A passion for pinball games

Christmas 1959 stands out as one of the most memorable days ever in pinball game collector Bob Herbison’s life.

“I crawled out of bed and scrambled out to the living room to find a 1953 Williams Silver Skates pinball machine sitting there for me. I was totally surprised! I had no idea I was getting it and I totally flipped out,” he said.

November 2006 also brings back a lot of reminiscing.

Herbison had purchased three rare 1950s pinball games from a Chicago seller and didn’t want to risk the games getting damaged in shipping. So, he made the 2,200-mile trip by van from Texas to Chicago and back on a long weekend and transported the games himself.

“My wife and I basically drove all weekend to get up there, pick up the games and get back. We were in Chicago probably a grand total of two hours before we turned around and got back on the road. It was a gruesome trip. But I was very happy to get the games,” he said.

So goes a hobby like collecting old, antique pinball games. You enjoy the memorable moments and you endure the tough times. Having played pinball since his childhood in the 1950s and collected the games and related items since the late 1970s, Herbison can talk about both sides to this hobby.

Sure he loves the old, antique pinball games, the ones from the 1960s or before, the simple, early pinball with the lights, bells, wood-rail frames, the nickel, dime or bargain three-plays-for-a-quarter costs and the gorgeous, colorful artwork on the playing surface and backglass.

But he also struggles with the lack of space as one game takes up as much room as a couch. He sighs about the budget-busting shipping costs a pinball game will generate after you buy one from an out-of-state seller. And he bites nails worrying whether or not the game will survive the shipping process and arrive undamaged.

“Collecting pinball is not like collecting coins or stamps,” he said with a chuckle.

Herbison owns more than 50 games made by Gottlieb and Williams, the two pinball manufacturing giants of their day. Thirty six of his pinball games date back to the 1950s and 18 from the 1960s, ranging from his oldest, Joker (1950 from Gottlieb) to his most recent, King of Diamonds (1967, Gottlieb). Plus, he owns an assortment of old pinball advertising flyers, posters and memorabilia.

The game and all things associated with it have appealed to Herbison ever since the 1950s when as a kid, he discovered pinball at the Frosty Treat Drive-In, located three blocks from his home in St. Joseph, Mo. He remembers walking to the Frosty Treat and spending nickels on games like Ace High, Satellite, Royal Flush and Big Casino. When he got older, he and a friend journeyed to a nearby train station, traveled by rail to Kansas City, then grabbed a cab to get to the Wonderland Arcade at 12th and Grand streets in downtown where they played pinball all day.

Herbison says cars and girls replaced pinball later on. And from his early teen years until after college, he forgot about the game. He even sold Silver Skates, the one he got for Christmas, to help raise money for college.

But in 1977, when married and living in Kansas City, Herbison decided to turn a spare room into a game area and bought an old slot machine. Then he thought that the room really needed a pinball game. He found Teacher’s Pet, a 1965 game made by Williams.

“That was my first pinball as an adult. It grew fairly slowly for me initially. I moved to Dallas, Texas, in 1983 and that’s when I really started seriously collecting,” he said.

“Seriously collecting” meant that Herbison perused the newspaper classifieds for games for sale. He found a lot of ads. But since they usually said only “pinball” along with an address – no description or name of the game, not even a phone number to call ahead for info – Herbison drove all over the Dallas-Fort Worth area on the weekends and investigated each ad. He found a few “gems” but most of the sellers had common games, nothing really rare or extraordinary.

However, he obtained a lot of them for cheap prices, usually $200 or less and many in the $15-to-$50 range. He ended up with a variety of old and newer pinball games, some as recently made as 1999. But now, after selling the newer models, his collection consists of the older, antique games.

He has about 10 of them up and ready for play at all times in two rooms of his Texas home. Favorites like Joker, Queen of Hearts (1952, Gottlieb), Twin Bill (1955, Gottlieb) and Ace High (1957, Gottlieb) permanently reside in one room which doubles as an office. Another room has six games like Knock Out (1950, Gottlieb), Mystic Marvel (1954, Gottlieb), Daisy May (1954, Gottlieb) and others that Herbison alternates in and out usually depending on what he has most recently purchased.

In his garage he has dozens of dismantled pinball machines in stacks and rows of backglass boxes, the playing field surface boxes and legs on one side of the garage. The other side has to remain clear for his wife’s car. Rented storage space takes care of the overflow.

Herbison used to find himself in a small crowd as a collector and fan of the 1950s pinballs, as most in the hobby prefer the modern games with the solid state electronics; the computer chip power; multi-level-playing fields; and stereo sound effects. “Too slow!” they frequently claimed about the old models. But in the past five years or so, Herbison has noticed more interest and more competition for the 1950s games.

“I don’t know if it was an issue of people having collected all of the 1960s games they wanted and so they were looking for something else or whether it was an issue that they finally got introduced to them and discovered their charm. But it has made it harder to get those games and increased the prices. Capitalism at its best,” he said with a chuckle.

Almost any complete and working pinball game from the 1950s can now sell for $1,500 to $5,000, as most are pretty rare and in demand, according to Herbison. He cites Joker, Daisy May, Knock Out, Satellite (1958, Williams) and Mystic Marvel as some of the more valuable games. Those rarely come up for sale and when they do, many collectors want them.

Unique features such as backglass or playing surface animation on some of these old pinball games also get collectors’ attention and money.
“It’s really amazing that in the 1950s and 1960s without the aid of the sophisticated electronics, these designers were able to continually invent things that kept the game interesting and compelling. They’re quite impressive with their inventiveness and design skill in my opinion,” he said.
Like Buckaroo, a much sought-after Gottlieb game from 1965 which has an animated metal horse figurine kicking a cowboy bending over to pick up his hat every time a player scores 100 points.

Knock Out, a boxing themed game, features a little boxing ring on the playing surface with two boxers and a referee. When you score a knockdown by hitting some bumpers or center target, getting a rollover or crossing the lit “Knockdown” button, one of the boxers swings his right arm and punches out the other boxer, who falls down on the canvas and then the referee moves his arm up and down 10 times to count him out.

Cross Town has subway doors on the backglass that open and close to reveal subway passengers during game play.

“It was all about trying to catch your eye and attract you over to the games,” Herbison said.

Which also explains how the manufacturers sometimes walked a fine line to cash in on popular characters or celebrities of the day without official authorization. Some examples:

Rather than pay for the rights to make a game for Daisy Mae from the “Li’l Abner” comic strip, Gottlieb just put a similar-looking attractive female hillbilly in the game’s art and called the game Daisy May, substituting the “y” for the “e” on the end of the name of the character.

Frontiersman (1955, Gottlieb) took advantage of the huge Disney Davy Crockett phenomenon that occurred back then. No mention or reference to Davy on the game but anyone that had watched the Disney series at the time couldn’t help but think of the “King of the Wild Frontier” when seeing the buckskin-clad, musket-bearing character in the artwork.

Lovely Lucy (1954, Gottlieb) features character art that suspiciously resembles Lucy and Ricky Ricardo from the hugely popular I Love Lucy TV show.

“To the best of my knowledge the companies were never challenged on this in the 1950s and 1960s. Either the entities owning the copyrights didn’t know or didn’t care or perhaps viewed it as valuable exposure,” Herbison said.

In addition to the actual games, advertising flyers, promotional plastics, posters and trinkets also attract a lot of collectors.

Pinball manufacturers sent out 8 1/2-inch by 11-inch flyers to distributors and arcades to promote a game before its release. Early flyers were one-sided and black and white. The flyers eventually went to two-sided and color printing. Flyers for the 1950s games can cost anywhere from $20 to $100 or more.

Later games had promotional posters and plastic pieces like key chains. “It would have some piece of artwork that would tie into the design of the game on it. They eventually got pretty crazy with those promo plastics. Some games would have 10 to 15 promo pieces with it,” he said.

Besides collecting, Herbison spends quite a bit of time repairing the old games. He learned how to fix them when many of his purchases didn’t work. He frequented pinball shows and conventions where fans and collectors willingly shared repair information through classes at the shows or in articles in fan-published magazines. And today, he can repair or restore almost any pinball game from the 1960s or before. He often gets calls or emails from people who need an older pinball game fixed.

“You do see a pretty wide variety of problems but a common one is that the game has been sitting unplayed for quite a while and one or more units have old grease that has dried up and gotten sticky so they no longer move freely or not at all,” he said. “I’ve actually gotten fairly proficient at working on the older games. I don’t have a problem at all in buying a game that needs a complete restoration.”

But nowadays, he doesn’t buy as many pinball games as he used to, simply because the games he wants are so scarce that one rarely comes up for sale. EBay, Internet classified services like “Mr. Pinball” and “Craig’s List” and networks of collectors and friends provide most of the pinball buying, selling and trading venues for collectors like Herbison.

In the last year, Herbison has bought about three games, far less than the days of checking out newspaper classifieds. But he still searches for more to add to his collection. Right now,  Silver Skates, the hockey-themed pinball game he got way back in Christmas of 1959, tops his want list. All he has left of that first game he owned is a color photograph from that morning which shows him playing Silver Skates while his older sister stands alongside holding up the transistor radio that she got that Christmas.

“I had that game in my room for many, many years but eventually sold it to raise some money while in college — something I still regret to this day. Finding one will just take patience, time and luck,” he said.

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