- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

ASBURY PARK, N.J. Tilt. Game over? Not quite but the venerable pinball machine, once the undisputed arcade king from the Jersey Shore boardwalks to the Santa Monica Pier, is certainly down to its last ball.
In the computerized, digitalized world of high-tech entertainment, the pinball machine clings to a diminished niche. Of the big four companies that once cranked out 100,000 glitzy machines a year, only one survives and it produces a fraction of that figure.
Even worse, the proudly made-in-the-U.S.A. pinball machine "as American as apple pie," as one arcade owner notes now finds its biggest market in France, where it's as popular as snails and Jerry Lewis.
What is the world coming to?
"It's a shame," says Walt Levine, a 25-year industry veteran, offering an oft-echoed opinion. "This could be a thing of the past."
Don't say that around the last bastion of pinball optimism: suburban Melrose Park, Ill., home of the family-owned Stern Pinball. Company president Gary Stern believes his business can keep the flippers flailing where others have failed.
"We no longer talk about how we're the last man standing," says Mr. Stern, a friendly sort who's quick with a quip or a wisecrack. "Now we just talk about how we intend to be around for a long time to come."
Mr. Stern's is a lonely voice above the revving motors, soaring spacecraft and Dolby sounds that accompany the new generation of arcade games. Many in the industry fear the silver ball is headed south toward oblivion.
Bob Haim, co-owner of the Long Island-based pinball distributor R.H. Belam, has watched pinball's steady decline. His father founded the business in 1946; his son Daniel is a law school student and unlikely successor to the clan's pinball wizardry.
"I doubt he'll go into this business," the elder Mr. Haim says. "His generation is part of the problem."
It's a generation raised on virtual reality, Nintendo and Sony PlayStation, a generation that views the pinball machine as an anachronism a rusted-out pickup truck barely putt-putt-putting into the 21st century.
"There's a new generation brought up on games off their computers," Mr. Levine says with a shrug. "The pinball player maybe played in college, or in a local bar. That's in the past."
The pinball game was never merely about money. To die-hard players, it was the stuff of both poetry and patriotism.
"As American as apple pie," Mr. Levine says.
Surf-side songwriter Bruce Springsteen, once a regular at the Casino Amusements in Asbury Park, recalled the halcyon days of pinball in his 1974 song "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)."
The "wizards play down on Pinball Way," the Boss sang wistfully, "on the boardwalk way past dark."
The pinball machine debuted in 1931, a hardy contraption that quickly became a hit in most places. It was first a gambling machine that offered players a cash payout if they could score points without "tilting" the machine rattling it so hard that it shuts down.
The payoff later was reduced to a free game or two for beating certain scores.
Steve Epstein, founder of the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association, began hosting a national pinball championship in 1990. Competitors vied for thousands in prize money inside Manhattan's funky Lone Star Roadhouse.
Where did it all go wrong? Folks in the business offer these explanations:
Rather than staying old school, the companies tried to compete with video games. "They gave pinball lots of glitz and gizmos," Levine offers, "but they had games with very little soul."
The new, souped-up machines required expensive, time-consuming repairs when they broke. A video game ordinarily needed just a quick wipe with a dust rag.
The return on the games was insufficient. In 1976, a game of pinball cost 25 cents, and a machine ran about $2,000. In 1990, the cost was still 25 cents; the price of a machine had doubled.
When all the arcade dust settled, Stern was the last pinball production company in the world. But when Mr. Stern looks into the future, he sees a vision of the past.
"Pinball is sort of retro, which is a big word these days," Mr. Stern says. "Retro is the 'in' thing. Think of a cool 1978 VW Beetle that's nostalgia. But a brand-new Beetle that's retro."

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