Harold’s on the Hill was a driving range and bar close to where I worked in the late 70’s. Four of us would regularly go there for lunch after finding it had pinball machines. There was a good size bar along one wall, with a pool table and some booths and tables in the main room, plus 3 or 4 pinball machines in a small sun porch overlooking the range. As ranges go, it was very generous. You stood at the top of a hill so that drives would carry another 30-40 yards. If you simply topped the ball, it would roll at least 50 yards down the hill. The view from the sunroom took in both the range and miles beyond, a view that we rarely spent much time enjoying. The best sport happened while Harold was out gathering up the golf balls out on the range. Everyone at a tee would gun for him in his cage on the golf cart. When a shot rattled off of it, Harold would cuss and everyone at the top of the hill would cheer. They served a pretty good lunch. Harold would give you hell if you didn’t bus your own dishes and you’d get an earful from the lunch lady if you left food on that plate. All in all, it was a pretty comfortable place.
Getting back to pinball, our favorite machine was Gottlieb’s Spirit of 76. Fun to play and easy to beat. The special is no harder to get on the first ball than the last, the definitive “one ball” game. We would put in one quarter and it fell to Dr Detroit and me to win as many games as possible on those 5 balls, by concentrating on getting Specials. If we had less than 4 games, we shared the games on the machine rotating on each ball, even extra balls. This worked well since the doctor and I had at least one ball on each game. By playing for points, we could usually put multiple games up for each one played, since each game could earn two on points. Once we had at least 4 games, we all played our own and the shooting order normally went, lowest score on the previous game went first, on up to the highest score last. In the rare event that no one scored a free game, we would change the order randomly. That machine got such a hold on 3 of us that we own one, I personally have two, a Spirit of 76 and its kid brother, the two player version, Pioneer.
We played and shared a pitcher of beer, sometimes not returning to work for hours. Once we were there until 8 o’clock that night. It was late on one of these marathons that I played my best game ever, 7 Specials and rolling the machine three times for a final score of 389,000, which added another eight games on the points. My boss was part of our foursome, so it was no big deal for me showing up late from lunch. He was a mediocre player at best and in order to keep playing for free, wouldn’t have let me leave even if I wanted to. Dr Detroit, however, was not so lucky. His boss wanted punctuality and sobriety, difficult commodities to find at Harold’s.
In less than a year, the doctor had moved on to another company, but we still met at Harold’s for lunch, beer, and pinball, rarely in that order. In fact, the first person through the door ran to the Spirit of 76 with a quarter in hand. A few times we found someone else already playing and were force to play the machine next to it, to be ready to jump on Spirit of 76 the second it was open.
When we first started playing there, that machine was Williams’ Flash, but shortly after that Harold replaced it with another Williams machine, Gorgar. That was the start of my revulsion towards this machine, but only a start. It was the first pinball machine with a voice. Imagine a red Hulk with a smaller vocabulary, a total of seven words. “GORGAR,” and “GORGAR HURT” make up 90% of his conversation with you. After hearing that a thousand times you really start wishing he would just go off and die somewhere. Even when you’re not playing it, the attract mode has it say “GORGAR!” every 45 seconds. So, the second order of business after grabbing Spirit was turning Gorgar off. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Harold caught onto this. Not hearing “GORGAR!” every 45 seconds can be just as upsetting once you brain loads its “GORGAR!” cancelling program. Similar to the lighthouse keeper who wakes up in a cold sweat at 3am because 20 seconds went by and fog horn DIDN’T sound. Just as soon as there was a lull at the bar Harold would come back, cuss us out and turn it on again, “GORGAR!”
The real crime Gorgar committed is taking the distinction as the first machine with a voice away from one of the best machines I have ever played, Xenon. This Bally machine followed Gorgar’s introduction the next year. A beautiful female face with large hypnotic eyes, fills the backglass surrounded by lights that trail off into infinity. A low, sultry voice beckons you with a sexy giggle and “Welcome to Xenon.” As you play, this voice instructs you where to put the ball. “Try a Tube Shot…” encourages you to shoot it into a clear tube, all the while a heartbeat quickens as long as you keep the ball in play, along with moans and gasps as the ball hits switches. This all builds to a rate that makes one wonder if she will ever find satisfaction or possibly have a stroke. The voice and all of the electronic music was by Suzanne Ciani, one of the pioneers of electronic music. She combined analog wave generators with recorded sounds all manipulated electronically using a keyboard and a mass of dials on a huge breadboard. Suzanne earned the nickname “Diva of the Diodes” for her work. One of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t buy the Xenon machine that Dr Detroit offered to me for $800 which he eventually let go for $600.
The doctor had a habit of heading off to the men’s room just before his turn came up, making everyone wait. To encourage him to hurry when he finally reappeared, I would yell out, “Here comes your ball” and shoot it into play. He’d run, massive cursing would follow, but he rarely lost the ball from that. A few times I actually gave him a good shot by dropping it through the “C” slot, an essential part of making Extra Balls and Specials. The other letters can be made in the lower part of the playfield, but the “C” is only at the top. If you don’t get it with the shooter, it’s a constant struggle to get the ball back to the top, a difficult shot. The machine lacks the convenient lane to the top that many of the machines of this era provide. The shot is a carom off the side walls. Hitting it high can send it to the top curved rail and with some strategic nudges it can be coaxed into the “C.” Hitting low sometimes, but rarely, sends it through the “C” from the bottom, the prettiest shot. Once you have all of the 5 letters the Extra Ball can light at the kick-out hole in center of the playfield. There are two banks of drop targets flanking this, which will light the Double Bonus at the hole and getting both targets and letters will additionally light the Special. The awards rotate though these possibilities at each bonus that’s scored. The safest way to get to the hole is by dropping a target, the ball caroms off and into the hole. The most dangerous is to shoot for it directly, where a missed shot can go SDTM. If the Extra Ball is not lit after you get the last letter there is a 50-50 chance that caroming off a drop target will give the EB. If it is lit you can risk a direct shot or go to the top to pick up 2 bonuses and then go for the targets. Because it’s such a safe shot, we always tried to avoid the targets until getting all of the letters, so we could them for the EB shot.
The next escalation of men’s room antics happened when I lost the ball shortly after the doctor left to use it. I let a good 30 seconds pass so he could get settled into a compromised position and opened the door with the flat of my palm firmly in the center. This was a hollow core door that swung inward and the result was a seriously loud bang. Curiously, the sound was much louder inside the men’s room than outside, something to do with the resonance chamber and the layer of thin plywood on the inside acted like a drum. This affected his aim when he jumped about a foot in the air, resulting in some stray bodily fluids on the wall and floor. The obligatory cursing ensued with promises of payback, most of which I missed because I was laughing so hard. This became standard procedure, even though both of us anticipated it, slowing the whole process of taking a leak considerably. Neither of us wanted to start our business for a good minute or until hearing the bang. Once I stood at the inside of the door with the flat of my hand about 6 inches away from the door. The first bang was followed by a second similar bang and then a clunk when the doc’s head rebounded from the door.
This continued for several months, until one fateful evening. We were in there after work, and Dr Detroit headed to the men’s room. 30 seconds later I gave the door an extra good bang, knowing that he’s waiting for it, but perhaps not ready for a real earsplitter. I was halfway through the door when I heard, “WHO THE HELL IS BREAKING MY DOOR?” I hustled back to the machine and you never saw anyone with a more painted-on look of concentration than mine, trying to cover up complete distraction. Harold had been sitting in one of the stalls and Jeff claims he jumped high enough that his head was visible above the partition, but I’m a bit skeptical on that point. I know the stall door could be heard out in the sunroom when he opened it. The “door bang” these days, is still used but only reverently to commemorate our good times at Harold’s.
Harold’s on the Hill was torn down to make way for a car dealership a few years after I moved south. But I suspect his, “WHO THE HELL IS BREAKING MY DOOR?” will hang in space over that car lot forever.