An Ashtray Full of Nickels

By pinwiztom

December 04, 2023

This story got featured & frontpaged on December 11, 2023

88 days ago

How did I start down the path to this pinball obsession?

Is it an obsession? Well nearly 400 pins later, some may qualify/quantify that as an obsession. The pinball hobby has only really been a part of my life for the past 35 years. I never really played a whole lot of pinball in my youth, though there were periods where it obviously did have a big impact on my life. In the following paragraphs, I will try to outline how this all came to be, to the best of my recollection of the facts.

My earliest memories of pinball take us back to the early 1960s, back in South Dakota. I was living the “Leave it to Beaver” and “Opie in Mayberry” simple small-town life. I was maybe about 5 or 6 years old, and my parents (both teachers) we going to “summer” school in Aberdeen S.D.  My Dad was getting his masters in teaching and my Mom was finishing up her 4 yr B.A. in teaching, at Northern College.  While going to school, my dad also worked a part time job during the summer, as teacher’s salaries in The Dakotas were pretty paltry.  He worked as a bartender at a place called the Star Tavern, owned by a fella name Milo Hagen. On rare occasion, especially if mom had classes and he was scheduled to work that afternoon, he would bring me along to work.  He would proceed to plop me down on a bar stool in front of a row of 3 or 4 pinball machines, with an ashtray full of nickels, to keep me occupied for however long need be, in order to take care of other patrons. I truly cannot recall what the name of the games were that I was playing.  I do remember that at least one of them to be a woodrail with coin slide startup operation, putting it in the era of the early 50s.

In smaller communities back then, it probably was not unheard of, having a game on route older than 8-12 yrs old. The only other thing that I can remember about one of the other pins was, that it had a lot of pretty girls on it, [ that ought to narrow it down some ;>) . ]  But it also had some sort of an ABC feature, so that leads me to believe that one of the pins might have been a Gottlieb World Beauties.   Spending those moments playing pinball over and over again until I ran out of nickels, must have had a big impact on my psyche.  I also remember Milo later teaching me, that if I did not have any more nickels, I could open the coin door and flick the coin switch to “earn” more credits. That also was when  I got a glimpse thru the coin door at the wondrous mechanics that made the machine work and make the ball dance around and the bells ring. Clickity clack clack ding ding thwack.

A side note, that my dad would tell me years later, after he realized that I was heavy into the hobby, is about Milo and his coin-op operations at the bar. It seems that Milo also used to operate bingos at his bar. While bingos were legal in the state and county, they were illegal within city limits.  My dad tells me that the revenue from the bingos oft times surpassed the tavern’s cash intake from alcohol sales. Back in the day, hard-working fellas would end up spending a good portion of their salary trying to manipulate those silverballs into the proper holes, hoping for a big bingo payout from the bartender, to knockoff any extra credits won.  After a while the wives got wind of these “shenanigans”, and grew tired of their hubbies coming home with empty pockets, and took their complaints to civic authorities, who eventually did a “Mayor LaGuardia” on Milo’s bingo operations. My dad also told me about another bingo story, that happened a few years before the shutdown.  Apparently, there was one young (but of age) guy that frequented the bar to play the bingo machines and he was pretty good. So good that he was starting to eat into Milo’s profit margin. So, Milo, after having grown tired of having to pay off too many credits this guy tended to build up, decided one day when the fella in question came back into the bar, confronted him, gave him a $20 bill and told him to get the hell out, and never come back and go play somewhere else.

But those early days playing pinball at Milo’s Star Tavern were not my only encounters with the silverball, that helped plant the seed of one day becoming a pinball addict. Move forward a couple years, to visiting grandma’s and some of my many cousins at my birthplace; Hoven, South Dakota. There was not much to do for young boys in a small town of maybe 500, so when you do find that cool place to hang out during the summer you tend to remember it.  That place was what some might have called the candy store, but this place also sold five & dime toys (squirt guns, cap guns, yoyos & marbles, etc). 

But the real draw was the pinball and pitch and bat games. So before heading over there, we would search the couch for loose change, sweet talk grandma for a few dimes and go on a scavenger hunt for pop bottles to then take to the Red Owl to get our two cents per bottle, hoping we had enough money for a candy bar, new bottle of soda pop, a pack of bubble gum baseball cards, maybe a comic book and a few games of pinball.  Again, my memory fails me as to the exact games, but there were at least 2 or 3 crammed into the tiny storefront.  I seem to remember having more fun playing the Pitch&Bat game with my cousins, as one of us would pitch and the other was the batter until we switched turns. It was probably a CCoin game as I do remember it having the ability for the pitcher to manually choose which pitch to throw (be it a fast ball or slow pitch or curve ball) and I do not distinctly recall it having a running man base unit.

My family eventually relocated to Gilroy California. Now the Garlic capital of the world, but back when we first moved there, it was considered the prune capital of the world. We lived across the street from a prune orchard and the kids on the block spent many hours, playing war, cowboys and Indians and even BB gun fights in those orchards hoping for cover from the barrage toss of (prune/plum) grenades. Making the move was probably the smartest decision my parents ever made, as a teacher’s salary was considerably higher out in California (but I would never call us rich) and it also allowed us to escape the harsh winters of the plains. Far more opportunities for a better life out west, while still able to have a childhood that would make “Beaver Cleaver” envious. But one thing I noticed, is that there seemed to be less pinball where I now lived, or at least access to pinball was more restricted. The few places that I heard had pinball; pre-teens were not allowed. When I previously lived in small towns, kids could go just about everywhere. But in Gilroy with about 12,000 population there were rules. One place was Steinmetz newsstand and pool hall. They had the newsstand out front accessible from the sidewalk and that is where I occasionally bought some of my comics, but the back room and pool hall was definitely off limits. Years later I heard rumors of someone selling speed and heroin out of there, with the drugs hidden under the pool tables or ball pockets, probably best I never did go inside to the back. The bowling alley across the street had pins, but you had to be at least 16 years old to get into the arcade. So, it was a few years before I could put my hands on a pinball machine in public again. Actually, my pinball fix was only fulfilled when we took summer vacation trips back to Hoven South Dakota to visit grandma and the cousins and the Five and Dime store arcade.

It was not until I was in eighth or ninth grade that I can distinctly remember playing any pinball in California. That was on a road trip to San Francisco with my dad to see a football game at the old Kezar Stadium, home of the 49ers, pre-super bowl dynasty era. Actually, it was just after the Summer of Love, as Kezar Stadium was right next to the Haight/Ashbury district. I can remember us driving thru that hippie district on the way to the game and seeing all the crazies on the street. It was kinda like driving on a safari and looking at all the exotic -= animals in the wild. Where I actually got to play some pinball, was at the bowling alley just blocks from the stadium where we bowled a few lines after the football game. We went to a few more 49er games (until the team moved to Candlestick Park in 1971). I always looked forward to our bowling and pinball and burgers after the game, probably more so than the football games themselves, as the Niners weren’t very good back then (not unlike today).

Another road trip that my dad took me along on, was to South Lake Tahoe, where he was going to play in a card tournament, he dropped me off at a kind of teen club arcade in the casino, while he played cards for a few hours. I played pinball and other EM arcade type games while listening to whatever tunes the DJ was playing while the young teen girls danced. Never had the courage to ask any girl to dance though. Distinctly remember the songs Crimson and Clover plus Incense and Peppermints playing many times while I was there. Later that night we went to a show at the Sahara with Tiny Tim headlining, with George Carlin being his opening act. This was back in Aug 1969, so Tiny Tim had longer hair than the then beardless straight laced suited up Carlin.

One of the other places I can remember playing pinball in my youth was at a card playing buddy of my dad’s who had converted his garage into a kind of man-cave, complete with wet bar, pool table and bumper pool plus a pinball machine.  Again I cannot remember the name of the game, but fairly certain it was a Bally or Williams multiplayer with pointy people artwork or at least C.Marche style.

Also around this time frame (early 70s), I joined a youth bowling league, back then pinball & bowling were linked at the hip, at least for me. So, I was always sneaking in a few balls in between my turns on the lanes.  Occasionally I would have to let my ball drain prematurely, cause my teammates were waiting on me. Then after I bowled my frame, I would race back to the pinball machine, hoping no one had taken over my game.

It was not until my Junior and Senior years in high school that I can remember with clarity some of the games that I played on location. One location in particular was a little hole in the wall spot on the south end of downtown, about a 10-15 minute brisk walk from the Gilroy high school campus. The reason I know this is because every Tuesday during lunch period I would hurriedly head over to this place, mainly to get my weekly allotment of the new comic books that came out each week.

And I would have to quickly rush back to campus before the start of my next class. During high school and jr. college, Comic books were another collecting addiction that I acquired. The place was run by the grandfather of a classmate of mine, Alan Low. The place also sold candy and had other newsstand publications, including nudie magazines, that I would invariably try to get quick clandestine glimpses of the covers, as I headed to the comic book rack. After I pulled my issues of Spider-Man, Sub-Mariner and Iron Man along with Green Lantern and JLA among others from the rack; and depending on how much change and time I had left, I would play a few games on the 4-5 pinball machines and couple of EM shooting games that were in the rear. This was the main place I would get my pinball fix over the next 4-5 yrs, as I continued to head there while going to junior college and during breaks when I was back home on summer or other holidays from university. The pins that I can definitely remember playing were Bally’s Monte Carlo (my favorite at the time) and Williams’ Skylab.

They also had at varying times Captain Fantastic and Gottlieb’s Hit the Deck, as I distinctly remember the fake digital score reels. I also recall them having a Mirco Spirit of 76 (one of the first total solid state pins), I did not like that one much. There were other games there but my memory gets fuzzy as to what they actually were, though I do remember trying out some sort of EM driving game and the “Shoot the Bear” game a few times.

When I went away from home, in the mid 70s, to finish up my schooling at University of California at Irvine (in Orange County), I had to find a new location to play pinball. Fortunately, I did not have to look very far, as they had a couple of pins along with pool and ping pong tables at the student lounge below the on-campus dormitory mess hall. Again, my memory is not very clear as to what games were there. I graduated in June of 1978 with degrees in Chemistry and Physics, so most of the pins were obviously EMs, but I have some vague memories of playing Flash there, must have been when I returned to campus to meet up with buddies and girlfriends still in school and living in the dorms.

After graduation, I was fortunate enough to begin work immediately with a job in the oil field service industry. The reason I mention this is because of this job, which I worked at for 36yrs before retiring 9 years ago, afforded me the opportunity to accumulate my vast collection, but more about that later.  Once out of school I was living in Newport Beach CA about ½ a block from the beach. If only I had been smart enough to buy property there at that time, I could have retired 15 yrs earlier than I did.  Anyway, it was while living at the beach that another vivid memory of pinball became ingrained into my brain. There was a dive bar near Newport pier called the Red Carpet, that my buddies & I would frequent, mostly because they sold 35 cent pours from the tap and they had a big ball bowler and the pin of pins Bally’s Fireball. It was set for a dime a play and we must have dumped a mint into that game always trying to release Odin and Wotan. I was always enamored with that game, especially with the artwork, and the figure on the Backglass and Playfield, which was reminiscent of the Human Torch. The game had it all with a great skill shot, and zipper flippers and that unpredictable spinning disk.

Over the next several years, I would find pinball here and there, be it a pizza place or a 7/11 or bowling alley or arcade at the mall or in some bar. I recall playing Black Knight and SilverBall Mania while I was living in Ventura CA, at my favorite hangout, Garfield’s Bar & Grill. (They had 1/3 lb burger & fries for $2.50  and dollar beers on Tuesdays and hermit crab races on Thursdays. I hauled in a bit of cash  and prizes each week with my stable of racing crabs.)

I saw the influx of video games also during this time frame, of the early 80s, but never got swept up in it, mostly because I was never any good at most video games. Also to me I needed 5 balls per quarter that I would plop down, otherwise I felt I was being cheated. If I encountered 3 ball play, I would walk away.

I never really even thought about owning a pinball machine of my own. In part because I did not have the room (or so I thought) to house a pinball machine and just plain did not know that the average joe could own one. But that changed one day while visiting a new friend’s apartment. I saw he had a Missile Command coin-op video game and that planted the seed that one could actually own a full size coin-op game like pinball. Though at the time I had no idea as to where I could find and acquire a pinball machine.

It was not until 1991 when my job took me away from the beach communities of California, into the hot & dusty central valley and oil fields of Bakersfield Ca., where I was able to finally afford to buy a house; that I then began in earnest to seek out where to purchase a pinball machine. The home I ended up buying was a modest one, but it had a 19x19ft room with wet bar that seemed destined to be a game room. I first put in a 7ft slate pool table that I had brought for $200 from a broke surfer dude just before I relocated from the beach. But where and how do I get my hands on a pinball machine of my own.

At the time I had no idea what one would cost either, was it going to be about $300 or $3000? Turns out that my initial estimations were about right, all depending on what I was planning to buy (vintage EM vs. latest DMD). I had no clue where to begin my search, this was way before the internet and eBay and craigslist. So basically, I let my “fingers do the walking” in the yellow pages.  I first looked in the index for pinball machines, and there was a cross reference to look under Amusement Devices, So I went there and amongst listings for operators of juke boxes and pool tables, there was a listing headlined as The Pinball Doctor. And in the details of the small ad associated with that listing was the fact that not only did they repair pinball and video games, but also had used games for sale.

A-ha, Eureka, Finally, Jackpot!!!

So fingers crossed, I dialed the number and talked to the person answering. It turns out the Pinball Doctor was female and she was also the chief repair technician at the local PuttPutt MiniGolf arcade in town, either Boomers or Camelot or some such. She had some videos and pinballs at her home in the garage about 5 miles away. So, I set up a time to stop by to have a look see. I was not at all interested in the videos, so I have no recollection of what might have been there. But I do remember her having 4 or 5 pinball machines crammed into that garage. The first one that I was shown as a widebody Atari Atarians.

I have to say that I was not impressed. It did play but seemed sluggish and slow, which was not untypical of most widebodies. I remember her trying hard to sell me on it. She wanted $400 for it, but I was not going to bite. The next two machines she showed me were not shopped out or even working. One was Fireball 2, which sparked some memories of cheap beer at the beach and my old pal the original FireBall EM.  As I remember it, the playfield was totally filthy, so my fondness waned. The other non-working pin was an Eight Ball DeLuxe Ltd Ed. Again, not in the best of shape and had significant signs of wear, so I passed. I was looking for a pin fully working and not in need of a lot of TLC.

Fortunately, she had one pin left that fit that bill,  Williams Laser Cue.

The first pingame I was to buy, with many to follow in the coming years.

Story photos

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80 days ago

What a fun, delightful, time-warp of a story! As a kid born in the 80s reading this was nostalgia and information beyond my time so you had me wiki-ing "Mayor LaGuardia" to understand that reference, YouTube-ing "Crimson and Clover" and "Incense and Peppermints" to hear those songs, and hermit crab races? LOL!!! I guess it's better than a pet rock... Luckily I had the great idea to listen to those two songs while I read through the rest of the story and it really just put me in there!

Your fantastic words made me imagine everything perfectly and it seemed like an episode of Stranger Things or maybe a fast time traveler story.

Random comments: Cool that your parents were teachers, bummer about not asking the girls to dance (I'm in the same boat.), how was Bingo used for gambling and they were able to manipulate the balls? I'm confused on this and not sure how to research it since I just keep getting normal bingo. Really loved the paragraph where you talk about getting a few dimes from grandma and getting the bubble gum with the baseball cards. Glad you didn't go into the place where they were dealing drugs. Funny about the hippies being like a zoo, seems like some spots in CA have been replaced by people so strung out on drugs they look like zombies. Bummer about having to let a long ball go down the drain because your bowling teammates were waiting on you. I recently played Skylab at a place that has four old pinball machines and that is one of them! I love the classic space looks and so I played that one a good amount. It's a nice fun pinball machine. You talk about your oil job and how it allowed you the opportunity to afford your 400? pinball machines and a place for them and you say more on it later but you never talk about your oil job again. What kinda of "hauls" were you making with your stable of hermit crabs? (If I was born and had a genius brain right away and an omniscient being said "Which one of these sentences will you type in your life? and showed me three sentences, I would have never thought that would be a sentence I would type in my life but I just find the idea awesome and hilarious!)

I recently have been playing some pinball machines at a video game bar and they have this old mechanical baseball one that is supposed to give you 3 balls but at best you only get 1 or 2 because something is broke in the machine. It only costs 25 cents to play so I don't really care but I wish it worked properly. But 5 balls would be very nice.

Bummer about not buying some land on the beach there so you could retire sooner.

You had me YouTube "Laser Cue" as well and that game looks awesome and sounds even cooler!

Thanks again for the great story!

79 days ago

If I ever get off my lazy butt, my plan is to start a blog, on pinside or elsewhere, to go through the journey of all the games I acquired over the past 30 yrs
with a bit of a backstory on each and how and where and from whom I obtained them and my opinions of their game play and themes and artwork package, etc.
I may also go into more details about my job in the oil field and how it took me all over the world.
Bingo games, were at one time considered gambling devices, not unlike slot machines, since there is little skill involved.
I think where they got into trouble with certain ordinances, is the fact the "bartender" or location owner
would pay the player in cash, for any unclaimed replays won.
If there was never the unwritten understanding of a payout for replays won,
they would have been left alone by the authorities, but human nature always has way to find a way to get around the gambling taboos.

79 days ago

Sounds good pinwiztom!

55 days ago

Nice story . Fun to read. My first experience playing pins was as a kid in the 60's in a bar when my dad stopped for a drink. Later in the 70's playing in an arcade called Alladins Castle in a shopping mall with other 15-16 year old friends. Years and years later bought my first machines. Had many EM's then switched over to modern games - though I still like EM's when I see them. Even had one Bingo Machine - those are fun too.

Thanks for sharing your story pinwiztom - it took me back to my earliest experience's of pinball jogging some memories.

48 days ago

Pretty nice story. Thank you for sharing! Nice collection you have going.

45 days ago

What a trip down memory lane! It's always fascinating how some pinball journeys begin. Sounds like you had quite the adventure checking out those machines. Laser Cue as your first pin – that's awesome! Do you still have it, or has your collection evolved over the years? Cheers to the countless flips and the stories they bring! ️✨

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