Flipper Fanatics

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

Dec 12, 2007 at 4:00 am
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."

Although the video age of the 1980s pushed pinball to the margins of popular culture, Sharpe says it remains in a class by itself. Even Nintendo's new Wii system doesn't match the multi-sensory experience of pinball, he says. "That experience is different every time you play, which might not be the case when you're playing your video game. There is something spontaneous, something that is unexpected. From that standpoint, it's kind of like a sport."

Pinball even has its own governing body, with directors in nine countries. The International Flipper Pinball Association sanctions tournaments around the world. Sharpe's sons Josh and Zach run the IFPA, and in 2006 they created a way to rank players. One has to participate in tournaments to earn points toward the World Pinball Player Rankings.

Sharpe hopes world-class competition will attract a new generation, and pinball will rise again. "The players," he says, "are going to be the ones that make it happen."

For three years Carol Walker planned to surprise her husband with the perfect gift for his 40th birthday. She was willing to spend more than $1,000 to get Steve his very own pinball game. But not just any pinball game. No, it had to be one of his favorites: the much sought-after Twilight Zone. When Carol at last found the game, she broke the news to her neighbor, Lisa Hosey, who recalls, "Carol was so excited. She said, 'Lisa, I found a Twilight Zone!'" At the time, Lisa was unfamiliar with the Walkers' quirky hobby. "I'm like, 'What's a Twilight Zone?'"

After five years of living near the Walkers on Jefferson County's Lake Montowese, Hosey knows that pinball plays an important part in her friends' lives. She notes that two years ago the couple traveled to Germany to play in a tournament, and that pinball has inspired Steve's songwriting. ("It's a silver-ball dream/I think you know what I mean.") Each New Year's Eve, the Walkers invite friends to their rec room, which now houses three pinball machines, for a competition they call "The Battle for the Item of Pinifigance."

Steve Walker, a 45-year-old research scientist, has played pinball since he was a teenager, but didn't start building his social life around it until he went to his first tournament in 1995. After years of flipping balls in solitude, he found himself among 800 other people who loved pinball. Finally, he met people who could teach him things about the game. "There was a play called the 'loop pass' that I thought I'd invented," he recalls. "I called it the 'orbital drop pass.'"

Pinball continues to intrigue Walker. "I don't care what game it is," he says. "I just want to figure out how to win on it."

While the talkative Walker imparts snippets of pinball wisdom, his taciturn buddy John Miller focuses on playing the game. Crouched slightly with one foot forward, Miller calmly works the flipper buttons. The silver ball comes to a complete stop before he carefully takes aim. Miller's control over pinball games has been earning him an audience since he was a teenager, hanging out in the arcade at Chesterfield Mall or Six Flags.

Miller has a knack for games in general, but he says he stuck with pinball because it gave him more bang for his quarter. "It was just an economical way to keep my money going," he says, noting that as a kid he earned all of $5 to mow his neighbor's half-acre lawn.

Considered St. Louis' premier pinball wizard, Miller is legendary for frustrating the high-score ambitions of other players. He enters his first two initials, J.R., on the scoreboard of nearly every game he encounters. "Every time I went to a bowling alley, I'd see this monster score that only God could get," says player and collector Brian Bannon. "I thought, 'Who the hell is J.R.?'"

At 41 years old, Miller says what is most satisfying about the tournament pinball scene is its camaraderie. "I'd like to win one of the big ones," he says, but "at this point I don't believe it's going to happen. You've got to concentrate for long periods on end. You've got to react at any time. It's kind of draining."

"The ball may die, but if the player's performance has exceeded certain required levels of quality, he can bring it back for a new life and the opportunity to strive for yet another rebirth, in an endless cycle of life, death, and rebirth similar to the Zen Buddhist concept of Samsur."

— from Pinball Wizardry by Robert Polin and Michael Rain

When Polin and Rain published their players' guide in 1979, pinball was the game. The Who had made the central character of its 1969 rock opera "Tommy" a pinball wizard. Today, only one company, Chicago-based Stern Pinball, produces new games. It releases three to five new titles and manufacturers about 12,000 machines a year. By way of comparison, the defunct pinball-maker Williams Gaming produced more than 20,000 copies of its 1992 hit The Addams Family.

The collector's market soared after Williams closed its pinball shop in 1999. As a result, a favorite like Medieval Madness (which would have cost an arcade $3,200 when it was brand-new in 1997) now goes for $5,500, even in fair condition, says Sanderson, who has purchased and sold 200 pinball machines over the past six years.

It's not uncommon for collectors to have dozens of pinball games, but after amassing upward of 200, the 46-year-old Eric Sciuto is feeling a little overwhelmed. "This is my love," he says dryly, as he surveys his overstuffed basement in St. Peters. Some of his pinball specimens belong in a museum's collection. Sciuto has Grand Slam, a baseball-themed game from 1934. He has Carnival Queen from 1958, which is essentially a mechanical version of Bingo, swallowing as many nickels as a player wants to gamble. At one time he even owned Humpty Dumpty, the first pinball game with flippers.

One wall of the basement is lined with games from the 1970s. These were carefree years for this Sciuto and his friends from the Hill, who often spent weekends playing pinball at his family's country getaway. "If it was raining, we'd play pinball constantly," he says. Sciuto turns to Hit the Deck, a 1978 game that features a bikini-clad woman perched on the bow of a dinghy. Neptune rises out of the sea, upsetting the card game in progress aboard the little boat. "The artwork was so cool," he says.

On the opposite wall is a row of games from the '50s and '60s, in which the artwork features more conservatively clad women. "Look at that," Sciuto says. "They were all smiling, happy, having fun. It was a different time."

Sciuto has owned pinball games since he was seven years old, and started fixing them when he was nine. Periodically, he walks the aisle of his pinball stable and pulls the plungers. Then he listens. Each turn of the scoring wheel makes a different-sounding "ding." "If it misses a beat, I can tell," he says.

His tinkering skills enabled the obsessive collecting that took hold later in life. "I really went crazy in '90," Sciuto says. He was fresh from a divorce and earning plenty of overtime pay at a printing shop. On weekends he'd drive to Detroit or Philadelphia, just to buy and restore broken pinball machines. Then he started farming them out to businesses where they could earn some coins. Beatnik Bob's, the carnival midway-themed lounge inside the City Museum, is one of Sciuto's top earning locations. The rest are an odd assortment of places where people might have some time to kill. Sciuto's quaint pinball machines — complete with dinging sounds — from the '60s and '70s can be found in a Chinese restaurant on Chippewa Street and at Hampton Car Wash.

Most vendors who supply games to bars no longer bother with pinball, as all those moving parts mean continual maintenance. As a collector who has spent hours laboring with sandpaper and a soldering gun, Sanderson has great admiration for those who literally keep pinball alive. "In the hobby," he says, "the guys that can fix them are the kings."

When pinheads talk shop, it's like a gathering of car nuts or comic-book geeks. Such a scenario develops as Chuck Sanderson explains why he decided to use a Western-themed game called Frontier in the mini-tournament that will close out the evening. Sanderson borrowed Frontier from his friend Brian Bannon, a meticulous steward of pinball. Bannon took the 26-year-old machine apart and sent its wooden playfield to a specialist, who applied a protective layer of automotive clear coat. Now the ball rolls so fast on the high-gloss surface, Sanderson says that no one can play it for more than a minute. "It's just a real lethal game."

That proves to be true, even for the game's owner. Bannon squeaks into the tournament after arriving to the arcade late. He came straight from the airport after a business trip to San Antonio, Texas. First he squares off against John Miller, his old nemesis from the bowling-alley circuit. Bannon wins the best-of-three round and advances to the single-elimination final.

His opponents are Sanderson's younger brother, Rob, and the east-side heavies, Randy Carter and Mike Kassak. Bannon thinks he can win easily. After all, he's scored as high as 4.2 million on Frontier, and in beating Miller he put up more than 800,000 points.

The last to take a turn in the final round, Bannon only has to beat Kassak's score of less than 400,000. But pinball has its unlucky moments. His last ball goes down in a hurry. Kassak's high score stands, and the bearded millwright from Alton is congratulated with a round of high-fives.

Donning a hunter-orange stocking cap and work boots, Kassak reflects on the road to victory. "I collected bonus over the entire game," he says. "Once you understand how it works, then you have to make the shots."

Other than that, the details of his would-be ESPN moment are a blur. With a shrug he says, "I just played."

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