Flipper Fanatics

A small community of pinball wizards keeps the game alive in St. Louis.

Darkness makes it difficult to see the addresses of the few places of business off Highway 111 in South Roxana, Illinois. There's a bar and an American Legion post, and somewhere under the looming smokestacks of the Shell Oil refinery, there's a pinball arcade. Inside a windowless brick building, lights flash from 32 pinball machines arranged in three long columns. A din of missile-like sound effects almost drowns out the clatter of hand flippers. The scenes depicted on the games provide a tour of popular culture since the 1980s. There's Pin•bot, Tales from the Crypt and Family Guy.

A tall, burly man in a black T-shirt is working at Medieval Madness. The machine emits a loud, cracking pop each time his score climbs high enough to earn a replay. That burly man, explains arcade owner Chuck Sanderson in a reverent tone, just happens to be Randy Carter, one of the best pinball players on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.

Sanderson knows many of the people who've found their way to his arcade this Friday night in mid-November. It's a small world, populated by folks proud to call themselves pinheads. They travel to conventions and tournaments and buy broken-down pinball machines, spending hours in their basements bringing them back to life.

"We named our band 'Replay' because we love pinball so much," says 27-year-old Amanda Brooks. Carter is one of her bandmates. Brooks says she recognizes several faces from out-of-town tournaments. "It's nice to see them so close to home."

When the 40-year-old Sanderson started buying pinball machines six years ago, he struck up friendships with several collectors. They'd talk shop and take turns holding parties in their rec rooms. Recently, Sanderson siezed upon the idea of bringing more competition to the local scene, a key reason he opened the arcade he named CP Pinball. "I wanted to start running tournaments here locally," he says. "I'm not able to jet off to Pittsburgh for a tournament. We needed a public place."

In a former woodworking shop that he bought out of foreclosure, Sanderson has created the kind of pinball playground that he and his buddies have in their homes. He collects a $10 admission with apologies and immediately points to a refrigerator that's stocked with cans of soda and Bud Light. The games, most from his own collection, are set for unlimited play. Sanderson runs his own business in Wood River and says he'd be happy just to break even on the arcade.

With a little downtime before the crowd arrives, Sanderson wants to put in some practice on his old mechanical nemesis, Medieval Madness. The game was a late 1990s hit and Sanderson is tickled to have it as part of his collection. "This," he says, "is the Holy Grail of pinball."

As challenging as it is charming, Medieval Madness features a wild-eyed king standing defiantly outside his castle's gate and holding a sword aloft as fireballs flash past him. Two mischievous-looking trolls, both wearing red high-top sneakers, peer from behind the king's legs. Beneath the glass, the silver ball storms a plastic castle gate. When a player makes the right combination of shots, trolls pop up in the middle of the playfield.

By 8 p.m., almost every machine at CP Pinball is occupied. Lee Cagle, a 25-year-old real estate appraiser from Florissant, plays World Cup Soccer while contentedly sucking on an orange lollipop. Cagle says he should be home studying for a professional exam, but can't pass on a night of pinball gluttony. He developed a taste for pinball after playing a 1975 racecar game that was gathering dust in a friend's basement. Since that encounter six months ago, Cagle looks for pinball everywhere. "I think I've called every bar and bowling alley in St. Louis."

Cagle finds that most places have just one machine, which usually isn't fully functional. That's no surprise to longtime pinball enthusiast Rich Grant, who works for the coin-operated game wholesaler Shaffer Distributing. Pinball had struggled since the 1980s, but managed to stay afloat until the late 1990s. That's when a new generation of video games aimed at the bar crowd dealt a final blow, he says. "I don't want to preach doom and gloom, but it's just not what it used to be."

Pinball has been a source of cheap entertainment since the days of the Great Depression. For a mere penny, a player could pull a spring-loaded plunger and launch a metal ball onto a slanted board, where it would plink its way past clusters of pins toward scoring holes. The game gained a skill factor in 1947 when the manufacturer Gottlieb added flippers to the bottom of the playfield. The post-World War II era brought several skill-oriented innovations, but some major cities, including Chicago and New York, continued to treat pinball as a game of chance. In New York City, pinball was banned for three decades.

One oft-told bit of lore is how Roger Sharpe, author of Pinball! — a definitive history of the industry — made a landmark demonstration of skill that persuaded the city of New York to lift its ban in 1976. A trade association was making its case before the city council and asked Sharpe to serve as an expert witness. After Sharpe spoke, he was directed to back up his claims about the level of skill involved in pinball on one of the two games that were set up in the council chambers. "I called my shot," he says. Sharpe explained that by pulling the plunger just right, he could place the ball where he wanted it. "It dropped straight down the middle."

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