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The Guide To Not Normal

We Went To The Pinball Hall Of Fame Las Vegas

To preserve the experience of pinball, Tim Arnold, a former arcade owner from Michigan, founded the Pinball Hall of Fame. It’s a museum open to the public that houses one of the world’s largest pinball collections, all of which are available to play.

by Jennifer Juniper Stratford
Jan 22 2013, 12:00am

In the mid 1940‘s Pinball was banned in most of America’s big cities including Chicago-where the game was created and is still manufactured.  As the game gained popularity, lawmakers were quick to label it as a form of gambling- as well as a “time and dime waster” for the youth. Many machines were gathered and destroyed and the ban placed on pinball remained intact until 1976.

As the ban was lifted, the pinball craze came back with a vengeance. Machines appearing in every bar and gas station across America attracted a huge portion of the youth as well as a counter-culture.

The coin-operated industry was booming and for many years Pinball generated a huge amount of money.  Even Hollywood cashed in on the craze by making films like Tilt starring Brooke Shields. Pinball Championship players and designers were becoming celebrities. There was even a push for the game to be considered a sport as pinball style and skill evolved.  Pinball was everywhere.

However the eighties brought new innovations in the gaming world and Pac-man fever spread quickly. But it was the availability of home gaming systems like Nintendo that nearly wiped out Pinball altogether.  If it weren’t for a surge of new interest in pinball in the early nineties, its likely pinball would have died. Today just one manufacturer remains in the world leaving the preservation of pinball left up to the collectors.

To preserve the experience of pinball, Tim Arnold, a former arcade owner from Michigan, founded the Pinball Hall of Fame.  It’s a museum open to the public that houses one of the world’s largest pinball collections, all of which are available to play. Since I was jonesing to play a game of Johnny Mnemonic, I drove out to Las Vegas to visit the Pinball Hall of Fame and to see just how many pinball machines were in the coin operated capital of America.

Our first stop was Luxor because I remembered they had a killer multi-level arcade called Games of the Gods with walls airbrushed with images of King Tut and ankh patterned carpet.

I walked around the giant replica of the Titanic disaster before I realized the arcade has been turned into The Titanic Artifact Museum. 

Did the gods not hear Carrot Tops plea to keep an arcade at the Luxor?

We headed to the Flamingo in search of some of some of that old Vegas charm and in the back of my mind I thought, “They have to have a pinball machine, at least for old times sake.” There were none.

While the search for a pinball machine on the Vegas strip was not fruitful, in the last casino room open before the demolition of Imperial Palace, we discovered “Dealtainers”; Celebrity look-alike card dealers. Sure hope this craze doesn’t fade too quickly.

My thirst to play Johnny Mnemonic could wait no longer. Time to descend upon the Pinball Hall of Fame.

The museum is a pinheads heaven housing over a thousand stunning pinball machines arranged in chronological order and available to play and are restored to like new playing condition. 

Gottlieb Space Walk 1979

The museum houses nearly every Gottlieb game ever made.

Johnny Mnemonic 1995

 Meet the ultimate hard drive. His package: 320 gigabytes of stolen data wet-wired directly to his brain.

After running a successful arcade business throughout the Pac Man craze, Tim Arnold was able to retire when he was 35.  In 1990, he and his wife packed his 600 pinball machines and moved to Las Vegas and turned his growing collection into a pinball museum dedicated to the preservation of the pinball experience.

JJ: When did you start collecting pinball machines?

Tim Arnold: I got my first pinball machine when I was 14. It’s all I know how to do.

I don’t think I could get by having a job job so I just stick with what I know even though there isn’t much of a market for it anymore. All the arcades and all the mom and pop stores, which once housed pinball machines, have also closed.  So, the reality is that there is no real need for pinball anymore.

Is that why you opened the Pinball Hall of Fame?

Well I had to do something with my growing collection. There was a time when warehouses full of machines would call me and say, “Come now or they’re going to the dump” and I take as many machines as I could fit on a truck. It’s a lot of work because all of these machines require heavy maintenance. But when people come in here and see a game here that they haven’t seen in 20 or 30 years they have a total nostalgia freak out, and it’s worth it to me to keep going.

It’s interesting to me that the Pinball Museum is in Las Vegas since the city thrives on coin-operated machines.

Well, pinball has always had a close relationship with gambling.  Sure Vegas is thought of in terms of slot machines, video poker, keno and roulette. Las Vegas is largely built on machines but the Pinball Hall of Fame is different. Our machines deliver fun, something that a lot of people come to Vegas for, and don't get. Look at the zombies playing slot machines. Are they really having fun?  If you look at people playing at the museum, they're cheering, jumping up and down, laughing.

I understand the museum is a non-profit and you give most of the earnings to charity.

We became a non-profit organization because we want to keep our costs down so we could keep all of this old stuff. We didn’t want to have to add pool tables or dance games or Kung Fu gamesto pay for the expenses because once you let go of one machine, you let go of another and pretty soon you’re not a museum anymore, you’re a pool hall or a casino. My wife and I wanted to do something that benefited the community.

What does pinball offer that video games do not?

It’s largely a game of skill. Video games are centered on memorization. Left, right, punch, kick, left, right, get into the secret room by going that way.  You might as will be operating a keypunch machine with all the fun you’re having.  Locked inside that glass, there are no air currents and a smooth even surface, it’s a completely sterile environment so that ball just glides around.  To be good at pinball you need about a half hour with the machine before you stop thinking about it and become the ball. You have to disconnect the part of your brain that thinks about what your fingers are doing and get into a Zen state. 

The Machine: Bride of Pinbot Williams Electronic Games 1991

What do you think of The Who’s Tommy?

Well it’s kind of stupid. A guy who can’t hear and can’t see, can’t really play pinball. That’s like being a gigolo with no wiener. It’s stupid. I tolerate it because it got a lot of people interested in pinball and helps people to remember it. To be honest, I think I’m just sick of walking down the street and hearing people go, “Hey, it’s the pinball wizarrrrrd!”

What is it that makes the Pinball Museum the most unique place in Las Vegas?

All year long we draw game nuts that hang out, play the games, and help fix them. Our number one rule is to have fun.  Then at the end of the year whatever money is left we give it to charity.  We stay open and preserve the machines as best we can.  What makes it unique is that Pinball cannot be digitized or put on the Internet. Pinball is an experience that only exists in the real world.

After feeling them bumpers, why not go check out MINI’s: www.miniusa.com

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