“What did I promise you guys?” the bartender asked shortly after we had settled into a pinball game at the Chateau Verte, a bar along Grand River Avenue. Dr. Detroit blurted out an answer, instantly regretting it.
This bar was a “gentleman’s club,” a very misleading title, conjuring up images of men in ascots and smoking jackets sitting in large lounge chairs, which is wildly different than the reality. It wasn’t our first choice when going out to play pinball due to the customary $5 cover charge. But pinball machines had been disappearing at our normal haunts and this particular machine, a Gorgar, was working, easy to beat and the place stayed open until 2am. The exotic dancers on the stage behind us did add spice to whole scene, so the $5 wasn’t completely wasted.
Most pinball junkies have fantasies about designing their own killer machine and the Doctor and I were no exception. Our "Fusion" machine is still being refined. Given the setting, playing pinball and having seen Star Wars for the fifth time with its true high point, the cantina scene on Tatooine, we might have come up with Big Bang Bar twenty years before Capcom. On second thought, maybe that wouldn't have been such a good idea. That machine may have had a curse attached to it.
Big Bang Bar has the distinction of being the only machine to have ushered two companies out of the pinball business, Capcom and Pinball Manufacturing Inc (PMI). Capcom is a huge Japanese company involved mostly in electronic games. Its tiny pinball division was already in trouble when it started the project, but for PMI, a division of Illinois Pinball Inc. its one and only effort was a runaway successful failure. It bought the parts that Capcom had in inventory for Big Bang Bar, and presold 101 machines for $6,000 each in 2004. Preselling pinball machines by newly formed companies will have a checkered future, but that’s for another story.
Gene Cunningham spent the next three years piecing those parts together and even having to custom make some of them. The iconic “Tube Dancer” was one of these. On his games, they’re slightly smaller. He eventually produced 191 machines at a cost of about $9000 each. When the machines were delivered some went up for sale at auction, fetching upwards of $20,000. The machines have held that values for over a decade. Considering this, he probably wouldn't have had too much trouble asking the original investors for a couple of grand more, but Gene honored the original price and flipped the OPEN sign on PMI to the CLOSED side for a final time.
To head back to the Chateau Verte, on the previous time we were there, it had been fairly quiet for a Saturday night, the other patrons sat watching the stage show and occasionally tipping the dancers. We were the exception. We were playing pinball and the pitcher of beer we ordered was distraction enough. After an hour or so, we became a curiosity to one of the dancers who came over and asked to play. We had been playing on games we had won for a while with only the occasional quarter needed to restart another streak, so we were happy to share. She was still at the “flail away with both flippers” stage, but she did play and was good company besides. Being disinterested made us far more attractive than our looks or wallets warranted.
After a couple of very short turns for her, I asked her if she would like a quick lesson in playing, “Oh yeah sure, would you?”
I got behind her, looking over her shoulder and putting my hands over hers. It was only for one ball and it wasn’t very effective, my reflexes were non-existent. I couldn’t see the flippers and I was more than a little distracted. So the doctor joined in and we switched to playing one flipper each standing to the side with her hands on top of ours. After this she did start waiting until the ball reached the flipper to hit it and even used a single flipper from time to time. A second dancer joined us for a while and through the rest of the evening the dancers came and went to share our pinball games and beer when they were on break.
It had been a good evening for pinball. We won far more games than we paid for. Unfortunately, gone were the days of putting just one quarter in and playing all night. Some of the new machines even had escalating free-game scores. At 2 AM we passed on last call since we still had beer in what was either the third or fourth pitcher of the evening, but it might have been five since we did share them with the dancers.
That bring up a good point. One of the other bars we used to visit sold off their pinball machine because it wasn’t making any money. Dr. Detroit pointed out to him that the pinball machine doesn’t need to make money as long as it brings in customers. “You make your money on the beer and food.”
The bar owner complained, “It costs a lot to keep it repaired and it takes up space and it’s noisy and it brings in all you undesirables…” All of the typical reasons pinball machines were disappearing, but getting back to the story…
We still had games on the machine twenty minutes later when the bartender was finishing up his closing routine. “OK guys, we gotta go!” he said for fourth time, “we gotta get outa here.” All of the dancers were gone, so it was just down to the three of us.
Dr Detroit was having the game of the century and only on the second ball, very likely to be in Grand Champion territory. “Wait we’re in the middle of a game,” I said for the fourth time as well.
“No, I gotta turn it off.”
“Let us just finish this ball at least,” I said.
“How long will that take?”
“I don’t know, he’s working on a great score here and there’s a free ball coming.”
“Forget it,” he said while reaching under machine and with a click the ball in play, the free ball, the last ball, another two full games were gone and worse than that probably a record breaking score . The machine was dark.
“I’ll tell you what, the next time you’re in here just say ‘pinball’ and I’ll buy you guys a pitcher,” the bartender told us while pushing us toward the door. We groused about how lucky we seemed to be at closing time, having left games on machines in the past when forced to leave, but this was different. We had never been offered anything for leaving peacefully in the past. Even if we never taste that pitcher, it set an important precedence. There’s room for negotiation in these circumstance.
I had moved to Alabama from Detroit several years before, so it was months later before I was back in Detroit and we finally returned to claim the prize. After taking off our coats and putting a quarter in the pinball machine…no that’s not quite right, it was always the quarter then the coats, Doctor Detroit caught the bartender’s eye and in a low voice, almost a whisper said, “pinball…”
There was a look of panic in that eye, “What did I promise you guys?”
He didn’t remember! We could have asked for anything. In a gentlemen’s club the possibilities are quite intriguing. We might even have had our own easy chairs, smoking jackets and ascots! All of that disappeared as quickly as the game on the machine when the barkeep clicked the power button that last time we were here.
“A pitcher,” said the doctor reflexively.
“Damn,” I muttered under my breath. The doctor echoed the sentiment when he realized the mistake, with far more colorful language. Our only consolation was the noble feeling of having done the right thing, and the pleasure of fantasizing over the possibilities for the rest of the evening.
...and a good story, there was that.