Dirty Dancing and Pinball

By Flipsteen

April 23, 2021

This story got frontpaged on May 03, 2021

3 years ago

I was 10 years old in the summer of 1965 and I was mesmerized when I saw the row of pinball machines all lined up against the wall in what they called the "Rumpus Room." Besides ping pong, bumper pool and the jukebox, there were these beautiful machines waiting to be played. We were on a week's vacation at the Esther Manor Hotel, a small summer resort in the Catskill Mountains .  If you saw the movie Dirty Dancing with Patrick Swayze, you'll get a good idea of what it was like, a big summer camp for kids and adults with daily activities and at night we were entertained by singers and comedians especially the star comedian Totie Fields who we all knew from appearances on the Ed Sullivan show and who called the Esther Manor her second home. The songwriter and singer Neil Sedaka who would sell millions of hit records in the 60s played in a band at the Esther Manor in the late 1950s and and even married the hotel owner's daughter. 

Before that summer I had never seen a pinball machine. Pinball was banned in New York City.The mayor of NYC in the forties said they robbed kids of their nickels and dimes. Anything construed as gambling was also verboten. All of the local amusement parks had gun games and bowling games and I loved playing them. With that limited arcade experience I made my way to the rumpus room at the Esther Manor with a few dimes in my pocket. Back in 1965 a dime had magical power. It was the smallest and thinnest of all the coins, including the penny, but the silver dime could buy a lot of fun.  Yes, dimes were still silver back then. A dime got you a bag of popcorn at the movies, a frozen milky way, a Superman or Archie comic book and now I could drop a dime into the slot of the pinball machine and start a game. At the Esther Manor, pinball would now compete for my dimes with that wonderful red and white Coke soda machine at the sunny pool where you opened the door revealing a stack of glass coke bottles in round slots and after depositing a dime you could yank out a cold bottle.

I only had a few dimes so I would have to make my choice of game wisely. I gravitated towards the machine with cowboys and Indians on the backglass  loving the many western TV shows at the time like Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Have Gun Will Travel, The Lone Ranger, Wagon Train, and Bonanza. Was the game I played that summer Wagon Train or Buckaroo or some other? I honestly don't remember. Even then as a young boy I loved the colorful characters on the backglasses. They were from a different era more like the "olden days" than the 1960s.  Eventually I made my game of choice where the ball seemed to last the longest before draining. I watched how the older adults shake and slap the machine throughout the game to keep the ball from draining. And when I tried it I got the regrettable TILT sign. And I remember the first time I heard the loud pop and won a game by matching the number on the backglass. One afternoon I watched a guy come into the rumpus room dressed in a short sleeve khaki shirt with a toolbox and I watched him open the front coin door with a huge ring of keys. He slid the glass out and lifted the playfield to reveal a marvel of metal and tons of color wire.  I watched him retrieve all the dimes from the coin boxes. When we were kids we knew that you never inserted your own dime into any vending machine before first hitting the coin return button a few times hoping to get a forgotten dime and we double checked by pushing a finger inside the little coin return. Finding a free dime to play the game was extra fun.

Fast forward 30 years later to the year 2000 when Ebay had already changed the world by allowing you to find and bid on about anything including all the nostalgic items from your childhood memories like comic books and toys and pinball machines. I could never imagine having a pinball machine in my home but now with Ebay I ended up bidding and winning an $800 Williams Hurricane pinball machine that I had never seen or played before seeing it on Ebay. Once it was in my house I fell in love with everything about the Hurricane. The cabinet artwork, the gameplay, the music, the sounds, the rotating backglass, the ferris wheels, the ramps. I had never played a machine like this before. And then I went back on Ebay and I bid and won a Getaway and a Creature. But what about the more simpler EMs I grew up with? I saw a Little Chief for a few hundred dollars and loving western themes bought it and later bought an Aztec. But then I quickly discovered what we all learn as hobbyists. Pinball machines break and there is no guy in a short sleeve khaki shirt to come with his toolbox to fix the game. I remember calling the guy who sold me the Little Chief and he said there's a schematic in the cabinet. "Just understand there are two thick black lines running down the schematic with all the switches in the middle. You have to make sure that power is going from one side of the black line through the switches to the other side with the black line. That's what you need to understand" That's all I need to know? Huh? What? You're kidding? Fortunately I discovered Clay's amazing guides on the web as well as the user group rec.games.pinball. The beauty of this hobby is the frustration of trying to fix your own games, giving up, the intense temptation to call in a professional no matter what the cost and then discovering all the amazing generous fellow pinheads who are eager to share their knowledge and skills. 

My kids grew up with pinball machines and after they flew the coop and lots of other work/family issues I drifted from the hobby and the pinball machines just sat in the gameroom for ten years. I called my son about a year ago and said "We better see if we can sell these machines. Otherwise we're going to have to pay someone to haul them away. Who still plays pinball? Most of your generation grew up on video games." I wasn't totally naiive. I knew there were a couple of manufacturers making new machines but assumed it was very limited. Now and then you would see some rock star on TV giving a tour of his home with pinball machines in his gameroom. 

About a year ago with more free time and sequested at home with the pandemic I discovered pinside and some of the FB pinball groups. Holy Smoke! This hobby is more alive and well than twenty years ago. I was overjoyed and spent hours everyday reading pinside forums catching up on the last ten years. I've been bitten by the pinball bug once again and I'm loving every moment. I've spent this entire winter overhauling all my games including bringing back to life a Gottlieb Sea Shore Pinball that I bought 18 years ago but never set up. I also added some of the available mods to the Creature and Getaway. I was amazed to see the new color dmds but I'm still attached to my old amber displays. I love the soft incandescensts in my EMs but would like to upgrade my solid state games with LEDS knowing they are easier on the power boards and look good as well. So between reading the forums and the ads, and the fixing and upgrading and finally the hours of playing I'm keeping very busy. Stay safe and well and brighter days ahead. Keep flipping.

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3 years ago

Thanks for sharing! Glad you decided to keep your machines!

2 years ago

Awesome read, thanks for sharing.

1 year ago

Great story. I enjoyed it immensely. Your collection is beautiful!

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