I went to visit my younger brother in Houston, TX in late June, 2015. Somehow, my rekindled admiration of pinball rubbed off on my brother, and he is just as crazy about seeking out new machines as I am. He even bought 1969 EM to restore since my visit, but that is his story to tell if I can ever convince him to sign up on Pinside.
During my visit to Houston, I had two distinct and wonderful experiences with pinball. The first was a trip to the Lone Star Pinball Association's (LSPA) "Museum," as its owner lovingly and only half jokingly calls his collection. The website might not have a lot of whistles and bells, but here it is for information purposes, and here's a link to the listing of the games curated and maintained there by Dan Ferguson (I usually protect the names of the innocent, but Dan's name is publicly available on the site I linked to above).
My brother lives in outer northeast Houston and the LSPA Museum is in outer northwest Houston, so it took us about an hour to get there. The museum is situated in, what appeared to me (I'm not from the area, so I can't speak with authority on this) to be a rural area with a limited population. There wasn't a bright, flashing sign to signal the location of the museum - as a matter of fact, to say the exterior of the building was modest might even be an overstatement. My brother made an appointment for us to meet up with Dan for our visit to the museum (visits are by appointment only, mind you) and he was there awaiting our arrival as soon as we pulled up.
At first, I wasn't sure if we had the right place. Like I said, there's no sign and the building looks like it might have been a restaurant (Mexican?) or possibly an office building. Dan has an unassuming demeanor about him that matches the no-frills exterior of the museum. Truth be told, I got the impression that he was inspecting us as we waited to see if we were really at a pinball museum. We must have passed inspection because he eventually escorted us in. When we got inside, I realized why Dan wanted to make sure my brother and I were genuinely interested in pinball; the place was full of treasures.
The first room Dan took us into was wall to wall covered in pinball games and other collectible memorabilia. I'm probably not going to get the walkthrough perfect from memory, but it went something like this. First, Dan pointed out some of the early Pure Mechanicals (table top) and early EMs he had. Each one was interesting in its own right, and Dan seemed to know the history of each item in the museum. He turned out to be the living definition of down-to-Earth, and his mind contained a library of specific and enlightening facts about the pin games he had. It seemed to me that the machines were laid out in roughly chronological order. Table top games from the 1930's were first, then some wood rail games from the 40's, and I think the collection ended in the late 70's / early 80's (Fireball Classic and Spectrum stand out, though there was a Hercules and some other SSs around).
As we wandered through the museum, room after room after room, I could feel the living history of the games through Dan's comments. Each room was lined with EMs, and as we walked by them, Dan would point out an innovative feature of this game, or a manufacturing note about another game. He was as much a teacher as he was an enthusiast, and the ease with which he explained things clearly was amazing.
For instance, Dan taught me about Pure Mechanical "tilt" mechanisms. Since the early games were gambling machines with payouts (in money or in store merchandise, Dan informed us), cheating had to be discouraged and detectable. I made some ignorant comment about machines not having tilt until late EMs (don't know why I thought that) and Dan showed me a tilt mechanism on a 1930's game. For those who've never seen one of these older tilt systems, they are composed of a little metal ball that sits atop a post (metal cylinder) with a concave top. When a player starts a game, the post rises up out of the center of a saucer or bowl. If the player shakes or "tilts" the game, the ball falls off the post and into the bowl. The operator would be able to see that the player moved the machine too much while playing and could deny payouts if the ball wasn't still on top of the post. As a comical side note, Dan was trying to show me that the player couldn't get the ball back on top of the post if he or she tried, but then he shook the game and the ball landed back on top of the post (which looked almost impossible to do). It was definitely one of those couldn't-do-it-if-you-tried moments that stuck with me.
Dan introduced my brother and I to the Fireball series and explained the progression of that title. We played a few games and I did horribly, but I found that I really liked the EM Fireball. We also played Spectrum, a game I had played before and wanted my brother to try (see the only pic for this story - that's me playing Spectrum at LSPAM). Again, I played horribly - I think my brain was off in pinball historyland because I wasn't really in the mood to play, I just wanted to learn more.
My brother and I went to LSPAM thinking that we were going to an arcade. The website even says everything is on Free Play, so we went expecting to play a lot of pinball. However, we ended up looking and learning more than playing, though Dan did oblige us when we asked to play one of his many games. I wasn't disappointed by the lack of play time - I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to LSPAM even though we only played for a few minutes out of the time spent there.
Dan told us that Boy Scout Troops and other groups come through and generally have good experiences. If you live in Houston, or even somewhat near LSPAM (coming in from San Antonio or Dallas would be worth it), and want to know and see all there to know and see about pinball, I'd highly recommend setting up an appointment with Dan. Oh, and make a monetary donation too - it's a worthy cause and should be supported (my op ed).
The second part of my pinball adventure in Houston was a trip to my brother's favorite arcade, The Game Preserve. We ended up going there twice during my less-than-one-week stay, despite the one-way 45 minute drive. Definitely worth it.
The Game Preserve (TGP) had a decent selection of pinball machines and arcade games (though not may of my personal favorites). The arcade I frequent in Phoenix metro has more upright coin-op video games than TGP, but not nearly as many pinball machines (yes, there's an undertone of envy there). Most of the machines at TGP were in good working order, and the selection was pretty decent. I played TZ (of course), Dracula, SFII (um, sure, why not), and some EM games that were really fun (like Twin Win, see my rating on PS). However, my favorite game there was Lord of the Rings.
My first-ever LotR play was at TGP, and I had blast! I could keep one ball alive for 10 minutes, which is not something I can normally do. The shots were so smooth and fun and the game had great flow. Eventually, one of the co-owners of TGP, I'll call him DeLorean R. (D.R.), came by and watched me play one of my best games (37 mil, I know, not that impressive for some, but great for me on that title). D.R. even gave me a compliment about my playing (and then jumped in and destroyed both me and my brother with ease). I didn't have a lot of interaction with the staff at TGP, but D.R. was an energetic, friendly guy who seemed to know his pins. It's nice to chat with operators, which is a culture change that I've noticed with these newer arcades. Back in the day, operators seemed more like quarter-hungry enemies rather than pals. Anyway, LotR has since made it to my top 5 personal favorites.
TGP has a cover charge / free play pricing scheme, which is well worth it if you plan on staying for awhile. They also offer monthly memberships at a discounted rate over the nightly rate, and members are allowed to bring a certain number of guests each time. This model is a better way to keep customers and keep them returning. The old pay-for-play arcade model discourages me from trying new games. Besides, as I get better, I can keep a ball alive long enough that I can hog a machine for one game so long that the operators aren't going to get a lot of plays for their square footage / labor hours. Also, while there seems to be a reemergence of interest in pinball and arcades, I think the cover charge model is a better long game plan because too many newcomers will get turned off too quickly if they are watching their laundry money disappear into machine they don't quite know how to play well yet. Perhaps I'll save the in depth analysis of the two models for another story. For now, The Game Preserve is doing it right, and doing it well.
If you're in the Houston area, I'd highly recommend checking out both the LSPAM and The Game Preserve. TGP has started holding monthly IFPA sanctioned tournaments, so if you think you have the chops, or if you just want to get a world ranking in pinball, give it shot.
I met some fantastic people at both places and I plan on returning to each place when I visit my brother again. The only disappointing part of my trip was when I learned that Joystix, a pinball retailer in downtown Houston, holds two open play nights a month (first and last Friday) and I wasn't there when they were open for play. Joystix has a huge selection of games (SSs), and I'd really like to try them out next time I'm in Houston. Thanks for reading!