Flippers get hipper

Paul Sarpen, 36, of Downingtown, takes his turn on a pinball machine at one of Pinball Gallery's monthly tournaments. Of the 35 people who competed, nine were younger than 30.
Paul Sarpen, 36, of Downingtown, takes his turn on a pinball machine at one of Pinball Gallery's monthly tournaments. Of the 35 people who competed, nine were younger than 30. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

A silver-ball revival

Posted: January 30, 2014

Michael Petuhoff and his family had traveled the 90 minutes from Harrisburg to Downingtown to compete in Pinball Gallery's monthly tournament, where more than 30 players played on 25 machines with titles ranging from the classic Eight Ball Deluxe to the new Wizard of Oz.

For decades, pinball devotees have waited for the silver ball to regain its rightful place in the gaming world. Displaced by Xboxes, pinball machines had been relegated to basements where diehards set up veritable arcades.

But now, restaurants, bars, even ice cream parlors are taking back the pinball and hosting mini-arcades. And it's not just boomers enjoying the resurgence.

Petuhoff is 12 - and despite the game's old-school nature, he wasn't the only youngster at the December tournament. Owner Bill Disney said that nine of the 35 people present were younger than 30.

"I am a social person. Pinball works for me," said Petuhoff, who comes from a household with six machines.

Then he reconsidered.

Pinball "works a lot more, actually. [My friends] are missing out. They don't meet people [playing video games]."

Others seem to be embracing the social aspects of pinball, too. The number of tournaments held worldwide has surged from 52 in 2005 to 1,377 in 2013, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association.

While the IFPA doesn't track whether tournaments are held in basements or bars, association president Josh Sharpe believes the growth comes from "barcades" - established businesses that house arcades.

Moreover, he said, the players' average age is dropping. In 2006, it was 40; now it's 33. The reason, he believes, is that younger people are drawn to its social nature and its simplicity. "Life is complicated," he said.

Kathleen Barone, 26, a financial analyst for Boeing who attended the tournament with her fiance, Brian Mills, 37, of Prospect Park, agrees.

"I have a group of new friends I never knew existed," she said. Barone and Mills, who builds Osprey helicopters for Boeing, use vacations to search out pinball machines in arcades.

"It's a sickness," deadpanned Jay Robinson, 38, who opened an arcade in August in the Railroad Street Bar & Grill near Limerick.

He was enjoying brunch in the Broomall kitchen of fellow pinball diehard Rick Prince. Prince, 58, who owns Prince Consulting Group, and his wife, Vickie, have 17 pinball machines in their home, where they have hosted IFPA-sanctioned tournaments for the last five years.

Vickie Prince, 56, a web designer and graphic artist who cooks for those tournaments, talked about the couple's first purchase, the Eight Ball Deluxe, 25 years ago: "We were dating, and half of the dates we [spent] looking for an arcade to play in."

The reason: In the late '80s, video games were king and, compared with pinball machines, easier to repair and less expensive. Because video games earned arcade owners more money, they got rid of the temperamental pinball machines, and eventually fewer existed "in the wild" - as aficionados refer to arcades, bars, malls.

Pinball did resurge a bit in the 1990s, but when the pinball division of the much-loved Bally Williams Manufacturing Co. was sold, the revival lost steam.

Societal reasons played a part, too. By early in the new millennium, instead of eating at home and going out for entertainment - as many families did in the '90s - people were doing more of the opposite: eating out, then returning home to play with home consoles. And so even fewer arcades kept the costly pinball machines.

But true lovers of pinball continued to play, thanks to people like Disney, who taught themselves the complicated craft of pinball repair. A software engineer for Unisys, Disney, 53, has bought and fixed 100 machines and sold 60 since 2003.

Disney, at the behest of his family, opened his own gallery in 2009. It would benefit his daughter, who needed a job after she graduated college. But his inherent belief that pinball is a social experience was his main motivation.

To keep costs down, Disney put his arcade in Margo's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor & Candy Shoppe, which assures him traffic. When Margo's hosts kids' parties, the dads often stay to play a few games, said owner Deborah Gargus.

It seems everyone has a tale about their first pinball encounter. Prince began developing his supple wrists at age 3, when an older brother brought him to a luncheonette in Overbrook Park. Robinson found his first flippers about age 8, visiting his grandparents one summer in Stone Harbor.

For Prince, the attraction has never waned for the game he calls both simple (the goal, merely, is to win a free game) and complex (try to figure out those mechanics). It keeps you in the moment, and it allows your "MacGyver gene" to express itself, he said.

Apparently, others are catching on. When Disney opened his first gallery nearly five years ago, maybe eight players would show up. At the December tournament, nearly four times that number played.

One of them was Gabe Patterson, 40, a computer programmer from nearby Coatesville, who has been a regular at tournaments for the last two years. He owns 12 machines. "They multiply like rabbits."

His favorite? "That would be like trying to pick your favorite kid."

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