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Chicago: Pinball’s capital and last best hope

Once the manufacturing capital for the world’s pinball machines, Chicago is now the last, best hope for those loud and gaudy electronic games

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The basement arcade of Joshua Sharpe, son of Roger Sharpe, the author of Pinball!
Roger Sharpe’s two sons, Joshua and Zachary, are ranked among the world’s top five pinball players, and, like their father, they collect vintage games, which they display in Joshua’s basement arcade.

 

It’s a surprising link with the city’s past—the pinball machine, the bumpers-and-flippers bar game that entertained generations of proto-slackers and inspired a rock opera, owes much of its history to Chicago. For most of the 20th century, North Side factories turned out the majority of the world’s machines, and today the last pinball manufacturer anywhere operates out of a building in Melrose Park. “Certainly we have to make a living,” says Gary Stern, the owner of Stern Pinball, “but we also have a purpose: to keep the art of pinball alive. If pinball disappears, the world will continue to exist, but a little bit of the American fabric of life would be gone.”

During the game’s heyday in the sixties and seventies, a handful of Chicago companies churned out dozens of new models a year. Most found their way into smoky bars and strip-mall arcades, where pinball fanatics obsessed over the competition and, in many instances, delighted in the machines themselves. Throughout that era, each game was designed with an original theme, such as Queen of Hearts and Grand Slam. Even today, when new games include digital bells and whistles and the themes are licensed from movies and video games, pinball machines are assembled by hand, with their own illuminated backglass and silk-screened “play fields.”

D. Gottlieb & Co., based on Addison Street near Ashland Avenue, was once considered the “Cadillac of pinball.” The company is no longer in business, but from the late forties through the age of bell-bottoms and disco, Gottlieb and a Chicago outfit called Williams Electronics Games had the lion’s share of the pinball market. Before World War II halted production, pinball machines were, to a large degree, games of chance: A player pulled back the plunger and then watched as the ball wove and bounced its way through a series of obstacles. In 1947, the late Harry Mabs, Gottlieb’s chief engineer, added the first flippers to the game board, allowing the player to participate and keeping the ball active longer.

The first flipper games had six flippers. The world has Steve Kordek to thank for the two-flipper phenomenon. Kordek, who is 98, was a veteran pinball designer as the 1948 gaming show approached. Working at a company called Genco and assigned the task of designing a new game on a tight budget, Kordek created a machine with only two flippers. “I put ’em on the bottom,” he says, “and that’s where they’ve been ever since.”

If you look hard enough, you can still spot a classic machine in a handful of Chicago’s neighborhood bars, such as the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village or the Beachwood Inn in Wicker Park. But the majority of the most collectible games wound up in the rec rooms of collectors all over the world. Roger Sharpe, 56, the managing editor of GQ magazine in the mid-seventies and now the world’s foremost pinball historian, has five antique games in his Arlington Heights home. His sons, Joshua and Zachary, have a dozen in Joshua’s Palatine basement, which resembles a speakeasy arcade.

Sharpe, a Chicago native, wrote the definitive book on the game, Pinball!, in 1977, and his sons are ranked among the top five players in the world. “The fact that pinball’s history is centralized in my hometown gives me an enormous amount of personal and civic pride,” says Sharpe. “We were able to entertain not only generations of people domestically but internationally, and it all coalesced in Chicago.”

 

Photography: Nathan Kirkman

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