MY FIRST ARTICLE

 

by Russ Jensen

(Author's Note: This was the first pinball article I ever had published. It was published in the premier issue of AMUSEMENT REVIEW in March 1979)

Five balls for five cents! That doesn't sound like modern pinball! Well, you're right, it isn't, and this column has nothing to do with modern pinball, except maybe to compare it to earlier predecessors. This monthly column is devoted to the pinball machines of bygone years--those with wooden legs, brightly lighted scoreboards, and even those without flippers!

First, let me introduce myself and my fascination with pinball. I am Russ Jensen and my card reads "Pinball Collector and Historian." Even before I became interested in pinball, I was interested in electrical things. My father was an electrical engineer in the telephone industry and he began teaching me about electrical things early in my life. I read from his books about the "step-by-step dial system" and how relays and stepping switches operate and enjoyed experimenting with electrical circuits.

In the late forties, when I was 12 years old, my quest for electrical parts led me to the shop of a local coin machine operator, Glenn Catlin, of Montrose, California. I had seen electrical parts in his trash containers which were near a bus stop I frequented. When I asked if he had any old parts, his response was, "Yes, but how would you like a whole pinball machine instead!"

I barely knew what a pinball machine was, but it sounded good to me and I left with the understanding that I could have the machine if I could haul it away. Later that evening my father and I returned with the car and were given not one, but two pinballs, VARIETY and VOGUE, which I learned later were made by Bally in 1939.

Although I had read about relays in books, this was the first time I had come "face to face" with them, and after a little probing and adjusting, the games sprang to life. To this day, one of the greatest thrills in my relationship with pinballs is the initial "light up" of a long dormant game--when, for the first time in years, it is plugged in, the coin chute is pushed in, and something (no matter how small) happens.

As you can imagine, when the other kids in the neighborhood discovered my machines, they wanted one also, and within a few weeks my benefactor had provided about ten old pingames to local kids. I was the only one who knew anything about electrical circuits and became the repairman for all these games. My familiarity with the inside mechanisms of pinballs increased quickly.

As people became tired of playing their own game, trades ensued, and as a result I owned five or six different machines during junior high school.When my family moved in 1951 to a different city, I took one game with me, Exhibit's LANDSLIDE (1941). Before I graduated from high school in 1954, a friend and I dismantled the game, and my interest in pinball waned until years later.

In the late forties until around 1954 I also enjoyed playing some of the modern games of the period (with flippers, no less!). Most of my flipper playing was done during summer vacations in Memphis since at that time pinball machines were illegal in most of southern California. My uncle often treated me to nickels meant for pinballs--and in those days pinballs could be found almost everywhere in Memphis. One of the high points of my pinballing endeavors occurred when the same understanding uncle gave me $5 to spend entirely on pinballs during my return bus trip to California. Every Greyhound station had several machines, and there are quite a few stops between Memphis and L.A.!

Sometime in the early fifties I discovered that a different type of pinball game was starting to appear. It had no bells, flippers, or pop bumpers--just a lot of holes on the playfield, and it made a curious clicking sound even when it was not being played. These "In-Line" games, as they were called by the trade, fascinated me, not so much for their play appeal, but because of my curiousity as to their circuitry. I wrote a letter to Bally, the company which made most of these "bingo" games, and requested a schematic for their YACHT CLUB, the game I knew best. I was pleasantly surprised in a few weeks to receive in the mail not only a schematic, but an instruction and parts manual.

As a result of my communication with Bally, I began receiving their monthly newsletter "Bally Who" (which has since become a publication for Bally personnel only). The January 1953 issue proved to be especially interesting, as it commemorated the company's 20th anniversary with a four page ˙feature entitled "Twenty Years of BallyGames." It included a picture of one Bally game for each year and to my delight, 1938 was illustrated by Variety, my first pinball machine!

In the years between 1954 and 1973 my pinball interest essentially lay dormant, although I did occasionally play. I married and bought my home in 1965. Then about six years ago, while perusing that old issue of "BallyWho," my interest in pinballs resurfaced. I started thinking it would be nice to own a pinball again, so Jan, my wife, and I answered a classified ad for used pinballs at which time I purchased William's EIGHT BALL. It is a nice game, but not like the ones I had played during my childhood visits to Memphis. About a month later, a visit to the same place resulted in my bringing home Gottlieb's EASY ACES, a pinball with wooden legs and side rails similar to the games I had played in "the good old days."

I was then hooked on "wood rails", and in the years that followed, I began buying, selling, and trading mostly wood rail games. During one phone conversation, a dealer described what I immediately recognized as my first pinball, VARIETY. Needless to say, I bought it and still own and enjoy the game--it's a small pinball world! My collection grew and now includes nine vintage pinballs dating from the first Bally game Ballyhoo (1931) to a 1955 bingo machine.

Paralleling my pinball collecting has been an interest in the history and development of pinball, which explains my collection of pinball literature. I found no books on the subject at the time except for a booklet written by Rally's advertising manager and pinball industry pioneer, Herbert Jones.

After searching the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, I tracked down and copied all magazine articles pertaining to pinball. I learned that Billboard magazine in past years was one of the industry's main advertising mediums. The Los Angeles Public Library (fortunately only 50 miles from me) was one of the few places in the country where the entire collection of Billboard from 1894 on, is available on microfilm. I spent hours studying the microfilm˙ (especially issues from December 1938 through 1952), listing the pinball machines advertised, their manufacturers and dates of first advertisement.

Enough about me! What about future editions of this column! As I stated previously, I intend to devote my attention and this space to earlier pinballs, pre-1960. That year separates the era of "vintage pinball" from that of "modern," since this was when wooden legs and rails were replaced by stainless steel, and score indication using lighted patterns on the backglass were replaced by mechanical and digital scoring reels. This date criteria is certainly not sacred and later developments will occasional be discussed.

Upcoming columns will deal with such subjects as the definition of pinball (since several types of games have been called "pinball"); major changes in the general face of pinball; the development of components through the years such as bumpers, rollovers, targets, and relays; close-up descriptions of vintage machines; and from time to time, a bit of "pinball trivia."

I would greatly appreciate receiving readers' suggestions for future columns, questions concerning pinball and its history, and, of course, any criticisms or corrections. Letters maybe sent to me personally at 1652 Euclid Ave., Camarillo, CA 93010 or care of Amusement Review. Here's hoping that 5 Balls, 5 Cents will be rewarding for all of us in the months to come.

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