David Johanson, Lenny Kaye, Dee Dee Ramone, and Andy Paley play pinball at CBGB’s in 1977. Photo by Bob Gruen.
Records and pinball are two things I love that make me feel older than I am, because I am just barely old enough to remember when both were viable. I started buying records when every halfway decent city neighborhood had a record store or two, yet for the most part they had been supplanted by cassettes and compact discs. I started playing pinball when you could still find a machine at every downtown pizzeria and suburban movie theater, yet by and large my peers preferred playing video games at home.
And as I aged, slowly both things died off: expensive analogue experiences replaced by cheaper digital substitutes. Both are bulky and unwieldy, both can now be replaced by an Iphone.
But, at a certain point, the idea of reducing all human experiences down to binary code falls apart. People want tangible things that they can interact with. In the last ten years, vinyl record sales have gone up every year, driven mostly by younger consumers. Believe it or not, there is a wikipedia page dedicated to this phenomena. The number one selling vinyl record last year wasn’t some moldy oldy by the Beatles or Bruce Springsteen, it was Daft Punk’s new album. In New York City in the last year, for the first time I can remember, almost as many new record stores opened up as old ones closed down.
Just like with records, the number of pinball producers has declined in the last twenty years. From the 90’s onward, noted pinball manufacturers Bally, Williams, Data East, and Gottlieb all either went out of business or got out of pinball, leaving Stern as the last maker standing. Until last year, when small market manufacturer Jersey Jack produced the Wizard of Oz pinball machine, the first machine in the US not made by Stern since 2001. And just as vinyl has come back in the form of limited edition numbered pressings of 500, pinball machines are also no longer mass produced, but a small niche market. The Addams Family pinball machine made in 1991 sold over 20,000 units. The Wizard of Oz‘s run is reportedly 1,500, most of which were bought by private collectors for their home gamerooms, not arcades or poolrooms.
There was no bigger personal proof to me of the death of pinball than the lack of places available to play it in New York City. Now, admittedly, Chicago is the ancestral home of pinball, being the city where Bally, Williams, Gottlieb, and Stern were all located. And, New York City did ban pinball machines from 1942 to 1976, as they were thought to be gambling machines, mob connected, and contributions to juvenile delinquency: “Pinball machines are a harmful influence because of their strong tendency to instill desire for gambling in immature young people,” said New York City’s police commissioner from 1934-45, Lewis Valentine. “Children and minors who play these machines and frequent the establishments where the machines are located sometimes commit petty larcenies in order to obtain funds, form bad associations and are often led into juvenile delinquency and eventually into serious crime.”
So, New York City can’t claim to be the nexus of pinball the way it can with comic books or rap music, but shouldn’t America’s largest city have a home for such an American pastime? At least in the 90’s, there were still plenty of poolrooms, bars, and small arcades that would have a little row of pinball machines. Slowly but surely they died off. The famed Broadway Arcade in Times Square closed in 1997, a victim of the Disneyfication of that neighborhood.
Pinball machines are expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. They are a morass of tiny light bulbs and moving pieces: springs, coils, and belts. Any bar I can think of that had more than three machines always had at least one that was out of order or not working properly (the most frustrating thing is when only one of the flippers works!). In the past few years, I had to make do with the odd bar that still had a machine or two, usually some new game like The Sopranos that I wasn’t crazy about anyway.
If I really wanted to play pinball, I had to roadtrip to places like the Silverball Museum in Asbury Park, NJ or the Funspot in New Hampshire, where there would be dozens of machines lined up, consisting of mostly classic games. Both of those places are great, but one doesn’t always feel like making a weekend out of playing pinball.
Finally, though there is a place to play pinball seriously in New York City, Modern Pinball NYC on 3rd Ave in Murray Hill. It’s a small storefront packed with about 30 games. All of the games are set for free play, and passes are sold for admission for one hour, two hours, or all day. Modern Pinball is run by Steve Epstein, the former owner of the aforementioned Broadway Pinball and tournament player Steve Zahler (various other pinball tournament players work there as well). Additionally, all machines are for sale, which combined with the presence of the pros on staff, means the games are well maintained.
The machines themselves are a nice mix from the 80’s and 90’s through today, with almost half the games there from the last 15 years. This is very different from the Silverball Museum or Funspot, both of which play up the historical curation angle and feature mostly games from the 1970’s. I have grown to love games like Fireball or Gorgar, but to a player who started playing on modern machines loaded with multiple ramps and levels, these simple games with nothing but bumpers and targets may seem a little boring.
It’s nice to finally play excellent new games like Batman or AC/DC in a place with proper lighting (the last 2 times I played Batman I was in a highway rest stop where the sun glared through a window onto the machine and then in a bar so dark I could barely make out the ball), and I think the focus on newer games presents pinball as a still living entity as opposed to a museum piece. If I had my druthers, some of the more mediocre newer games like CSI or Avatar would be replaced by nice clean working copies of older games like Bride of Pinbot or Stargate (a personal favorite), but it is nice to have a chance to play so many newer machines in a good environment. I’m happy enough that they have a well maintained Funhouse machine. Few things make me happier in life than making that dummy Rudy shut up.
All in all, Modern Pinball NYC is probably my favorite thing to open up in New York City in 2013. In a city where unique, individual small businesses (like Jamaican patty bakeries or comic book stores) seem to close every day to be replaced by another branch of a multinational bank or a chain drugstore, it’s fantastic to have something like this come into existence. Here’s hoping they can stay open.