Walt's Bar in Eagle Rock
Walt's Bar in Eagle Rock
Michael Tullberg

Pinball Is Going Full Tilt in L.A.

In today's golden age of home entertainment, technology has literally brought the world into our homes, far beyond the original promise of television in the baby boomer era. The choices of how to amuse, outrage or anesthetize ourselves without having to get off the couch are now more numerous than ever. The convenience is great, but for many gamers it masks a certain emptiness, a void created by the lack of human contact that's inherent in home gaming. It's little wonder that many of today's players yearn for a simpler type of play, one that's more fun and social in nature, with actual person-to-person interaction.

This desire to get out of the house and find stimulating playgrounds with other gamers has fueled the rise of the barcade over the past few years, as venues such as EightyTwo, Button Mash and AYCE Gogi demonstrate. Their mixture of vintage arcade coolness and modern-day socializing has proven to be a winning combination. They also have resurrected the fortunes of a beloved yet long neglected staple of coin-operated entertainment: the pinball machine. Pinball flourished in L.A. bowling alleys and bars through the '90s, but the old stalwart fell on hard times along with these venues in the aughts, disappearing from Southland clubs faster than dubstep did a few years ago.

However, pinball is now back in a major way, snagging a new generation of happy millennial fans who've been won over by the game's rattling, buzzing excitement and its thrilling nexus between fortune, technique and exhilarating tension. It's not just the modern, computerized examples one would expect, either, like the dazzling new Iron Maiden, or the Bluetooth-enabled Dialed In (yes, there is such a thing as Bluetooth pinball). At the newish Walt's Bar in Eagle Rock, one wall is lined with 10 classic electro-mechanical machines — the vintage kind, whose bells ring and chime. It's a linear arrangement of flashing, blinking retro-cool that's near irresistible.

"It's really crazy. It's a Tuesday night, and almost every machine is taken up," enthuses Walt's co-owner Jeff Johnsen. It's true, and there doesn't seem to be anyone present over 35 at the moment. "It's been really good. The games have been doing really well, and the people seem to be really excited about having something else to do besides staring at a giant TV screen with football on it."

Pinball Is Going Full Tilt in L.A.
Michael Tullberg

Sabrina Degnan, 21, is working hard this particular night on the hypnotic 1979 game Xenon, which beckons her onward with the sampled "ooh's" and "aaah's" of pioneering electronic musician Suzanne Ciani's voice. Jostling the table with discreet body English to avoid triggering the always-dreaded "tilt," Degnan muses about the appeal of machines that are in some cases more than twice as old as she is: "You know, I just really like playing [pinball] games. I really like the thrill of it, and it's a simple game to play — anyone can play it." Gesturing at a colorful adjacent table sporting the likeness of a certain '70s motorcycle daredevil, she adds, "I've played the Evel Knievel one before. My goal is to play all of them at least once tonight."

"In terms of the millennials," says Button Mash co-owner Gabriel Fowlkes, "one fun reaction is [them] seeing the new licensed Stern titles, and going 'Omigod, there's a Game of Thrones pinball, I wasn't even aware that pinball was still being made!' They may start with a licensed title, but they may discover that the one they like best is an old one like Sorcerer, because new pins are much more complicated than the classics."

It's not just the younguns who've helped restore pinball's place, though. The Gen Xers who began playing in the 1970s and '80s have been rediscovering the restored, beloved games of their youth while simultaneously being blown away by today's super-sophisticated tables, which likely have a more powerful CPU than the ones found in their laptops.

Eagle Rock resident Richie Ramone stops by Walt's now and again — not surprising, since The Ramones were devotees of pinball, as any photo search will show.

This vintage Bad Cats pinball machine is at Walt's Bar.
This vintage Bad Cats pinball machine is at Walt's Bar.
Michael Tullberg

Walt's has had to turn away parents who show up during the day to play with their young ones in strollers, since it's a bar and not a proper restaurant. 

Multiple generations of fans mix across town in local pinball tournaments and leagues, like EightyTwo's Los Angeles Pinball League, the Orange County Pinball League or the larger International Flipper Pinball Association. EightyTwo co-owner Scott Davids describes the interaction: "There's a nostalgia thing, where [older] people will walk in and say, 'Oh my God, I haven't seen these games in a really long time.' And there are like, 21-year-olds who have never seen these games before in their lives, who have no idea what they are."

In the tournaments, however, generational alienation is the exception rather than the rule. The events are an addicting mix of competition and socializing, as Walt's bar manager Woody Brenton explains: "The best way to describe that might be speed dating, in a way. They're randomly paired on these games with other people, and they're just meeting people who're either from the neighborhood or coming in from somewhere else that are into pinball. We're bringing the neighborhood together, and it's our busiest night.

"Pinball bridges gaps with all generations. It's pretty impressive how it does that," Brenton adds. "People of all ages, whether their grandparents bought pinball games and had them in their house, they look at it as pretty badass."

It seems that a silver ball makes a great ice breaker.

Pinball Is Going Full Tilt in L.A.
Michael Tullberg

Veteran fans of pinball have a unique perspective on the resurgence. For years it was a small group of devotees that kept the pinball flame alive locally, even as most of the manufacturers of the machines were closing down. It wasn't hard to see why things were getting bad, as pinball machines are often pricey investments that require a lot of maintenance — not exactly a top priority for establishments hovering on the edge of solvency during the recession-plagued '00s. While the game still enjoyed a certain popularity in hipster centers like Seattle and Portland, Oregon, L.A. became pretty much a pinball desert, with only a few oases scattered across the city for people to enjoy.

One of the most crucial of those was the underground pinball collective known as Pins & Needles. Residing for much of its run in Echo Park's Bedrock rehearsal studios (with a significant amount of time spent in the building's loading dock), Pins & Needles was one of the centers of L.A.'s pinball community, where the city's champions gathered regularly late at night to battle it out as cars coming off of the nearby 2 freeway zoomed past. Struggling actor Danny Belrose (Portlandia) was one of those regulars, hired by P&N co-creator Molly Atkinson to help run things and maintain the extremely informal, BYOB atmosphere.

Being in a rehearsal complex, P&N created many new fans among musicians from the building, including members of Eagles of Death Metal and Queens of the Stone Age, who would stop by to play regularly. The genuine underground ambiance of the place was a factor that helped bind the regulars and new adherents into a tight-knit group, the kind that nurtures and cultivates a scene toward its fruition, as the L.A. rave community had so successfully done years before.

An early P&N convert was arcade game aficionado Scott Davids. "I'd met Molly through my girlfriend. I'd been into arcades my entire life, and funnily enough on our first date, she was like, 'Yeah, we're into this pinball league, if you wanna go over there, have a drink and hang out.' That was our first date, and my first reaction was like, 'Whoa, that's amazing!' and the second was, 'How the hell did I not know about this place?' But that's how I met Molly, and so I ended up hanging out there, playing in pinball leagues."

Belrose, at one time the No. 70-ranked pinball player in the United States, had encountered Atkinson earlier at tournaments in other cities, and he (along with most of the local pinball luminaries) credits her as one of the main reasons for the game's survival in Los Angeles. Davids concurs: "She has such a genuine passion for the gaming and pinball community, and really pushing it hard. She donated so much of her time to making Pins & Needles happen." It was Atkinson's devotion to the machines, together with a talent for fixing them, that kept P&N alive until 2017. Though she keeps a mostly low profile nowadays, Atkinson is still involved in the community, helping run the L.A. Pinball League on Tuesday nights at EightyTwo.

The tipping point came in 2014 with the much-anticipated launch of that venue in DTLA, featuring most of the principals of Pins & Needles. A very sly form of guerrilla marketing had preceded the event by several weeks, instigated by Davids, who'd set up arcade games inside the building site on dirt floors, even before permitting and construction had begun. "People would walk by and be like, 'What the hell's going on in there? Why are those games there? Is this, like, an art exhibition?' So we started kind of generating buzz that way," he says. "And we knew a lot of people around town, and people were really excited that this was a cool new thing happening."

Thanks to some astute social media marketing, even EightyTwo's soft opening was packed, and by the time the official debut came that weekend, patrons were lined up around the block. "It was really something, man, that was exciting," remembers Belrose, who quickly became the club's chief pinball manager. It was a case of all of the pieces coming together at the right time and place, evidenced today in the lines that still snake out from the building on Friday and Saturday nights.

The venue's decision to mix classic electro-mechanical pinball machines with the modern ones paid off handsomely, helping ignite a renewed interest in the game and its history with its largely new audience. To Davids, it was a no-brainer: "In every era of pinball, there are fantastic games. At one point, we had a game called Crosstown that I think was from 1964. We really run the gamut."

The millennials' collective reaction to their discovery has been sincerely positive, fueling the demand for more games and locations, and an increase in local tournament play. Before long, newer places like Button Mash began opening up around the city, creating the (mostly) friendly competition that exists today. As a result, there is now little shortage of silverball entertainment for players in and around Los Angeles.

Newer pinball machines at Button Mash
Newer pinball machines at Button Mash
Michael Tullberg

Button Mash even did its own spin on the pinball league, opening it up to new audiences, as Fowlkes explains: "We've done this fun thing that we call the Selfie League, where instead of meeting once a week, every week, in a league, you would come in within a specific time of two months. You'd come in any day or time you wanted, and you'd take a selfie with the high score that you'd got on one of the selected machines, and you'd post that in the selfie group. There would be real-time rankings of people's scores for that period, and at the end of that two-month period, those score rankings would be your seed for one single live, in-person tournament."

When asked to explain the game's cross-generational attraction, Belrose says, "I heard somebody say one time that pinball is the perfect game, because it's the perfect balance between luck and skill, and the perfect balance between man versus machine. The machine can manipulate you and trick you as much as you can manipulate and trick the machine. Depending."

Davids holds a similar attitude: "It speaks to all different levels of players. You know, there'll be serious pinball champions playing with wrist guards, hanging out next to a girl who's wearing a Vegas band-aid dress and high heels. That's one of the special things for me: to see that mashup of all different types of people who are loving it. People in L.A. aren't necessarily the most friendly to one another, you know? But in this environment, everyone's crowded around each other, giving each other high-fives when they're doing a good job, and it's a cool thing that people just bond over these games."

Fowlkes concurs: "It's just something that's just so cool on the face of it, you know? Pinball is just this awesome, electro-mechanical creation that is unique in anyone's life. You see these video games here — well, a video game is a monitor and a circuit board, and at the end of the day, an Xbox is a monitor and a circuit board. Your car and whatever other electronics you have are the same principle. But a pinball machine is kind of magic in that sense. It's completely different. It's kind of like a Rube Goldberg machine in a sense. It's its own unique thing."

Pinball Is Going Full Tilt in L.A.
Timothy Norris/Courtesy Vintage Arcade Superstore

FUN PINBALL FACTS

Pinball was banned in much of the country until the mid-1970s, due to suspicions that the machines were used for gambling. L.A.'s ban lasted from 1939 to 1974.

The world's largest pinball machine measured 53 feet 9 inches long, 24 feet 7 inches wide and 35 feet 1 inch tall. It was made by Heineken Italia in support of Heineken's SUB draft beer dispenser. It was demonstrated and measured in Porta Genova, Milan, Italy, on April 12, 2014.

Rock bands with their own pinball machines include AC/DC, Aerosmith, Guns N' Roses, Metallica, KISS and The Rolling Stones. Get the '79 version of the latter if you can find one.

You can order a genuine steel pinball for yourself for less than $2.

The first talking pinball game was 1979's demonic-themed Gorgar. It has a vocabulary of seven words.

Muhammad Ali's 1980 pinball machine supposedly was designed by the champ himself.

The Dialed In pinball machine can be controlled via Bluetooth from your phone, which is convenient for germaphobes who fear becoming infected by the game's flipper buttons. (Of course, they would still have to endure putting coins in the slots...)

Pinball manufacturer Bally was sued by Fox Studios for putting H.R. Giger Alien-like imagery on its Space Invaders pinball games. Why they didn't just use art from the arcade game — which would have made a lot more sense — is still a mystery.

Pinball Is Going Full Tilt in L.A.
Timothy Norris/Courtesy Vintage Arcade Superstore

PINBALL WEBSITES

Pinside.com is "the absolute best web destination for all things pinball." A thorough, loaded-up website with more resources and information about the game than you can imagine. It even has a constantly updated nationwide directory of restaurants, bars and locations carrying the machines.

Pbresource.com is more for techies than fans. This site specializes in the upkeep and maintenance of the machines.

Pinballnews.com is exactly what it sounds like.

Pinballmap.com/la is another great tool for finding individual machines. This site actually has more local locations in its database than Pinside does. And its subpage pinballmap.com/la/events has a huge calendar of events. ­­

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