The pinball machine has gone through an incredible renaissance, even in an age where people can play video games in virtual environments on ordinary PCs in the comfort of their homes.
The arcade staple has seen an explosion in production and demand over the past 12 years. At one time, every new pinball machine in the country came from only one remaining manufacturer, Stern Pinball, but now there are thousands of machines made by companies like Jersey Jack Pinball, Spooky Pinball, and American Pinball that attract large-scale licensing for games from Marvel Comics. , Mattel’s Hot Wheels and even The Beatles.
Pinball predates the video game industry by decades, but there was a time when pinball machines were harder to find in the United States than an arcade in a modern shopping mall.
New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia initiated a ban on pinball games in 1942 as a way to crack down on mob activity. LaGuardia saw the machines as a gambling access “craze” and ordered their seizure to keep the city streets free of “slimy tin crews, well dressed and living in luxury stealing pennies,” according to the non-profit Pacific Pinball Museum.
Writer and pinball historian Roger Sharpe, who will be attending the annual Texas Pinball Festival in Frisco March 24-26, grew up in the pinball industry mecca of Chicago, but didn’t think he had the skills to play until when he didn’t he went to college in Wisconsin. His obsession with the game fueled his drive to sue and overturn the ban in 1976 by playing a perfect game in a court case. His story was told in a new movie that opened on Friday called Pinball: the man who changed the game.
“I saw a fraternity brother, and this one is in Madison, Wisconsin with the game Cowpoke in a hamburger,” says Sharpe al Observer. “He was having a hamburger, fries, a Coke and a cigarette. I was standing behind him at a counter and watching him eat his lunch as he played while cradling the ball.”
“Cradling” refers to a tactic in which a player holds a pinball machine steady by holding it in a raised paddle to help aim the shot. Sharpe says his fraternity mate had to get to class and offered him a chance to continue his game. From then on, he was hooked.
“I never knew skill was involved,” Sharpe says. “I realized that I could gain some level of control as a person. I could really enjoy the act of playing pinball, of just being this bland person who was just overwhelmed by everything.”
Sharpe moved to New York City in the early 1970s to further his career GQ magazine, where his love of pinball continued until he learned of his 30+ year ban. She would have to drive to New Jersey or visit an adult book store just to play until, of course, the town found out the place had a car.
He began writing a series of articles and features for the magazine exploring the ban, mostly as an excuse to get a car to put in his apartment. Then, in 1976, the American Association of New York began lobbying to lift the ban and asked Sharpe if he would play before the city council to prove that pinball is a game of skill, not luck.
“I was incredibly selfish and wanted my game,” Sharpe says with a laugh. “When I started researching for an article, I was amazed because when I went to the public library there were no books on the subject. I was beside myself. How am I going to approach this topic now? I made a comment to the editor that It’s going to take a little longer to put this idea together and they said, ‘Why don’t you write a book?'”
The following year Sharpe wrote and published Pinball!, a comprehensive guide to the game’s story, mechanics, techniques, and challenges. Sharpe says the game might feel like just a casual duel with gravity, but machines new and old have multi-level challenges that require steady nerves, hand-eye coordination, and careful planning and strategy.
“Skills and techniques have been improved in the same way that there have been improvements in tennis,” says Sharpe. “If you scroll through the list of any particular type of sports, even video games, you see what types of controllers and keyboards are being used. All of this is tuned to what necessarily appeals to their specific base and broader base of gamers. With pinball machines if you go back in time like I do, it’s easy to say enough about the flashing lights. What lights? Part of that challenge is the challenge of discovery.” Sharpe’s legendary story of pinball redemption is well known and told among pinball gamers and collectors, but he’s about to gain an even bigger audience thanks to a new film directed by brothers Austin and Meredith Bragg. Pinball: the man who saved the game tells Sharpe’s story through two actors. Included by West Side Story Mike Faist, who plays young Sharpe, and Better call Saul Dennis Boutsikaris, who plays the modern version behind Sharpe’s thick, captivating mustache.
“They basically said, ‘Has anyone ever made a movie about you?'” says Sharpe of the filmmakers. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been in a number of documentaries and given speeches, and they were like, ‘No, no. Has anyone ever made a movie about you?”
The film tells the story of Sharpe in persuading America’s most bureaucratic state government to overturn a 30-year-old law riddled with misleading claims. But Sharpe says it also shows how something as simple as a game of pinball can shape a person’s life, loves and legacy.
“It’s like an out-of-body experience,” Sharpe says. “It’s surreal, obviously, but it’s very, very strange in a twilight zone episode kind of way to receive the gift or curse of reliving your life. In a way, it’s like groundhog day somehow as I resurrected the trail and told my story to Meredith and Austin. It was cathartic, to say the least. I’m still amazed at the level of interest. I am an artifact. They’re a historical footnote, and it amazed me that they’ve remained relevant all these years.”