It all started for me in the early - mid 70s, I was about 12. During summer vacation from school I had the option of hanging out around the house (where there were no other kids to play with) or ride to work with my mom who worked in the beauty supply business. I ended up choosing the latter but found that hanging around in a shop full of shampoos and such was also rather boring. One day I decided to go grab a chocolate milk down at the convenience store. 50 cents I believe they were back then ... I still remember the unique smell of cigarettes, popcorn and dry cleaning that place had. When I walked in and there was a pinball machine ... Bally Flip-Flop. I plopped in my chocolate milk money and had 4 games. I was in sheer amazement of this device! It somehow kept track of my score in real time and had all these chromed precise gizmos! By the end of my 4 games I had decided that pinball was far better than chocolate milk any day of the week! I never fell in love with Flip-Flop, it had outlanes that were more taking than giving, but I garnered some reasonable skills with it.
That same year my parents joined a bowling league. When we got to the bowling alley there were about 8 pinball machines! WOW, I think I like bowling! They didn't have a Bally, there were 7 Gottliebs and one Williams. At first glance the Gottliebs had really basic artwork and mechanicals that were over-simplistic ... kind of made me feel dumber just looking at them. The Williams was much more elaborate and exciting, Space Mission. It had a moving target and sharp (but the weakest of all) flippers. I can't remember all the Gottlieb titles but there were only two I would dare put a quarter in (and only if Space Mission was occupied), Big Indian and Jungle Queen. I'm not Gottlieb bashing (and please Gottlieb enthusiasts don't be put off until you read the whole thing) but truth be told, the impression they gave me at the time was that they couldn't decide on a shape for their heads. Some were weird wedges and some were basic one piece thick wood things that had squiggles in the paint (which I thought was just sloppy paint work). The Williams and Bally machines had a nice standardized head with thinner wood and more elaborate art and paint. I still gave the Gottliebs a chance and while I found the flippers to be strong, they felt sloppy compared to Bally & Williams ... and all of them were geared towards draining the ball quickly. At this age, quarters were not so easy to come by and the last thing I wanted to do was feel cheated out of them. After the bowling alley I avoided Gottliebs like they were poisonous and for the time being, Williams made the best pinball machines.
How quickly things change ... The next summer I went down to the convenience store and to my great shock, there was a new Bally. IT HAD DIGITAL SCORING! You have to remember that this is when everyone wanted a digital watch. It was Evel Knievel and it made everything that had come before seem ancient ... angry pop bumpers, girls in the artwork, fast, fast play, I LOVE THIS GAME! Even Space Mission paled in comparison to Evel. It was a short time after Evel that a new machine showed up, Bobby Orr's Power Play. This game had it all! It was every bit as angry as Evel was and had some neat features ... I liked it better than Evel (in spite of not having any girls in the artwork)! I did discover some other Ballys at the skating rink. A Wizard and Capt Fantastic which were fun, but lacked the digital displays and fast play of the newer ones (I was fully on-board with the new breed of pinball). By now I was totally hooked on pinball and Bally was in a league of their own.
How quickly things change ... It was a sad and happy day when they replaced Power Play, but now there were 2 games. A Bally Eight Ball and GASP!! ... A GOTTLIEB!! ... Sinbad. The Gottlieb also had digital scoring and the digits were in my mind much better than the Ballys. Sinbad had much better artwork than previous Gottliebs. I still didn't play it simply because it was ... a GOTTLIEB. I enjoyed Eight Ball as much as Evel and almost as much as Power Play but one day... I heard some older guys playing Sinbad so I went over to watch. I remember mentioning that I thought it was weird that Gottlieb used purple for extra ball lights one of them piped up (almost in defense) "ya know that's the color the stop lights used to be in Cleveland!" I just nodded and respected my elders still thinking purple is weird when everybody else uses orange. The game was very fast and totally different than any Bally or Williams. I picked up on a lot of tricks these guys were using and finally decided to play it. This same playing style opened up a lot of those hated EMs to me and as it turned out ... I now liked Gottliebs almost as much as I liked Ballys. Playing a Gottlieb was like getting into a boxing match with a bruiser who would stop at nothing to beat you. Fancy artwork and pretty framed heads would actually take away from the Gottlieb experience. You better bring your "A" game into a match with a Gottlieb!
How quickly things change ... In a month I walked in to find a Bally Mata Hari and a Williams Flash, both digital. My first thought was poor Williams is finally on board with Bally and Gottlieb. I plopped a quarter in and there were no chimes! Just an incredibly cool sound and brilliant lights! Everything about Flash was a step beyond anything that had ever come before. Powerful and precise flippers, innovative playfield, high quality ball return lanes and amazing artwork. Williams had set the pinball world on its ear and were taking no prisoners! I fell in immediate love with Flash and Williams just continued to innovate and improve from there.
I should mention the Sterns of this era too. In particular Stars and Stingray. My impression of the Sterns of that era was that they were Bally-Williams-Gottliebs. It seemed like a lot of the Bally tech was combined with some Williams design and they played similar to Gottliebs. Stingray is my favorite of the early Sterns. Another side-note here is that Bally saucer holes were and are the best there ever were or is. As for the squiggly lines in the Gottlieb cabinets, hated it, still hate it now. Knowing what I know now ... there wouldn't have ever been pinball as we know it without Gottlieb, Williams and arguably Bally. I was sad to see the route pinball took, everyone tried in vain to be Williams and it resulted in a loss of Bally / Gottlieb identities. The video game era certainly exacted a toll on games with higher maintenance costs, were a pain to transport and took up too much space. Ironic now that pinball machines are in higher demand than those same video games. I still like the way those old EMs and early SSs play but as the saying goes you can never go back home. I'm certainly trying though, I recently bought a Bally Power Play and am putting my heart and soul into making it as good as or better than original in every way. It will be a long and expensive road and I already know that once it's finished, it won't be my last.
How things have refused to change... To me, this era of pinball is my favorite. The modern ones are ok but my favorites are still Evel Knievel, Power Play, Eight Ball, Sinbad, Mata Hari, Flash (among quite a few other Williams), Stingray, Joker Poker, Royal Flush, Capt Fantastic and Star Trek just because of that time in my life. There are other games after that that I've enjoyed immensely but that is the core of my fantasy wish list and unless I hit the lottery and can afford a warehouse they will never be in my collection at the same time. These games were simpler yes, but magical.