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Pinball Wizards Keep The Flame Alive In Northern California

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Bob Moffitt / Capital Public Radio
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Every summer, the annual Golden State Pinball Festival is held in Lodi and attracts characters as colorful as the machines they came to play. 

Attendees travel the country, sharing their games with others while appreciating the artistry of pinball’s graphics, design and mechanical quirks. They are also intent on reviving the games popularity. 

Inside the Lodi Grape Festival Fairgrounds, Alice Cooper glares out at those who approach his Nightmare Castle pinball machine. His bony, ghostly white hand is outstretched, holding a black widow. “Let the games begin,” he sneers, as the first of three 80-gram silver balls enters the firing chamber, in front of the coil spring, known as “the plunger.”

But Alice is not alone. Nearby are Guardians of the Galaxy and the Beatles, among hundreds more pop culture favorites. Every year, 3,000 pinball fans come to Lodi from around the world to pay 50 bucks for a three-day pass. Machine owners tow their prized possessions just to let other people play them. 

Michael Dean is from Vacaville, so he didn't travel far. He's set up the three machines and is currently trying to survive Alice's castle. "I think you have to do something to get your ball," he tells Steven Borel. They both operate games at Dean’s record store in Vacaville.

The machine flashes and whirs with a combination of vintage bell sounds and new digital effects. While game-makers attempt to compete with arcade games, they also know the old, tactile stimulus of the flipper-versus-the-ball, which allows you to actually "feel" the game working, is what keeps players coming back.

"For me, the whole show is about just kind of spreading the pinball gospel,” Dean says. “There are a lot of people a lot younger than us who don't know much about pinball and we want them to learn. There are people who played pinball who are our age or older and we want to reintroduce them to it."

I’m part of that demographic — but haven’t played since college. After watching him, I jump in to give it a whirl. It wasn’t that difficult 30 years ago, was it?

"Where's the ball?” I ask, 

Sixteen seconds later, one polished steel ball splits the flippers and disappears.

"That was fast," I say as Dean laughs.

Last year, he and his wife, Carol, moved their record store to a larger space specifically so they could bring in pinball machines and start a league. It’s called Vacaville Vinyl and Pinball. 

Steven Borel brings games to Dean's store and they split the profits.

"When you spend $5,000-plus for a new game and you're not an operator? Yeah, you kind of have to be a pinhead, especially if you're not really wealthy to do that,” Borel says. “Operating affords me so I can afford to buy those new games, those old games and make some financial sense of it." 

I play his machine and another ball disappears, followed by another, then another — and even the second chance ball. I can almost feel Alice Cooper's creepy hand reaching into the machine to thwart my efforts to survive.Total play time: 30 seconds.

According to Dean, part of the problem is how steep the machine is based on the height of the front and rear feet.

"We'll make the game a little more shallow for players, too, so the ball's not flying down like it is here," he says. “This pin's right out of the box, so it's gonna be a little brutal.”

“It was,” I agree.

“I apologize,” he says. “It gave you a pretty good butt-kicking."

I take his apology, and what’s left of my pride, and head off for an answer: Why does this group call themselves “pinheads.” 

Steve Frisvold, one of the event organizers, says he’s not sure where it came from. “I know ‘wedge heads,’ because the old machines are wedge-headed in shape,” he says.

Then, he puts it together: “Pinheads. Pinball. Head. Pinhead!” 

He says a stranger will refer to them as “Pinball Wizards” on occasion, because of the Who song from the 1969 rock opera Tommy. “But I think ‘pinheads’ is the most widely accepted, most well-loved,” Steve says.

There is a Tommy pinball machine at the event, and one with Elvis, Iron Maiden, Alien — and even Johnny Mnemonic.

"What did you think when you first saw it?” I ask Chris Bright about the Keanu Reeves game. 

He laughs: “Yeah, like out of all the movies from the 1990s?”

He's from Rancho Cordova and plays in the Capitol Corridor Pinball League. In the movie, Johnny Mnemonic was a courier played by Reeves — and it is so dated it’s funny. For instance: Reeves carried vast amounts of data in a memory chip in his brain — vast amounts being 80 gigabytes — and one of the game’s sound effects is him saying, “I’m making a long-distance phone call.”

Chris says it wasn’t uncommon for a game to be based on a movie with the thought it would be a hit. "I guess they made it before the actual movie came out and it kinda bombed. It's a good thing they never did one for Battlefield Earth with John Travolta," he says.

For the record, Battlefield Earth lost $52 million at the U.S. box office, while Johnny Mnemonic lost only $7 million. But audiences worldwide embraced the data-chip carrying Reeves and helped it turn a profit.

Bright says the game play is more important than the art. But the art is more important to others, like Antoinette Johnson. With her black outfit covered in patches and pins, she blends in perfectly with two machines, so much so that, at first glance, all you can see of her is her face and a massive, blue-green striped mohawk. She sells pinball parts for Marco Specialties.   

"I love the playfield design,” she says. “I'm also an artist. When I was little, I used to go to a roller rink and actually just stare at the artwork on the pinball machine as well as play. It's been a great love of mine.”

As is her hair. Johnson and her hair sculptures have had their own museum shows.

Johnson and Rob Anthony are staples at these shows. He performs surgery on machines from California to Pennsylvania. He and and his gray pitbull Antar have a set fee for anyone in need: $69 per repair. 

Rob scratches Antar behind the ear. The dog likes to stick his head between your calves and wrap a paw behind your leg to hold you in place.

Anthony spends a lot of his annual income on gas. That happens when you drive 120,000 miles a year. He says he might make $20,000. He might make three times that. But right now, gas money isn't his concern: The giant diagnostic circuit board he built to pinpoint a machine's ailments is now fried — and he fried it.

"Touched something I shouldn't have,” he says. “It happens."

I ask him how he’s going to figure out what needs to be fixed on the thing that he built to fix things. He laughs. “That’s a good question. It's just a process of elimination.”

It has not dampened the enthusiasm of a guy who discovered the games 35 years ago when he was a teenager.

“I enjoy the mechanical aspect of the games, and I love keeping them running and I love fixing them,” he says. “I get a great deal of satisfaction taking something that doesn't work and handing it to somebody who can put it in a game and make the game work.”

All of this is going on and the doors aren’t even open yet. On a typical day, Bobby Burr would be sleeping, after driving a parcel truck overnight from Reno to the Bay Area and back. He says he usually stops at a local truck stop to play the new Munsters machine on the way back.

But not today. He took the day off and is the first visitor in line.  

“I don't know what the prize is,” he says, referring to the tournament he’s entered. “I hope it's a pinball machine. I got my pick-up, so I can haul it back too.”

Then, he stops and thinks about the ramifications of that. “If I had one of these in my garage, I'd never leave the garage,” he says, then laughs.

He doesn’t win, but he and the organizers of the event feel like winners. For three days, they can geek out on mass-produced machines and custom-made “mods.” Some will be sold. Some will be traded. Friendships will be renewed, and new ones will be made.

And ever time Alice Cooper sneers “Time to die,” he’s wrong. 

Pinball is very much alive.

Copyright 2019 Capital Public Radio