Illinois Company Builds Pinball Machines

Made in America, Traditions
on March 2, 2008

Lonnie Ropp pulls back the spring-loaded plunger on a pinball machine parked beside his desk at Stern Pinball in Melrose Park, Ill. (pop. 23,171). His eyes follow the gleaming silver ball as it rockets to the top of the tilted table and darts among bumpers, targets and flippers in a razzle-dazzle of lights, bells and music.

Getting that free game is the thrillthats the rush of pinball, says Ropp, 46, a computer programmer who loves testing the games that he helps produce. Youre having a magic game where the ball refuses to drain.

The magic game of pinball is alive today because of Stern Pinball, the last pinball maker in the world. Owner Gary Stern continues the family legacy begun in 1947 when his father, Sam, became a partner in Williams Manufacturing, a Chicago pinball company. The elder Stern had been a pinball distributor since the early 1930s.

My dad was Mr. Pinball, says Stern, 62, recalling his fathers stories about dating his mother and the pair emptying the coin-operated machines on his vending route.

At age 16, Gary began working summers in the stockroom at Williams, then he and his father ran Stern Electronics from 1976 until his fathers death in 1984. How lucky I was to work with my dad, says Gary, whose company became the last pinball manufacturer in 1999 after video games drove its last competitor out of business.

From its beginning in the 1930s, pinball scored with Americans and kept manufacturers busy supplying games to arcades, bowling alleys and bars. Depending on a players skill, which came into play with the invention of the machines flipper in 1947, a nickel or dime could buy seconds or hours of entertainment.

Today, Stern manufactures thousands of pinball machines a year, producing three or four different models featuring TV or movie characters, such as The Simpsons, Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean. The company spends up to a year and $1 million designing a game.

Ten months before the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest was released, designer Dennis Nordman read the script at Walt Disney Pictures headquarters. You pick out the most important elements of the movie, he says. Todays games are fun because its like youre playing in the movie.

After placing main elements, such as Dead Mans Chest and the Flying Dutchman, on the playfield, he begins adding ramps and bumpers. The game is so three-dimensional that we have to look for ball traps. The design is a constantly evolving process, says Nordman, 60, who has worked in the pinball industry for 20 years.

The companys 60 employees build the electronic machineseach containing 3,500 parts and a half-mile of wiringbefore final inspection and testing. Everybody who works here is a pinball fanatic, Ropp says.

Today, baby boomers are Sterns main customers and machines often are delivered to homes instead of arcades. Collectors love pinball machines because of their resale value. A decade ago, a machine called Medieval Madness sold new for $4,000 and today the same game can bring $8,000.

Gary Stern is optimistic about pinballs future when he learns about a new generation of enthusiasts such as Chris Bucci, 30, of Harborcreek, Pa. (pop. 15,178). As soon as I was tall enough to stand on a crate and reach the flipper button I began playing, says Bucci, who bought his first game at 16 and today has 21 pinball machines lining his basement. Its a physical game and different every time.

As long as players thrill to the magical dance of the silver ball, Stern Pinball will provide the amusing machines that flash, ring, score and delightall for a couple of quarters.

We want to make a living at Stern, but we also have a mission, Gary says. If we ever quit, thats the end of pinball. A little bit of Americana will be lost.