Pinball Hall of Fame

Odd Collections, On the Road, People, This Week in History, Travel Destinations
on January 6, 2011
David Becker Tim Arnold keeps the love for pinball alive at the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

Tim Arnold, 54, is a study in concentration as he hunches over his favorite pinball game, a 1976 Jack’s Open, inside his Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, Nev.

Middle fingers on the flipper buttons and eyes focused on a silver ball bouncing around the colorful playfield, Arnold leans forward with quiet intensity—one leg forward, one leg back—using both subtle wrist movements and body-heaving jerks to propel the ball upward. “Ping, ping, ping!” sounds the machine as the ball knocks down one drop-down target after another, rhythmically ratcheting up Arnold’s score.

“It’s man versus machine,” Arnold says later, recapping his performance. “With a nudge or shake, you can change everything. You fight against the ball and gravity. There’s thinking and strategy involved.”

In a city known for video poker, roulette wheels and slot machines, Arnold has created a nostalgic oasis of vintage pinball machines from the 1940s to the 1990s at his Las Vegas attraction, where both retro-minded novices and genuine pinball wizards pit their prowess against gravity—all while donating quarters to charity.

“The Pinball Hall of Fame is the only place in the world to lay your hands on a significant collection of pinball machines,” says Michael Schiess, executive director of the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, Calif., which celebrates the art, science and history of pinball. “Often collectors are wealthy people who have them in their private game rooms. Collectors for the most part never let the public play their machines.”

For Arnold, half the fun of pinball is watching other people play—not just look at—the vintage machines he has loved since age 14 when he bought his first one, a 1966 Gottlieb game called Mayfair, while growing up in Lansing, Mich. Later, he and his older brother, Tom, owned Pinball Pete’s arcades in Lansing and Ann Arbor, Mich., during the coin-operated Pac-Man era. In 1990, as the videogame industry boomed, Arnold sold his share of the arcade business, retired and moved to Las Vegas, bringing along 400 of the 1,000 pinball machines he eventually accumulated while shaping his vision of a place for people to play the great machines of the past for fun—and charity.

He and his wife, Charlotte, built a 10,000-square-foot building in their backyard to store and restore his machines. There, the couple began hosting “fun night” fundraisers, donating $600,000 to the Salvation Army and other local charities over six years.

“When I was growing up, every adult I knew belonged to some kind of social club and did fundraisers to help those in need,” he says. “My thinking was, ‘Why don’t we pinball collectors do something to help our community and have fun?”

Arnold organized the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club as a nonprofit social club, which in 2009 purchased a 9,000-square-foot building on East Tropicana Avenue, a few blocks off Vegas’ famous Strip, to hold 250 of Arnold’s machines for the general public to enjoy.

Nondescript from the outside, the building has a carnival-like atmosphere inside and features row after row of colorful, blinking-light games. Amid the aroma of popcorn, games featuring gun-slinging cowboys, aliens and movie character heroes come alive alongside Stage Door Canteen (1946), Foto Finish (1961) and one of only two Pinball Circus (1993) machines ever made.

Open six days a week with no admission charge, the museum draws 200 to 300 visitors each day, and the biggest challenge is maintaining the machines, says Arnold, one of the all-volunteer staff who keep the Pinball Hall of Fame humming.

“I’m living off scrap (for parts),” he says. “I go to thrift stores and buy blenders; people who made motors for blenders also made motors for pinball. I take the gears out to replace stripped gears on pinball machines.”

For Arnold, the payoff is the “look of pure nostalgia” on the faces of people who walk into the hall of fame. Pinball attracts predominantly middle-age males longing for the bumpers, bells and metallic pings of their youth, but women like the games, too.

“I grew up on arcade games and like that you can actually play the old machines,” says Vickie Morris, 50, of Clemmons, N.C., deftly handling the flippers on a vintage machine.

Her friend Janice Markovics, 56, of Winston-Salem, N.C., discovered the museum on the Internet while planning their trip. “We were looking for alternative entertainment in Vegas and were drawn here like moths to a flame. This takes me back to my childhood.”