Balls Out

With a quick pull of the plunger, a tiny steel ball is launched into a new mechanical adventure. Instantly, it begins to dance underneath a pane of glass as bright, flashing lights and electronic music keep a frantic beat.

Lisa Cummings does not let the lively distractions draw her away from her goal. Her eyes stay fixated on the silver orb as it rolls and ricochets from one side of the tilted electronic playfield to the other. Her husband, leaning against the wall beside her, watches lovingly as she racks up point after point on her favorite pinball machine, The Addam’s Family.

The machine, one of more than 20,000 assembled in 1992 by Midway Manufacturing Company, now calls Fast Eddie’s on NW Military Highway home. For Cummings, the venue is a place to get away and remember the simpler things in life.

“I love pinball,” Cummings says enthusiastically as she points to the alphanumeric display on the machine’s back glass, which registers her initials beside the fourth-highest score. “I’m from the ’70s generation so we didn’t have video games back then. Pinball is my first love.”

When the ball finally passes between the two fluttering flappers at the bottom center of the machine and ends her second of three lives, Cummings turns around, walks back to her table and takes a sip of her Shiner Bock before returning to her game. A stack of quarters next to her beer confirms just how committed she is to the machine — which is decorated with images of Angelica Huston and the late Raul Julia as Morticia and Gomez Addams. She rarely strays to the other pinball machine nearby, 1996’s Scared Stiff, which features the busty Mistress of the Dark, Elvira, sprawled across a bed covered in red satin and all things creepy.

“That one gives you too little points for too much effort,” Cummings says before dropping another couple of quarters into the Addams Family coin slot. “This is my machine right here. I don’t play anything else.”

Even if she wanted to test her luck and skill on another machine, Cummings would find it difficult to locate one in San Antonio.

The Current knows this because we went hunting across the city for the last of the existing pinball machines at local bars, clubs, restaurants, and even arcades in bowling alleys and movie theaters. After calling more than 300 sites and locating 16 pinball machines (many in dismal shape), it was evident that San Antonio had lost touch with its gaming history — although we did find a few diamonds in the rough.

“Pinball is a dying breed,” says Rick
Martin, service manager for H.A. Franz, one of only two pinball distributors in San Antonio. Amusement Distributors of Texas is the only other buyer who purchases new machines to sell to vending operators in the area. The manufacturing company all distributors buy from, Stern Pinball Inc., refers to itself as the “only coin-operated-pinball manufacturer on the planet.”

Mark Schoenberg, director of project management for Stern Pinball, says that during the early ’90s, pinball manufacturers, including Bally, Williams, and Capcom, together produced more than 75,000 machines a year. Today, Stern turns out about 10,000 annually.

“`Pinball machines` are certainly not as popular as they were before,” Schoenberg said. “It was quite a different time back in the ’90s. Pinball was really on the cutting edge of technology with the dot-matrix graphics.”

According to Schoenberg, 40 percent of the pinball machines manufactured at Stern, Inc. go to Western Europe where “pinball is still very popular.” Another 40 percent are shipped off to distributors across the U.S. The final 20 percent are manufactured for home use. Many of the individuals who keep pinball machines at home, Shoenberg thinks, buy them for sentimental value.

Which is the reason San Antonian Kevin Shirley, 30, spent two years searching online for Breakshot, a billiards-themed pinball machine manufactured by Capcom in 1996. When he finally found it last December, he immediately had the machine shipped to his home. Shirley says he purchased Breakshot, which is installed in his house’s game room, because it reminds him of hanging out in his favorite pub in North Carolina where “many evenings were spent playing pinball with co-workers and drinking good beer.”

“I own a Microsoft Xbox along with two PCs that are just for gaming, but there is something about playing pinball that is special,” Shirley says. “There are no cheat codes for it and if you knock it around too much during play it will eat your quarter.”

Shirley, who is from a generation for whom the only home video games were Zork for the computer and Pong for Atari, has also had a hard time finding pinball machines in San Antonio. He believes it is because gamers these days are engaged by the realism and fast pace of first-person-shooter games like Medal of Honor and Doom.

“The PC and game-console industry has really revolutionized how we play,” Shirley says. “But when well-kept, pinball machines are much like art in my opinion. My wife spends money decorating our home with wall hangings … but the pinball machine in the corner always gets the oohs and ahhs.”

Although techological advances in gaming are one of the main causes of the decline in pinball popularity, operators who can service the machines when they malfunction are also in short supply. Just open up a pinball machine and see for yourself. The wiring schematics alone look like a bomb squad’s worst nightmare.

“If someone calls me up and wants me to fix their pinball machine I tell them I’m already married, because they’re a lot more trouble and require a lot more time and attention than my wife does,” Martin said. “In the old days, if you owned a pinball machine, you repaired pinball machines. Nowadays, people own them just to get the quarters out of them. They have no idea how to fix them and there’re not many of us around anymore that still can. `Pinball machines` are going to constantly break. They always have and they always will. As a techinician, I’m glad to see them go.”

Martin advises anyone that is planning on buying a pinball machine to purchase one of the more classic models, although a whole new problem will arise because it is challenging to find parts for machines that are no longer manufactured. But it is better, he says, than having to deal with newer, overzealous models.

“These new pinballs have so many buzzers and bells and gadgets and ramps, that it’s just more things to break,” he said. “The old pinballs are still the best pinballs. Now they are getting too fancy with them. I mean, if you got a steel ball constantly bouncing around and beating up the machine, it’s going to break!”

So, where exactly are San Antonio’s endangered pinball machines? Forget about obvious spots like pizza places, theme parks, and arcades. One of the more popular game rooms in San Antonio, Diversions, has a total of zero pinball machines at its three locations in town. Owner Mike Sopher says he cannot even remember how many years it has been since the last pinball machine graced his arcade floors.

“I’m sure they just weren’t making any money,” Sopher said. “Anything that makes money sticks around, but I’m sure people just quit playing them.”

Not necessarily, says “Scooby” Madrigal, manager at Banana Billiards Bar and Grill on San Pedro Avenue. Although the pub does not advertise the two pinball machines on its bright yellow marquee (that space is reserved for drink specials and, during basketball season, Spurs game information), Bally’s 1994 Popeye Saves the Earth and Williams’s erotic 1993 The Machine: Bride of Pin-bot, which sit in the corner of the bar, do get played every so often.

“I’m not gonna say we’re ‘old school,’ but that’s what people want,” says Madrigal, who has worked at Banana on and off for 11 years. “They’re fun for both young and old folks. We’ve had different ones throughout the years, but those two have been around for a while.” He adds that both machines were bought from longtime San Antonio vending operator Burns Amusement.

Actress-singer Stephanie Rogers (Stephen King’s Golden Years), who is credited as the seductive voice of the Bride of Pin-bot, says she is saddened to see machines like the one she helped make legendary reduced to cult status.

“I guess it’s a lot easier to lug around an Xbox than a 400-lb game these days,” she says. “But I hope they can hold onto even that level of interest for another 10 years or more.”

The Cove and Dave and Buster’s feature the same game, 1999’s Revenge from Mars in 3D, the last pinball game made under the Bally’s label. At the Cove, the machine sits in a devastatingly hot parlor between a Spider-Man sticker dispenser and a Check Your Romance Level monitor and refuses to function properly. At Dave and Buster’s, where manager Russ Kelley says the chain restaurant and entertainment hub employs their own pinball technical crew, including certified electricians, Mars illuminates as hostile aliens threaten Paris. Sitting beside it, Sega’s South Park pinball stays true to its roots as Cartman yells at players to “respect my authority,” and Chef explains why “those balls don’t measure up to my salty chocolate balls.”

“We like to keep the pinball machines here because we appeal to an older clientele as well as kids,” Kelley says. “A lot of baby boomers like pinball as much as Pac-Man and Galaga.”

At Casbeers, a 1977 version of Stampede takes up space next to the ice machine toward the back of the diner. Although it is in working condition, the pinball machine is unplugged, and has been for more than a year, says Casbeers owner Steve Silbas. Because the pinball machine has proven to be more of a hassle for him than a real money-maker (“The ball is always getting stuck,” he says), Silbas has yet to renew the game’s registration stickers (all vending machines, including pinball, must be disclosed to the City for tax purposes).

“We have people come in and offer us money for it all the time,” Silbas said before the tone of his voice turned a bit guilt-ridden. “It’s a collectible so it’s probably something that we’d kind of like to hang on to. I should probably go and get those stickers.”

Although the Current had already been witness to San Antonio’s lackluster pinball following for a month, it was not until a single trip to America’s Original Kiddie Park on Broadway that the metaphor for the state of pinball machines in San Antonio was discovered. Between the rickety rides and old-fashioned spun cotton candy, the park’s website assures visitors that everyone is sure to find a “true piece of Americana.” Walking past the squeaky carousel, one can almost sense that there is a pristine and classic pinball machine right around the corner that will redeem all of San Antonio’s prior pinball follies.

Walking into the Kiddie Arcade, there it sits — 1984’s Fireball Classic, emblazoned with the image of a powerful sun god pitching blazing spheres from his hands — out of order. A sign covering the character’s head verifies its demise. Double zeroes showing on all four score mechanisms blink off and on like a fading heartbeat. Is pinball really on its final breath?

“Pinball pioneer Harry Williams was once quoted as saying, ‘The ball is wild,’” Martin says. “You never know where it’s going to go.” 

The Pinball Tour You’ve Been Saving Your Rolls For

Grab that mayonnaise jar full of quarters off your desk and head to your local pool hall — it’s pinball season here in San Antone. What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than by catching “silver-ball fever” (hopefully not an actual disease) and taking a tour of the Alamo City’s finer pinball machines? (Don’t answer that.) Be sure to bring along a copy of the Who’s Tommy to listen to in the car. This inspirational concept album about the blind deaf-mute boy who “sure plays a mean pinball” will get you in exactly the right mindset for your tour. “Wow,” you’ll think to yourself when you get to the part about Tommy playing with his sense of smell, “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” But is it really? Keep in mind that, while the Who are famous rock musicians, you’re out taking a tour of San Antonio’s pinball machines.

Banana Billiards
The Machine: Bride of Pin*Bot

Popeye Saves the World

Back in pinball’s heyday (October 17, 1982) these were the kind of machines that packed in the hip kids from all over town, and easily rivaled the other most popular change grabbers: Frogger, Space Invaders, and pitching quarters directly into the sewer.

The Machine: Bride of Pin Bot was obviously made with a more mature pinball player in mind. Ironically, here the word “mature” is defined as “a game in which the object is to shoot balls at an oddly feminized cartoon robot’s mouth.” Don’t worry fellas, Mr. Pin Bot is nowhere to be found, and when her husband’s away, well, I have no idea what the hell’s supposed to be going on here.

The game is mechanically sound for its age (more than 20 years old), and offers a challenge for anyone who still knows how to play pinball (I would imagine, at least.)

But the whole ambiguously sexual theme takes a creepy turn when, after successfully locking one of your balls in Ms. Machine’s mouth, you’re then given the task of shooting your remaining two balls at her eye sockets. Let’s not speak of this again.

Popeye Saves the World is clearly aimed at a younger audience, though the game can be found sitting right next to Bride of Pin Bot. The game scores higher, and would be fairly easy if the flippers weren’t constantly getting stuck. But there’s no time to complain when there’s a world to save, and apparently Mother Earth desperately needs you to shoot balls at a molded-plastic replica of Bluto’s head. (This game takes on an especially disturbing subtext if you play it immediately after the Machine.)

Fast Eddie’s
Elvira: Scared Stiff
Addams Family

Of course, no discussion of sexualized pinball would be complete without mentioning Elvira: Scared Stiff. Elvira is ordinarily the queen of awkward seduction attempts, but after your stop at Banana Billiards, this machine seems downright tasteful in comparison. When you successfully lock a ball on Scared Stiff, Elvira has the decency to merely place it in her cleavage for safe keeping. This game also feature the grotesque Wheel of Fortune-esque mini-game “spin the spider,” which is surprisingly fun. This game is one of the older machines on the list, however, so it does have the occasional mechanical problem. The left-hand coin slot simply eats your quarters, and for some reason, your balls keep getting stuck on the ramp. I’d make some kind of joke here, but that’s just too easy.

The Addams Family also offers a freaky good time if you can manage to get it to freaking work. This one freezes even more often than the aptly named Scared Stiff. The game’s licensed from the old movie, so it offers a cool childhood flashback for us ’80s kids. If you manage to unlock the laboratory area on this machine, email me and tell me about it. I
couldn’t get the machine to work long enough.

Dave & Busters
Revenge From Mars
South Park

At this point in your day, you should be pretty sick of mechanical malfunctions ruining your chances at a free play. Now’s the perfect time to head to Dave & Busters for some newer pinball action. The chain-restaurant atmosphere can’t match the appeal of the smoky dark pool halls you’ve visited so far, but D&B keeps maintenance people on staff, so the games work well.

While Revenge From Mars lacks the kitschy appeal of the older machines, it offers a cool new take on the pinball idea, incorporating a Space Invaders-style video screen into the game play. Use the flippers to shoot the ball at space ships attacking the White House, and save the world yet again through the power of pinball. `This game should especially appeal to pinball newbies, as the balls seem to last longer here, even if you suck. (Hehehe.)

And if it’s juvenile humor like the previous paragraph you’re after, you simply must drop a few bits (actually D&B uses a sort of gaming debit card) into the South Park machine. The game features exactly what you’d expect from an SP-licensed game, including a bouncing rendition of “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch” and possibly even more ball jokes than this game guide. The constant sound bites get annoying with repetition, and it obviously doesn’t offer the retro-cool of, say, Popeye Saves the World, but like Revenge from Mars, the game play is smoother and more fun than most of the older machines.

Slick Willie’s

The Elvis machine should be the last stop on your pinball tour, because anything else would be anticlimactic after visiting the King. The game offers just the right balance of retro-chic and actual playability. With an animated plastic Elvis figurine shaking its plastic hips to “C.C. Rider,” the “Jail House Rock” clip you hear when the machine locks one of your balls (oh, grow up already), and the lights flashing “Elvis has left the building” when you lose a turn, this game deserves the better part of your coin stash. Where else would you spend those quarters anyway, the laundromat?

— Jeremy Martin


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