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VOL. 132 | NO. 176 | Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Wizards Return

The rise and fall, and rise of pinball

By Michael Waddell

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The past couple of years has seen the return of pinball tables across the Mid-South, with groups like Memphis Pinball hosting weekly gatherings at places like Memphis Made Brewing and the new pinball arcade in Millington, The Retro.

With the resurgence of pinball, places like The Retro in Millington have emerged as popular spots for pinball enthusiasts. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Memphis has a rich history with pinball dating back to the 1930s, and while the phenomenon died out in the 1980s with the invention of home gaming systems, today pinball is bouncing back as social entertainment.

“For people going out to find pinball tables to play on, over the last year there have been more places open up locally,” said Bluff City Pinball’s Eric Stenberg, who owns and operates machines at Memphis Made Brewery and Lucchesi’s Beer Garden. “More and more people are seeking them out.”

Stenberg owns 10 pinball tables, including two NBA Fast Break-brand tables with Penny Hardaway on the back glass. The machines had all been at his house before he decided late last year to make some of them available to play at public spots around town.

“It allowed me to get them out of my house and let others play them because not many people have them anymore,” said Stenberg, a science teacher at New Hope Christian Academy who uses pinball to teach physics to his students.

Prices for the popular collectible tables have skyrocketed over the past few years, with the ones in great condition commanding thousands of dollars each.

Former Memphis company Sammons-Pennington Co. dealt in amusement devices like pinball and jukeboxes from the 1920s until the late 1990s.

“Our company represented all of the major pinball manufacturers – Bally, Williams, Gottlieb, Chicago Coin and Stern,” said Ampro Industries president Jack Sammons, whose father ran Sammons-Pennington. “It was a lucrative business. A lot of times if you had a good spot you could pay off the equipment costs in a matter of weeks.”

The original pinball machines from the 1930s to 1970s were electro-mechanical, with a series of relays, solenoids and thumper bumpers, as compared to machines built after 1975 that used computer boards.

Pinball player Asa Yopp plays in a tournament at The Retro in Millington.  (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“During World War II, pinball and jukeboxes played a major role in the general morale of the nation,” Sammons said. “There weren’t a lot of things people could afford to do entertainment-wise, and it was inexpensive entertainment.”

Machines that ignited the industry to its pinnacle were Bally’s Fireball from 1972, Pinball Wizard (The Who’s “Tommy”-themed) in 1975, and Captain Fantastic (Elton John-themed) in 1976.

Sammons once delivered a pinball machine to Graceland when he was just 19 years old while working for his father’s company in July 1975. Elvis Presley called him personally to request the machine.

“I asked him, ‘Which one would you like?’ and he said ‘It doesn’t really matter, baby. Can you bring it to me right now?’” Sammons said, using his best Elvis voice.

So Sammons delivered a Bally Knockout (boxing-themed) machine, which still sits today inside the mansion.

In 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bingo pinball machines manufactured by Bally were legal, even though they were similar to a slot machine in a pinball form. But seven years later the Tennessee Legislature outlawed those machines, which in essence overruled the Supreme Court ruling, Sammons said.

“On June 30, 1982, we had to unplug all of those bingo-type Bally pinball machines,” he said. “There were thousands and thousands of those across the state that ended up getting put on boats and shipped to Belgium and other countries across the pond.”

The downfall of pinball happened around the same time, as video game systems like Atari and Intellivision gained popularity in the early 1980s.

With the resurgence of pinball, places like The Retro in Millington have become popular spots for enthusiasts. The Retro hosts pinball tournaments on weekends and has about 20 machines. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“Sales of pinball collapsed with the advent of Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Defender,” Sammons said. “Those three games really changed the course of the coin-operated entertainment business.”

Around a decade ago, pinball was almost completely dead, whittled down to just one manufacturer, Stern. But since then, interest has picked up again as collectors have bought up and restored many older machines, and new machines have started to hit the market again.

Several online pinball dealers list new Stern machines in the range of $5,000 to $10,000, based on the style, features and branding. A used pinball machine could go for less or much more, depending on the condition, manufacturer and whether it has been restored.

Today, Portland, Chicago, New York and Texas are considered epicenters for pinball, and large national tournaments and expos take place around the country. Over the past couple of years, local tournaments have also gained popularity, including an International Flipper Pinball Association tournament each fall.

Many Memphis players are internationally ranked, including David Yopp, chief pinball reanimator/technologist at The Retro, who bought his first pinball table nearly four years ago and now owns more than 30.

“I got the bug as far as fixing and restoring them,” said Yopp, who works by day as regional picture archiving and communications systems (PACS) administrator for St. Francis Hospital. “I’ve driven to St. Louis, Nashville, Little Rock, Birmingham and Atlanta just to pick up pinball machines to bring them back to this area.”

His first table was a Firepower (made in 1980), which he spent countless hours playing as a young kid.

“It takes me about three weeks to a month to restore a machine,” said Yopp, who has taught himself restoration techniques from online sources. Once the machines are restored, regular maintenance is still necessary.

Earlier this year, he partnered with Mid-South Marketplace in Millington to open the aforementioned pinball arcade The Retro, which now features 20 of his machines. He hopes to grow that number to 40 in the coming years.

“The great thing about the arcade is that people are getting out and being social in a setting outside their house, which I think is cool,” Yopp said.

The Retro holds a tournament every Friday night. Yopp is also involved with organizing the Grand Ole Game Room Expo near Nashville each November.

Video game consoles and Android devices have released loads of retro pinball tables in the past few years.

“It’s actually opened the door to pinball for a lot of people because owning physical tables can be very cost-prohibitive,” Stenberg said.

Every Sunday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., Memphis Made offers all-you-can-play pinball for $7.

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