It's just a few minutes past 5 p.m. on this steamy Saturday, and trays of hot dogs and wings are sitting on the kitchen counter ready for the grill.
Cars are starting to line the streets outside Bill Morrison's Dallas home. He's got 13 games "up on legs" ready to go, including nine machines in the garage, where an industrial-size air-conditioning unit pushes tepid air through the confined space. A margarita machine slowly churns a slushy mix of tequila and ice to help revelers stay happy and hydrated.
The seventh annual PinBash is officially under way.
The rules are simple: Have a good time, don't place your drinking cups or plates on the machine, and, for goodness sake, don't hog any games.
Middle-age, male and married, like most of tonight's guests, Morrison represents the primary U.S. pinball market. The big lighted boxes that once lined the walls of roller rinks and bars have slowly made a pop-culture comeback in garages, game rooms and some bars -- even among a generation of hardened video-game players used to the comfort of a handset, not the whack of a flipper.
"We're rekindling our youth," says Craig Hassell, a 38-year-old from Forney who has been an avid pinball collector since age 15.
That's why die-hards get together at events like a recent pinball tournament at Nickelrama in Garland and the annual Texas Pinball Festival in Grapevine, coming in March 2012. On any given night, you might even spot them at Barcadia, an arcade-themed restaurant/bar that recently opened a Fort Worth version in the So7 development. Among the retro coin-operated video games like Frogger, Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, you'll also find a Dolly Parton pinball machine glowing against the wall. It's hard to resist Dolly.
At the Barcadia in Dallas on a recent Wednesday, the Charlie's Angels pinball machine (50 cents for three plays) is calling my name. I pull the plunger and watch the steel ball fly upward. I beat on the buttons, flipping the flippers trying to get a combo. You can't sit and play pinball. You have to put your body into it. Dang it! My pinball just hit the drain. Game over. But I've got $1.50 in quarters and plenty of time.
Not a boom market
Pinball's earliest version was developed in the 1930s but was soon labeled a menace in cities like Chicago and New York, where pinball was banned in the 1940s and for decades after because the machines were considered games of chance, not skill, and qualified as gambling. Pinball prohibitionists associated the game with wasteful youth and mobsters, a far cry from today's mostly family-friendly pinball population.
The ban continued in New York throughout the 1970s, and to this day it's still illegal to play pinball in your house on Sundays in Ocean City, N.J.
But changes to the machines -- including the addition of flippers to control the ball -- made it popular in the '70s and '80s. Pinball took a hit when coin-operated arcade games took over but saw a resurgence in the '90s when gaming systems like Sega became popular. Today, Stern Pinball remains the country's only pinball manufacturer. Its primary market is male homeowners ages 35-55 with extra space in their homes.
Stern Pinball is based in Melrose Park, Ill., just outside Chicago, and has been in its current state of operation since 1999. The company has seen production dwindle from a high of 100,000 units in 1992 to just 12,000 in 2010. But pinball has experienced a renaissance before, says company spokesperson Jody Dankberg.
"Pinball is an American icon. It's not going anywhere," says Dankberg.
The company has tied its manufacturing to marketing, with themed games such as a South Park version, and improved mechanical play to attract a wider audience while retaining its base -- baby boomers like Morrison.
Back at PinBash, a sweaty Morrison points to games in his garage that have won blue ribbons at state and regional pinball tournaments, where custom-built machines are judged and awarded. Morrison has a rare 1977 KISS pinball machine set up for tonight's festivities, as well as a Stargazer inside the house where another playroom is set up. Both retail in the thousands.
"I need a new switch, don't I?" Morrison calls out to his friend, who slams the playfield back down on the Hyperball machine -- it clunks like the hood of an '87 Chevy.
Many of these machines date back that far, and pliers, a screwdriver and a hammer will fix just about anything. The same can't be said for an Xbox meltdown.
Collectors like Morrison are more important customers than they were in the past for Stern, which has also broadened its business overseas and has partnered with Best Buy to offer pinball machines online and in stores.
Pinball in the family
As collector-centric as pinball may seem, "It's one of the only hobbies I know you can make money at," Hassell says. Pinball could be an expensive hobby (a new Tron game retails for about $6,500), but Hassell is adept at buying and flipping machines. "I like tinkering with them as much as I like playing."
If he wants a new one, he usually sells an old one and rents other games out to local restaurants or bars (in two weeks you earn about $30 off a machine). Each machine is a playing investment, a kind of slow-growth mutual fund.
Hassell started the Texas Pinball Festival 10 years ago and created a website, hassellcastle.com, for fellow pinball enthusiasts. He has 250 subscribers, mostly from the DFW area. He hopes his two young sons will carry on the tradition. Right now, they barely clear the height of the machines set up in the family game room, but they're wowed by the lights, sounds and moving parts.
Tonight, Hassell's 8-year-old son, Andrew, is trying to get to the next level of Tron. He's putting all his might into it. Wiggling his bottom, jerking his little body, he's concentrating on the steel burnished balls, aiming them in the right corner at the right time for the right score.
Hassell's wife, Pam, doesn't seem to mind the noise and neon glow upstairs. "It's fun for the kids," she says.
A pinball family does have its conflicts, though. Dinner will not stop a scoring streak. Yelling up the stairs may not stop a game either, but "a light bulb goes out [on one of these machines], and he's Johnny-on-the-spot," says Pam, tossing her husband a knowing look. The same can't be said for other chores.
Despite its sustained popularity among wistful die-hards (and bars and arcades looking to make a buck off nostalgia), pinball is not gaining ground, says Morrison, who hopes his teenage boys will retain interest in his hobby but understands that the flip of a paddle and bing-bing-bing of a combo may be too old-school for most young people.
"I'm assuming when I'm gone, these things are gone, too," he says, pointing to his beloved machines.
But not tonight. Tonight the ball is wild!