-Ola Jukebox

Gary takes on a Rock-Ola Jukebox.

Rock-Ola Sybaris

This “Sybaris” model is from the 1970s.

Rock-Ola Sybaris Jukebox

It’s one complex piece of machinery.

Rock-Ola Jukebox Repair

A few more adjustments…

Rock-Ola Jukebox Calgary

Back in business.

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48 Comments on "Keeping the Faith"

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Steve Boyko
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Steve Boyko

Great photos and text, as always. I was never into pinball, preferring Missile Command and Sinistar and the other video games, but they were always around. I did play pinball a lot one day in the Student Union Building at UNB when our group discovered that the pinball machine was on infinite credit so we took turns playing the machine all day.

mary_pollock
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mary_pollock

Awesome, love your site!! The photos are something.

Kristen Andrews
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Kristen Andrews

What a Playa’ Gary!! Lookin Good!

Kevin Gray
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Kevin Gray

(via Facebook)
I was a wizard…once.

Darryl Minsky
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Darryl Minsky

(via Facebook)
Sweet games!

Gary Makota
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Gary Makota

What a pleasure to have Chris Doering come along on a few service calls to document what it takes to repair arcade equipment. We are seeing the revival of pinball and arcades so it is great to get the word out. Thanks so much Chris for sharing our passion and doing a great job capturing this wonderful hobby and lifestyle. We are by no means done so stay tuned for more.

Martin El De Santo
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Martin El De Santo

Own the Capt Fantastic, Wizard and Zenon…..my 3 favorite machines!

Holly Shaw
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Holly Shaw

I haven’t played in years…. Missing those days. Yellowhead Inn, here I come.

John Borg
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John Borg

Superb writing and expertly done photos. You nailed it! Keep making articles like this and you’ll be going places. You might just ride the pinball wave!

Garry Shymko
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Garry Shymko

(via Facebook)
Spent hours and hours on the Capt Fantastic machine. One of my all time faves!

Thomas Cimino
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Thomas Cimino

Love pinball. My name is Tommy and I sure played the mean pinball. Lol!

Jim Siemers
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Jim Siemers

Congratulations on a job well done. Keep it up! Chris and Connie, a new voice for pinball in the west!

Coraline Dobson
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Coraline Dobson

(via Facebook)
Loved playing pinball in the late 60s and 70s man I was good too.

Kim Lampson
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Kim Lampson

I’d be happy to drop a “few” quarters in some of these machines! Fantastic article!

Gus Cappelletti
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Gus Cappelletti

Oh, this brought back memories of the arcades on Bloor Street, TO in my childhood before there were all those trendy stores.

Johnathan Mac Sr.
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Johnathan Mac Sr.

OMG, back in the day I was a Pinball Wizard! To see this brought back a lot of good memories! Just love it!

Chris Goula
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Chris Goula

Embryon, an awesome pinball machine!

Theo Korbos
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Theo Korbos

I’m a huge Jukebox fan looking forward to buying one !

Jimmy Tran
Guest
Jimmy Tran

So with pinball being the new hotness, will we see the rebirth of arcades soon? Crossing my fingers!

Jimmy Tran
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Jimmy Tran

Say what? An old manufacturer entering the market again? Talking about Williams? That would be epic!

Kallu
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Kallu

(via Facebook)
Ooooh! I would LOVE any of these in my man cave!

Steven Ernst
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Steven Ernst

Would lie, cheat and steal to get a chance to challenge the Black Knight.

Cary Ann Wilson
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Cary Ann Wilson

Yes! Please let me have one of these! Let me in!

Paul Rufer
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Paul Rufer

Canada.com brought me here. Pics here are much better!

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