Pinball Company Says Game Not Over

Tuesday, June 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ASBURY PARK, N.J. (AP) — TILT! Game over?

Not quite. But the venerable pinball machine, once the undisputed arcade king from the Jersey Shore boardwalks to the Santa Monica Pier, is certainly down to its last ball.

In the computerized, digitalized world of high-tech entertainment, the pinball machine now clings to a diminished niche. Of the big four companies that once cranked out 100,000 glitzy machines a year, only one survives — and it produces a fraction of that figure.

Even worse, the proudly made-in-the-U.S.A. pinball machine — ``as American as apple pie,'' as one arcade owner notes — now finds its biggest market in France, where it's as popular as snails and Jerry Lewis.

What is the world coming to?

``It's a shame,'' says Walt Levine, a 25-year industry veteran, offering an oft-echoed opinion. ``This could be a thing of the past.''

Don't say that around the last bastion of pinball optimism: suburban Melrose Park, Ill., home of the family-owned Stern Pinball. Company president Gary Stern believes his business can keep the flippers flailing where others have failed.

``We no longer talk about how we're the last man standing,'' says Stern, a friendly sort who's quick with a quip or a wisecrack. ``Now we just talk about how we intend to be around for a long time to come.''

Stern's is a lonely voice above the revving motors, soaring spacecraft and Dolby sounds that accompany the new generation of arcade games. Many in the industry fear the silver ball is headed south toward oblivion.

Bob Haim, co-owner of the Long Island-based pinball distributor R.H. Belam company, has watched pinball's steady decline. His father founded the business in 1946; his son, Daniel, is a law school student and unlikely successor to the clan's pinball wizardry.

``I doubt he'll go into this business,'' the elder Haim says. ``His generation is part of the problem.''

It's a generation raised on virtual reality, Nintendo and Sony PlayStation, a generation that views the pinball machine as an anachronism — a rusted-out pickup truck barely putt-putt-putting into the 21st century.

``There's a new generation brought up on games off their computers,'' shrugs Levine. ``The pinball player maybe played in college, or in a local bar. That's in the past.''

Levine speaks while standing inside the future — Broadway City, a three-level collection of more than 200 high-tech arcade games. In a cramped second-floor room, obscured by the new big-ticket games, sit a half-dozen pinball machines.

On a weekday afternoon, the machines are idle. And stay that way.

``This is an accommodation to the past,'' Levine acknowledges, standing alongside a vintage ``Addams Family'' machine and a newer ``South Park'' game. ``It doesn't make money.''

The pinball game was never merely about money. To die-hard players, it was the stuff of both poetry and patriotism.

``As American as apple pie,'' says Levine.

Surfside songwriter Bruce Springsteen, once a regular at the Casino Amusements in Asbury Park, recalled the halcyon days of pinball in his 1974 song ''4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).''

The ``wizards play down on Pinball Way,'' the Boss sang wistfully, ``on the boardwalk way past dark.''

Across the Atlantic, Pete Townshend offered his own homage with ``Pinball Wizard'' — the tale of a deaf, dumb and blind kid who ``sure plays a mean pinball.''

Those were the days. These days, the Asbury boardwalk is empty of both people and pinball.

The pinball machine debuted in 1931, a hardy contraption that quickly became a hit in most places. It was first a gambling machine that offered players a cash payout if they could score points without ``tilting'' the machine — rattling it so hard that it shuts down.

The payoff later was reduced to a free game or two for beating certain scores.

Pinball quickly became a hit in most places. That didn't include New York, where the machines were illegal until 1976. In 1941, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia made headlines when he supervised the dumping of the machines into the East River.

Over the seven decades that followed its invention, pinball's popularity waxed and waned. The late '70s were a boom time, the mid-'80s a rough stretch, the early '90s a comeback.

Steve Epstein, founder of the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association, began hosting a national pinball championship in 1990. Competitors vied for thousands in prize money inside Manhattan's funky Lone Star Roadhouse.

Despite the good times, there were already bad signs for the future.

``Each time it peaked, it peaked a little less,'' Haim says. ``And the valleys started to become a little deeper.''

In 1992, when the pinball machine was successfully fighting the video challenge, 100,000 machines were sold worldwide. Last year, that figure was about 12,000.

One by one, like targets zapped with a quick wrist flick, the pinball makers disappeared. Bally Manufacturing sold off its pinball division in 1988. Last November, WMS Industries said goodbye after its pinball division lost $17.8 million in the last three fiscal years.

The pinball championships quietly disappeared, too.

Where did it all go wrong? Folks in the business offer these explanations:

— Rather than staying old school, the companies tried to compete with video games. ``They gave pinball lots of glitz and gizmos,'' Levine offers. ``But they had games with very little soul.''

— The new, souped-up machines required expensive, time-consuming repairs when they broke. A video game ordinarily needed just a quick wipe with a dust rag.

— The return on the games was insufficient. In 1976, a game of pinball cost 25 cents and a machine ran about $2,000. In 1990, the cost was still 25 cents; the price of a machine had doubled.

When all the arcade dust settled, Stern was the last pinball production company in the world. But when Gary Stern looks into the future, he sees a vision of the past.

``Pinball is sort of retro, which is a big word these days,'' Stern says. ``Retro is the `in' thing. Think of a cool 1978 VW Beetle — that's nostalgia. But a brand-new Beetle — that's retro.''

Levine, despite his doubts about the future of the games, agrees with Stern's vision. Stern no longer sees his business selling to places like Broadway City, which bills itself as ``a family entertainment center.'' He believes the new mantra for pinball machines is ``street locations'' — movie theaters, bars, restaurants, cafes.''

There are still machines to be found in shot-and-a-beer places like the subterranean Siberia bar, tucked inside the 50th Street subway station in midtown Manhattan.

There, in a dank back room, owner Tracy Westmoreland oversees a steady stream of ``pinheads'' lining up to bang away at a vintage Addams Family machine.

Targets fall, lights flash, and Westmoreland smiles.

``It makes a lot of money,'' he says. ``People come in from all over the place to play it all the time. They say it's the best machine.''