I didn’t spend much time on pinball machines until I went away to college. I didn’t even go that far away–about 30 miles from home. But since I wasn’t living with my parents that was far enough. I met another suburban kid adrift in the city and he introduced me to pinball. Pinball and cigarettes.
You put a coin in (a quarter?) and played three balls. Usually I tanked. But I felt it was cool to spend an hour in a bar somewhere in the hours between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., lighting up John Player Specials bought from a shop on Wabash, dumping coins into a dead end of flashing lights, bumpers, flippers, TILT and art work that was entirely beyond the pale of anything that passed for tasteful or friendly or even nice.
Representations of women with come-on faces staring over shoulders showing off ample figures, posing like odalisques for the slightly smirking, bored-looking James Bond-like guys, or celebrations of autos and sports. I felt like I belonged to the edge of the movies I was just beginning to see, films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder about people destined for big league trouble, pinball-playing sadists who sometimes murdered to handle their complicated emotions.
Hey, it was just a pinball machine.
Gary Stern, president, CEO and chairman of Stern Pinball, Inc., might understand. Stern comes by his lifelong obsession with pinball honestly. His father, Sam Stern, was a partner in Williams Manufacturing, a pinball company that goes back to the 1940s. “You know,” Stern said, “my father used to say that a pinball machine is like a movie. It’s gotta have a good theme, good action, good sound effects, photography, art work, promotion, distribution, it has a climax, so forth. It’s not trying to tell some deep story, though, it’s just fun and that’s what we are: capital F, capital U, capital N, FUN.”
I don’t smoke now. And it’s been years since I played pinball. I thought it had lost the war to the video games that started showing up in the same places you found pinball machines in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Apparently loving pinball is no longer a joy lost to the technological march of time.
“We’re having a resurgence of pinball. They’re playing in the [arcade bars],” said Stern. “It has a half a dozen, dozen pinball machines. Within four miles of my house there are seven [arcade bars]. I live in downtown Chicago.” Game bars like Logan Arcade on Fullerton and Emporium, which has locations in the city and suburbs, are said to be a growing business. And the trend has spread overseas, says Stern, albeit with a twist: “There are even some tea shops in England that are–I guess you’d call them teacades.”
Stern’s factory in Elk Grove Village is another lost joy. It’s a true manufacturing plant employing hundreds of workers to turn out about 50 pinball machines a day. Bound for pinball machine distributors in the states as well as spots overseas ranging from Norway to Dubai, the titles include “Ghostbusters,” “Game of Thrones” and “Medieval Madness.”
“We’re making these games here, in Illinois. We’re proud to be American manufacturers. We think it’s very important that America makes things,” said Stern.
Before we left, Stern turned the machines in the factory arcade on free play, insisting we play. My skill level, far from rusty after so many years away from the table, was surprisingly strong. I suspected the design and construction of the machines were geared towards keeping the ball in play a lot longer than I remembered. When I asked Jody Dankberg, director of marketing and licensing, about it he smiled and said, “It’s all about making a great experience for the player.”
Chicago area arcade bars:
2410 W. Fullerton Ave.
Emporium Arcade Bar
1366 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Emporium Logan Square
2363 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Headquarters Beercade Lakeview
2833 N. Sheffield Ave.
Headquarters Beercade River North
213 W. Institute Place
5358 N. Clark St.
3439 N. Halsted St.
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