Supple Wrists: Vintage Flipper World, aka The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, preps its quarterly showcase
Strolling the aisles at Vintage Flipper World, aka The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, is like talking a walk in time. As cascades of colorful flashing lights fire up your synapses, the frantic medley of familiar themes, playful taunts, and ringing bells transport you to a place where all that matters is keeping that shiny metal ball from slipping between your flippers. Turn left, and perhaps you'll find yourself standing in front of a vintage game from the 1950s. Or round the corner and prepare to do battle with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on Stern's luminous new "Ghostbusters" machine. Stick around long enough, and eventually you'll cross paths with Clay Harrell, the gruff yet not-unapproachable proprietor of this wedge-head wonderland. It was a chilly Wednesday night in March when Harrell welcomed me into Vintage Flipper World to talk about his passion for pinball and the fast-approaching Michigan Pinball Showcase the first weekend of May. From Friday May 5 through Sunday, May 7, pinball fanatics from across the country and around the world will descend on this secluded gamer's paradise to test their skills on over 350 of the best fully functioning machines around.
It's critical to Harrell that all of his machines be in working order, and upon arriving at the secluded former VFW hall in Brighton (yes, the Ann Arbor Pinball Museum is technically located in Livingston County), I find him in the cluttered workshop, elbow deep in "Check Mate," one of three vintage games that he and his crackerjack crew of pinball wizards were racing to get up and running by showtime. His head and torso buried in the belly of the machine, the upstate New York transplant confesses that his passion for pinball originally stemmed from an interest in video games. After attending Purdue University in the 1980s, Harrell and his wife migrated to Michigan, where he landed a computer science job with Ford Motor Company. It was during that time that he began frequenting monthly auctions in Redford, where he purchased such early, coin-operated arcade cabinets such as "Pac-Man," "Space Invaders," and "Galaga." Then something unexpected happened: "I found that within a week, I was bored with them. When you play in a bar and you're putting quarters in, whether you know or not, your play is metered because it's determined by how much money you're willing to spend -- or not spend. But if it's at home and it's on free-play, you just press the button over and over and over. So you play a lot more, and it just becomes very repetitive and patterned. Especially those very early ones." Even so, Harrell kept coming back to the auction, and when a Gottlieb "Amazing Spider-Man" pinball machine came up on the block, he bit. "They were just more interesting and easier to work on in my eyes. The problem with video games is that the architecture was changing so quickly -- every game was different as far as the boards, and what made them run, and the hardware. With pinball, they would use the same set of boards for 10, 20, even 30 games. So if you learned how to fix one, you could fix the other 29. There was something more magical about them; video games are just pixels moving on a screen while pinball is a mix of old-school mechanical with new-school electronic."
Thus the pixels were banished and the plunger was pulled. Meanwhile, since Harrell reckons no game he ever bought was in proper working order. "Nobody sells a working pinball machine," he states definitively -- he got his fair share of practice getting those broken bumpers thumping again. Then there was the issue of space; given that a typical pinball machine weighs approximately 200-300 pounds and stands roughly 29-inches wide, 76-80-inches tall, and 56-inches deep, storing such a rapidly expanding collection at home just didn't seem feasible. Around the time of the recession, Harrell began to hunt for a home for his collection. With his wife's blessing, he rented a 2,400 square feet space in Novi. It was during the recession, so space was cheap. "It didn't take me much time to fill that up. Then we managed to get kicked out of that." It turns out someone didn't approve of Harrell's monthly pinball parties in the space and turned him in to the city. "They showed up with the fire department and the city manager. It was a big hairy mess." So while his landlord didn't necessarily object, the city took particular offense to Harrell's approach of asking forgiveness instead of permission, and "in the end, it all came crashing down. So then we moved to another place and kept everything on the down-low. We were there for two years and everything went great!" Later, toward the tail end of the recession, Harrell's kid went off to college. As with so many other empty nesters, Harrell and his wife began to scale back and search for a smaller home. As luck would have it, the house they purchased in Green Oak Township, just down the road from an old VFW hall that "wasn't doing well, so it seemed to make some sort of sense to buy 'em both."
Before long, Harrell was loading his collection into that VFW hall, and the Greek Oak Township couldn't have been more grateful. So, why refer to it as an Ann Arbor pinball museum? "Because Ann Arbor sounds a lot better than Green Oak Township!" Harrel says "It's marketing, baby. That and who the hell has heard of Green Oak Township anyway?" Still, having watched in dismay as the building fell into disrepair, the township was elated at the prospect of a new caretaker moving in. Even so, there was still something of a catch: Due to zoning restrictions, The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum could not be open to the public on a regular basis. Enter the quarterly Ann Arbor Michigan Pinball Show, an event in which members of the public are permitted to enjoy a day of free play for the cost of a single ticket. Whether you happen to be a rabid player with tournament ambitions or a casual fan who just can't keep a ball in play, a mere $30 will permit you to play until your flipper fingers blister (and then some if you brought Band-Aids). Whether your preference is old school electromechanical or the latest, solid-state-powered table with eye-popping animation and lightning-fast play, you'll find row upon row of games that span the spectrum of the technology. It's an impressive sight made all the more remarkable by the fact that there are zero duplicates among the collection.
That, of course, was a conscious decision made by the proprietor that serves two primary purposes: First, it gives the visitor greater variety; second, it offers a better representation of the game's long and varied history. As Harrell puts it, "Pinball is like ice cream: There are vanillas and chocolates that everyone likes. Then there's green mint pistachio cherry that three people like but those people love that particular flavor and they'll do anything to get it. We've got a lot of these really weird flavors but also the vanillas and chocolates, too." But don't mistake him for a soda jerk. Harrell likens himself to a librarian, even though the sensory-shaking audio-visual assault of standing in this living museum brings to mind anything but a place of quiet study, the unblinking concentration of the devoted gamer does strangely mirror the focus of a driven student studying for finals. For those who take the game just that serious, the Pinball Show also features the "3rd Annual EM World Championships" on Friday morning, before the official opening, and a poker/pinball tournament at the tail end of the show on Saturday night. Feel free to pack a tent, too, because camping on-site is permitted so that after that last ball of the day falls out of play, you can drift asleep under shimmering stars, an electric lullaby still ringing in your ears.
Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.
The Ann Arbor Michigan Pinball Show will be held May 5-7 at Vintage Flipper World, aka The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum, 8891 Spicer Rd, Brighton. Visit the museum's website to buy tickets in advance; it will sell out. Visit vfwpinball.com for more info.