Pinball Hall of Fame
Museum of arcade games supplies all the bells and whistles for a trip back in time.
STORY & PHOTOS BY J. TYGE O’DONNELL
Two miles east of the Las Vegas Strip, there’s a place one can hear the clink of coins along with the bells and whistles of machines eager for play. These sweet sounding chimes and buzzers aren’t from slot machines however—no, in this place the patrons are dropping their change for just amusement purposes and, perhaps, for a chance to relive a bit of adolescent nostalgia. The game of choice is pinball and even though it’s been on the endangered species list of arcade games for the past 20 years, one would never know it at the Pinball Hall of Fame.
GO WEST, PINHEAD
First opened in 2006—it relocated in 2009 to its current location—the Pinball Hall of Fame is an unadorned building stuffed with some 250 pinball machines that owner and self-proclaimed “Director of Things and Stuff” Tim Arnold has acquired since the 1970s when living as a teenager in Michigan.
Among the machines on the floor of the nearly 10,000-square-foot building is a rare (one of two in existence) Bally’s Pinball Circus along with the vintage machine that started the whole craze, a 1930’s Bagatelle Jig-Saw—a game without flippers that looks more like a horizontal pachinko machine than the traditional “wedge heads” that were rampant in bowling alleys and arcades during pinball’s heyday. It was the Bagatelle Jig-Saw, along with its evolved counterparts, that gave pinball a bad rap as a gambling device and led to the machines being outlawed in most major U.S. cities. In the 1970s, it was finally proven that pinball was a game based on skill and not chance, and that’s when Tim started getting busy.
For the next 35 years, he acquired machine after machine. After owning two successful pinball emporiums in Michigan, Tim and his wife, Charlotte, packed up nearly 1,000 machines and moved to Las Vegas where the dry climate and low humidity would be more kind to his beloved machines. The cross-country move took 20 truckloads but the endeavor proved worthy as Las Vegas’ weather and tourism have been key to the Pinball Hall of Fame’s thriving success.
Tim is still collecting; the building is at capacity and a nearby warehouse holds another 800 pinball machines. Tim is hoping to take advantage of Las Vegas’ current buyer’s market to find a new home that he won’t soon outgrow.
The logistics of keeping more than 200 pinball machines functioning and active on the floor is definitely a full-time job. A typical table has 3,500 parts including a half mile of wiring and an average of 120 lights. Depending on the era when made, parts can vary from solid state technology with incandescent light bulbs to more modern machines with computer chips and LED lighting. According to Tim the newer machines aren’t one bit more reliable or better made than the older ones. In fact, they’re worse.
“Like all things electronic, these machines were built to completely and utterly fail after about five years of average play,” Tim says, while helping an assistant fix a bent door on a machine.
“And these newer machines are made with inferior parts that don’t even last that long. Improperly tempered steel balls, cheap rubber rings instead of polyurethane rings…we’ve had to find our own sources of better quality, after-market parts to keep our repair times down.”
The fact that pinball machines are still being made at all is a bit of a wonder in itself. Of the half dozen or so manufacturers that flourished during the ’70s and ’80s—most were located in the Chicago area—all but one closed in the early ’90s. This makes the parts a valuable commodity. Luckily, Tim has bins and drawers full of spare parts located on the back wall of his building.
ONE QUARTER AT A TIME
Other than a red Salvation Army donation kettle near the bathrooms, most visitors probably don’t know the Pinball Hall of Fame is a nonprofit organization that has consistently donated all monies (after overhead is paid) to community charities. Over the past few years the amount has increased from 80 cents of every dollar to the current 91 cents of every dollar going to a charitable cause. This generosity is possible thanks to a loyal staff of 8 volunteers and because the building is paid for. Although Tim often donates to the Salvation Army, he also donates to other deserving groups but not before first scrutinizing the organizations.
“We’re not going to donate to a charity whose CEO or president is making a six-figure salary. We prefer to help-out those who are kind of like us—lean, efficient, spartan, and local.”
It all adds up, one quarter at a time. Recently a donation of $100,000 was given to a culinary program for people recovering from substance abuse. The recipients will receive free housing and 500 hours of culinary training to aid them on their path to wellness.
When visiting the Pinball Hall of Fame the first thing you notice is how dark it is. As any devoted pinhead will tell you, the lights must be kept low to keep the reflections off the top glass. The second thing you’ll notice is the sound of bells, buzzers, and chimes. It’s a euphonic discord that immediately throws me back to the mid-1970s when I rolled my ball in a youth bowling league and would play the “Happy Days” pinball machine in the snack bar. And herein lies what Tim likes to refer to as the theory of “amusement anarchy”—how entertainment and fond memories tend to start organically at the street level rather than corporations force-feeding an idea of entertainment.
“Very seldom have entertainment trends started at the top of conglomerate corporations that rely on research and analytics,” Tim notes. “You can’t over analyze things like entertainment and amusement because really, people don’t know what they like until they see and experience it.”
Although the future of pinball is uncertain, it’s ardent fans like Tim and his staff that are keeping the amusement alive for future generations to experience. The game (many pinheads will argue that it’s a sport) garnered some much-needed attention thanks to the 2009 documentary “Special When Lit,” but despite the film highlighting the devotion and passion of its fans, pinball continues to be somewhat elusive. Luckily, in Las Vegas it’s easier to find.
I’m looking forward to returning to the Pinball Hall of Fame with a pocketful of quarters and a few hours to kill. I hope Tim will find the perfect new location and be able to put even more machines on the floor, like the “Happy Days” machine from my youth he tells me he has in storage. As a kid I never did win the multi-ball bonus on that game but I’m ready to give it another try. I mean really, what’s the worst that can happen? A “GAME OVER” message flashing at me? In the world of pinball that phrase simply translates to “insert another coin.”
Pinball Hall of Fame
1610 East Tropicana Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89119
pinballmuseum.org, (702) 597-2627