Pinball Wizards In Las Vegas

Spitting blood is frowned upon in this establishment!

Spitting blood is frowned upon in this establishment!

I’m not a big Vegas guy. The soul-sucking bombast of the Strip leaves me cold, and the only gambling I do these days is when I sit on the toilet to drop a deuce before I check to see if there’s paper. But on a recent trip to visit family in Sin City, I discovered an attraction that got me as excited as a martial arts fan who opens the front door to find Jean-Claude Van Damme delivering his pizza. It’s the Pinball Hall of Fame, the world’s biggest collection of classic, fully functional pinball machines.

The Hall of Fame is a nonprofit corporation that features pinball machines (called simply “pinballs” by aficionados, who call themselves “pinheads”) owned by Tim Arnold, a pinball fanatic who has the world’s largest collection of pinballs, currently numbering more than a thousand. Perhaps the best thing about the PHOF is that any and all profits generated beyond rent and utilities go to the local Salvation Army.

The Hall boasts over 200 games, and they’re meticulously maintained by an army of volunteer pinheads. I spoke with a guy named Todd, who had a few days off and chose to drive to Vegas from his home in Denver just to donate some time servicing pinballs. The goal, he said, is to keep the machines as close to original condition as possible. Most of them still require only one quarter to play, just like the day they were made.

Rusty and I had found the PHOF online, and it was almost as easy to find in meat space. Straight out Tropicana Avenue, just ten minutes off the Strip. Our family of four spent a Tuesday afternoon there, and a single roll of quarters kept us all occupied for over three hours. The games range in vintage from the late 1950s to a brand new Iron Man game made by Stern, the only company still making pinballs. The vast majority at the Hall of Fame, though, are from the ‘60s through the early ‘80s, the heyday of pinball. (And for a lot of us, music.)

Rusty quickly discovered the weirdest game in the building. It’s called Orbiter 1, by Seeburg, and it’s enough to make you refund your Skittles from motion sickness. It has flippers and targets like a conventional pinball, but the playing surface is a shallow, lumpy bowl done up to look like the surface of an asteroid or the moon. The large steel ball swoops and curves around unpredictably, thanks to a couple of spinning magnets that combine with the unseen undulations in the clear surface to make the ball move in ways that have your brain giving signals like, “That goes against the laws of physics. You should throw up immediately.” The Star Wars-era sound effects only add to the nausea. I wonder how often they have to mop up “asteroid showers” from the glass top.

We also played the most primitive driving game in the world, Speedway. It has a steering wheel and a gas pedal. That’s it. I would think today’s teens would kill at this game, since that’s the only two controls they ever use. There’s a hazy screen that has a rotating disc with car shapes on it, and one static car shape glued to a popsicle stick. That’s you. When you “hit” another car, something in the machine rattles the steering wheel so violently it feels like the building’s foundation is cracking.

I plugged quarter after quarter into the older pinball games, which were so charming in their simplicity and straightforward play. I particularly liked the styles of artwork, which were such an accurate reflection of each machine’s particular era. The hippies of the late ‘60s are represented for the first time on Funland, Gottlieb’s 1968 game. “Gottlieb goes groovy!” it says on a card in Arnold’s small, precise hand. “Long hair, skirts above the knee.” The pinball king has attached a small, fact-filled card to each machine that provide its pedigree and particulars, and some of his asides are pretty hilarious.

The history and minutiae of each machine were fascinating, especially when I found my pinball Holy Grail: KISS. Bally made 17,000 of these things, their second-biggest seller after Eight Ball. When this garishly illustrated game came out in 1979, I was deep in the throes of my early KISS obsession. I don’t know how many quarters I pumped into the KISS pinball machine in the town where I went to high school, but it was enough to make the difference between trade school and state college. The memories came flooding back as I dropped in a quarter and “Rock and Roll All Nite” played in cheesy electronic tones. I probably would have stayed on that machine for an hour if Speaker hadn’t come over and told me she’d found an Asteroids game.

The pinballs from the mid-60s were all pretty basic, variations on the same mechanical theme. The scoreboards were modest, simply four odometer-style rolling numbers. I guess when you’re racking up points one or two at a time, it’s not bloody likely you’ll break ten grand. Today’s machines routinely score into the tens of millions, perfectly illustrating our constantly growing need for approval and our craving for the maternal comfort of a tangible reward. At least that’s what the psychologist next to me playing Simpsons Bowling said.

Thanks largely to cheap Allegiant Air flights (their slogan: “It’s never too early to get shit-faced!”), Las Vegas is a popular, sunny getaway for many frostbitten snowbirds in the Pacific Northwest. And if you do a little online snooping, you’ll find that there’s more to Vegas than casinos, comedy clubs and the hardball glitz of the Strip. The Boneyard Sign Museum chronicles the history of Las Vegas through the evolution of sign design with its collection of massive, iconic signs from every era of this desert mecca. The Minus 5 Ice Bar is a new novelty, an entire bar that serves vodka drinks in ice glasses in an oversized 23-degree igloo. In the Northern Rockies we call that Having A Drink On The Back Porch.

I highly recommend you empty that change jar on your dresser, and plan a trip to the Pinball Hall of Fame. When you tilt in Vegas, it stays in Vegas.

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