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Once widely popular, pinball machines have mostly become relics of the past. But the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas is proving they still hold nostalgic appeal, with more than 250 of them now on public display, and plans to expand to a larger space on the Vegas strip. From old-time parlor games to the Simpsons, all you need to play is a quarter. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.
In May of this year, Las Vegas officials approved construction of a new building on its famed strip…..And like its casino neighbors, it's dedicated to machines built to strip tourists of their money in the name of entertainment.
But you won't find any slot machines, or any kind of gambling here. Christopher Booker has more.
When the machines start up inside the Las Vegas Pinball museum. The sights and sounds of 20th century history come alive. From old time parlor games, to the space dreams of the 1960's to the Simspsons. They all work. If you have a quarter to play. This all started over 50 years ago in Michigan – when Tim Arnold, then only in high school, started purchasing pinball machines.But these weren't just to play. Arnold installed his machines in Frat Houses and in the basement of a local pizza parlor.
It was an easy way to make money. All my friends had paper routes and they had to get up in the morning and slog through the snow. And I would just go, you know, take money out of pinball machines. It was a great racket. I would buy a game, put it out, run it 'till it paid for itself and then just stick it back in storage and go buy another one. It's like baseball cards, only bigger. (LAUGH)
In 1976, Arnold – along with his brother – opened a pinball arcade in East Lansing, Michigan. This was the first of what would be 7 seperate pinball arcades, but in 1990, Arnold sold his interests in the arcades and decided to retire and move to Las Vegas. At the ripe age of 35.
Do you have a favorite?
You know, as a curator, I'm not allowed to have an opinion. My job is to present the work as a whole and let people figure out what they like themselves. And truthfully, I've had so much of this for so many years, I'm kinda over it.
Oh, yeah. Do you– do you go home and– and interview your cat? (LAUGH) When you get off work, you– you do somethin' else for fun.
Since his first purchase, Arnold's collection has grown from one machine to over 2000…..250 of which are now here – in a warehouse just outside the Las Vegas airport – for anyone to come and play and word of the museum has spread. Arnold says people come from all over the world to play.. often falling victim to strange phenomon when they walk through the door.
They come in here and they're walking down a row and all of a sudden they stop dead. And they say, "There– the– there's the game that I– the first time I– I kissed a girl, I was playing that game."and they do what we call the nostalgia lock up because things like movies and music, you can relive all that stuff on the internet. But you haven't see this pinball since you were a kid. It's still up in your brain somewhere. And then you see it again and you just lock up.So we kind of like, poke 'em with a stick and say, "Come on. Come on. Go, go, go, go, go." (LAUGH)
"This is an actual toy factory that was at disneyland and it delivers an actual plastic toy that you saw made before your eyes. There are less than 100 of these left in the world and I have had people that come in here and again, do the nostalgia lock "I was at Disneyworld and I bought one of those Donald Ducks!"
But the pinball museum is not just about geting people to journey into their past. It functions as a social club …with all of the quarters – after operating costs – being donated to local charities….
We're like a Kiwanis club or a Lion's club. We get together after work, hang out, and do fundraisers that help people that help people.
Do you think people who come through the door, who've heard about the Pinball Hall of Fame are understanding that this is part of a– a social cause?
No, because we don't really push that. I don't really wanna waste their time giving them the backstory. I just wanna turn 'em upside-down and shake all their tourist money outta their pockets.
Arnold has shaken enough pockets that he recently purchased a plot of land in the most valuable part of Las Vegas….the famed strip… where he plans to build a bigger museum to house 700 of his machines. It's slated to open sometime late next year.
It's still amazes me that this stupid backwards amateur pinball club could somehow end up owning a– a space right acr ooss from Mandalay Bay, some of the most expensive real estate on earth. Somehow we're there.
Is there a pinball machine that you've been looking for for years but can't find?
I– I was going around when these things were unwanted. When I could literally go to a warehouse and buy all I wanted for $50-100. And sometimes it costs me more to rent the truck to bring 'em home than it did to buy the machines. And if– I've had old coots down in the South this– just as I'm gettin' ready to pull away, says, "I wasn't gonna say anything, but you guys are a bunch of dopes. You just gave me $100 apiece for stuff I was gonna take to the dump." (LAUGH) So every game in here got salvaged from a dumpster. And I have pretty much every game that I could possibly want.
One person's trash is another man's treasure.
Right. (LAUGH) Right.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
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