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On the rebound: Pinball experiencing another surge in popularity

The past decade has seen pinball leagues and secret societies pop up in many cities with collectors in a frenzy to get their hands on classic tables.

Brad Patch watches as friend Gord Conley works the flippers on an old machine at TILT in Toronto.

Rick Madonik / Torstar News SErvice Order this photo

Brad Patch watches as friend Gord Conley works the flippers on an old machine at TILT in Toronto.

There was a time when pinball was a bit of a dirty secret. Those outlaw days of smoke-choked bars, shady arcades and pool halls led the clattering electronic amusement machines to be banned in many corners of the globe for their frequent employ as gambling devices.

Then, in 1976, New York Times freelancer Roger Sharpe proved in the Supreme Court that pinball was indeed a “game of skill.” No sooner were the popular quarter-sucking games legitimized, than a new blow was dealt in the 1980s, when Pac-Man and his pixelized-ilk reared their heads, making the comparatively primitive and difficult to repair tables virtually obsolete.

Veteran Hamilton-based pinball machine repairman Jim Vance is a virtual silver ball samurai and has been professionally immersed in this world since the early 1970s. He remembers with a heavy heart how video killed the pinball star.

“I had tears in my eyes,” says Vance, who makes a brisk living roaming Ontario servicing and restoring vintage machines and jukeboxes.

“Video games meant pinball had no value anymore. You would open the back of the newspaper and guys were selling them for $50 a piece, three for $100. They were just being thrown out and I was stripping them for parts.”

But yesterday’s trash is almost always tomorrow’s treasure and in the ’90s, pinball started to slowly, surely make a comeback.

“People suddenly wanted an actual interaction with a machine instead of the same pattern over and over that video games offered,” Vance says.

And today, that renewed interest has evolved into a virtual fetish. The past decade has seen pinball leagues and secret societies pop up in every city with collectors in a frenzy to get their hands on classic tables and companies releasing new, state of the art machines, many of which are licensed with popular film, music and TV properties.

Catering to the burgeoning youth culture pinball appeal, bars like Toronto’s TILT create a colorful, cinematic environment where patrons can drink, socialize and — for a price — play one of the bar’s dozen or more tables until the wee small hours.

“There is something special and deeply human about analog experiences, be it pinball, analog records or film,” says TILT co-founder Nathan Hunter, who runs the bar along with partners Evan Oswald, Dan Beeson and Mike Bartolo.

“The games themselves are often works of art in their own right, and the basic concept is simple enough to understand and learn immediately.”

In Montreal, the legal stigma against pinball machines in bars was still palpable until Justin Evans and his partners fought the law and won. The result was North Star, a dazzling pinball culture emporium and night club that packs ’em in.

“I think the thing that really inspired us to open was that there was no pinball at all in Montreal because of that stupid law,” says Evans. “We really wanted to bring pinball back to the street, back to the people.”

They worked on it with the city for more than three years until the law changed this past March. When they opened in January 2016, the law was still in effect so they made an agreement with the supportive borough city counsellor who offered to turn a blind eye until it was overturned.

Dale Garbutt of the Vancouver Regional Pinball Association — one of the biggest leagues in North America — has been obsessed with pinball and a collector since grade school. He currently owns over 100 machines.

“The hobby has historically gone through several peaks and valleys since the late 1940s,” Garbutt says.

“The golden age is considered the early 1960s and this current surge may just be part of another natural cycle. It’s a hands-on experience and nostalgic one.”

“Pinball is physical, not virtual and that physicality blows people’s minds,” Evans says. “These machines are incredible cultural artifacts.”

And pinball’s renewed respect and appeal only seems to be accelerating. “There’s a growing market and just not many of the classic ones around to meet that demand,” adds Vance. “I don’t see any end in sight for the cult of the silver ball.”

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