Last one standing: Stern Pinball Mfg.

I read this in Parade Magazine. Taking a break from the craziness of the world and times we live in. It happens every now and then here. It really hit home with me as I grew up playing pinball machines, bowling, shooting pool and fishing, lots of fishing. Pinball, I remember when when you got 3 games for twenty five cents. My friends and myself for $5.00,  could bowl a few games, shoot some stick and play pinball. Yeah, that was quite a few years in the past. Do you recall the main players in this industry? Gottlieb, Bally, Williams and many others. Now there is just one left, the last one standing. Stern Pinball is it. They sell for around 10,000 pinball machines a year.

We have two children who grew up with all the latest technology. The video games we managed to keep out of home for many, many years. I just did not get it nor did my wife. How could they sit there for hours on end, playing a stinking video game? The same way my generation played pinball, shot pool and bowled. There is a big difference between video games and pinball machines. With pinball, you either had it or you didn't. The touch, the feel, the sense of knowing the difference in the company machines, the individual untis, the games that were great and the ones that really sucked. No two machines were alike even if they were the same game, same manufacturer. The sounds the games made were simple and not violent in any way. Can you say that about video games? I do not see how? Sure, there is a controller and the graphics are incredible and getting better all the time. It is not the same. RPG games are quite the ticket now and the sounds can shake an entire home if one has the sound system to go with the game. Pinball actually took some skill and finesse. You can't tilt a video gamelike a pinball machine.

This is an American company, the last one standing in an industry that time has passed by but is not dead yet. If I had the space and the money I would have several pinball machines in the house. I would set them up to play for a nickel a game. The story is all too familiar in this country. From 150 companies down to one. 100,000 machines sold a year back in 1993, down to 10,000 this year. Hats off to Stern Pinball Company. I hope they do not get 'tilted' out of business. Pinball, or whatever product is being manufactured, if it is an American company, we need each and every one.

Big Indian(Gottlieb,1974)
Keeping a Pinball Wizard's Dream Alive
by Mitch Albom

At Stern Pinball, employees must play the machines 15 minutes each day.

Ever since I was a young boy, I've played the silver ball. But I'm no longer a young boy. And the silver balls are disappearing.

Pinball is hanging by a thread. Once you couldn’t go to a bowling alley or an arcade without hearing the ching-ching-ching of those pleasure machines. The Who wrote a rock opera about a pinball player. Fonzie banged the flippers on Happy Days.

In the 1930s, there were around 150 small companies making some sort of pinball. As late as 1993, there were 100,000 machines sold in a year.

But this year, pinball production may be 10,000 machines total -- all of them by one company. Famous names like Bally, Gottlieb, and Williams are gone. There is only one soldier left in the bells-and-bumpers army.

Galaxy, (Stern 1981)
Stern Pinball. If it goes, pinball goes.

"Don't say we're the last -- say we're the only," president Gary Stern jokes. "'Last' sounds like we're dying."

Happily, The Only Pinball Maker on Earth is not dying. At 65, Stern remains an optimistic, wisecracking guru. He answers his own phone; no secretaries shield him. At his factory in Melrose Park, Ill., even high-level employees "must play 15 minutes a day of pinball." They make notes. Discuss how a ball played. Stern's father, Samuel, began as a game operator in the 1930s. The son carries on -- despite obstacles.

"The economics of starting a pinball company today wouldn't make sense," Stern says.

He points to the half mile of wire in a typical machine, the thousands of components, the intricate design, and the price tag -- around $5,000 -- for a new machine. And where do you put it?

"Years ago, when a kid went to pick up a pizza, he'd play a game of pinball while he waited," Stern says. "Today he's texting on his phone.

"Our competition now comes from video games, Xboxes, computer apps, even Internet gambling."

The game world has gone wireless and portable. A machine that stands more than 6 feet tall and weighs nearly 300 pounds seems like a cruise ship.

But that's the uniqueness of pinball. You can't just do it while you're bored at work. It's a game of touch, action, movement, and unpredictability.

"The ball is wild," Stern says. "That's the magic."

So Stern and company soldier on, producing a few new models each year. Movie and TV themes are the most popular (Batman, Shrek, Spider-Man), and in many cases, Stern licenses the real actors' voices. ("Arnold Schwarzenegger did the lines for our Terminator machine.")

Stern's newest model is based on Avatar and will feature 3-D elements. It's a long way from pinball's roots, which stretch back to the French Bagatelle machines of the late 1700s. The coil-and-spring plunger was invented in 1871. Flippers came during the 1940s.

It would be a shame to lose something so steeped in the history of leisure time. "Certainly the world would exist without pinball," Stern says, "but a little of the fabric of life would be gone."

So The Only Pinball Maker on Earth keeps shipping his machines -- to arcades, to overseas clients, to people's homes. Maybe you played pinball as a kid. Maybe you had a favorite that you knew so well you could keep a ball alive for four or five minutes -- until you heard that free-game knock. If so, you know the spark Gary Stern and his employees feel every day.

"In business school, they teach you to be in love with business, but not your business," Stern says, chuckling. "We break that rule. We're in love with our business. It's pinball."

The flippers are in good hands.

Original article is here

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