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The wizard behind the Pinball Hall of Fame

by John Keefer, Jul 08, 2012 9:30am PDT
Related Topics – ShackCon

Pete Townshend and The Who nailed the essence of pinball's popularity when they recorded Pinball Wizard for their album Tommy in 1969. By that time, pinball machines had been around for more than 35 years, and it was how gamers scratched that early itch before the first video games hit the scene with Computer Space in 1971.

Now Tim Arnold may not be that deaf, dumb and blind kid that Roger Daltry made famous, but the man sure has made a name for himself in the pinball world. Arnold, 56, is the "director of stuff and things" and owner of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, where he has collected more than 1,100 different pinball machines and put them on display. His non-profit museum welcomes visitors to come in and play the machines as much as they want. Shackers took the museum up on its offer as part of ShackCon 2.0, spending a few hours with the wide assortment of machines.

askedrelic, ThomW and hirez enjoy the museum's offerings.

"When I was growing up, I watched, TV, went to the movies and played pinball," Arnold said. "Now, movies and TV can be watched on a computer or on DVD. But pinball is the only experience in the real world. When people come in to play and feel the button of the flippers, and the machine in their hands, they remember the sights, sounds and smells of the first time they played them when they were kids. This is total nostalgia."

As if to emphasize the point, a woman in her 40s came up to Arnold and thanked him for everything he has done to preserve these memories. "I haven’t felt like this in a long time," she said. "I appreciate this more than you know."

Arnold chuckled as she left. "I guess I should be grateful that Time Warner hasn’t figured out a way to put these into bits and bytes and put them on a disc. She is a perfect example of why I do this."

Only about 250 machines are out in the museum at any one time, with the rest sitting in a warehouse behind the main building just off the Vegas strip. They are rotated out whenever he has time and a truck. Among his collection is every Gottlieb machine ever made, including the very first model that came out in 1931, called Baffle Ball. He is the only one in the world to have the complete Gottlieb line. He also has the first Bally's machine (Ballyhoo, which also came out in 1931) and the first Williams machine, called Suspense and released in 1946. He has spent more than 20 years building his collection, beginning in 1990. He finally opened the museum in 2005.

Arnold's work area, complete with parts and tools

Getting machines for the museum has never been a problem, but doing it right is the key, he said. "Any idiot with a checkbook can buy a warehouse full of these machines, but it takes real balls to do something like this and know how to do it properly."

Arnold has been operating pinball machines since he was 14. He operated a few arcades in Michigan starting in 1976, and made enough money that he is set for life. "You can pay a few hundred dollars for a machine and make that back in a few weeks," he said. "I learned to take care of the machines and do repairs myself because there aren’t a lot of people around anymore that can repair this stuff."

In the early years of pinball machines, Arnold said, many of the parts were interchangeable among the manufacturers, but "now every game has custom parts and a lot of them aren’t made any more. I have to fabricate my own and improvise. I'll use old motors from blenders or rotisseries, since they are virtually identical to the old pinball motors." He said he is all about cams, cogs, gears and wires now. "It really is a lost art to fix anything mechanical."

Many of the older machines have notes from Arnold explaining the history.

The museum's wide assortment of machines includes the good, bad and the ugly, he said. "I try to put the best stuff out and keep it repaired, but to be honest, about 20 percent of these machines make about 80 percent of the profit. But I'm anti-capitalistic. I do things back-asswards because I'm a purist. I always make room for the older equipment, and I'll never pander to what the kids want and the newer stuff."

Since Arnold is set for life financially, his museum donates almost all proceeds to charity. Last year alone, the museum made almost $700,000, and of that more than $517,000 went to charity. Arnold's favorite charity, the Salvation Army, got a check for $400,000. "Aside from electricity and the note on the building, we have very little overhead," he said. "I like to make sure the money gets put to good use."

Arnold laments that pinball is becoming a lost form of entertainment. Although he doesn't play anymore--"I do this for 10-12 hours a day, I really want to do something else with my free time"--he genuinely seems sad that the industry has moved on.

"This is all I've done and all I know how to do," he said. "Real pinball is pretty much gone. Kids have moved on to something new with all the electronic games and systems. If you look at the people in here now, it's almost all old farts with busted parts. People come in here to remember."



To find out more about the Pinball Hall of Fame, visit the museum's web site.

(Tim Arnold image courtesy of americanportrait.com)




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