PINBALL COLLECTING ON THE WEST COAST
By Russ Jensen
Russ Jensen's card reads "Pinbal2 Collector and Historian," a description he both fits and exceeds. Russ's love affair with pinbal2 began at 12 in Montrose, California when a local operator gave him two 1939 Bally games -- a VARIETY and a VOGUE.
Forced, during the 50's, to do most of his flipper playing on summer vacations in Memphis because of local prohibitions, Russ laments to this day the scarcity of wood-rail flippers in Southern California.
Russ's column, "5 Balls 5 Cents,” appeared in Amusement Review and he is a regular contributor to The Coin Slot.
When not pinballing, Russ is a civilian engineer with the U.S. Navy. He and his wife Jan live in Camarillo, California with their collection of vintage games. No matter where you live, it's worth the trip.
As hobbies go, pinball collecting is probably relatively new. But this is hard to determine since no one knows how many collectors there are. In any case, most of the collectors I know started collecting pins as a result of having enjoyed playing them in the past, and seem to have started collecting in the seventies. While collectors can be found almost everywhere, this article is an introduction to the West Coast pinball collecting scene for those of you who live in other parts of the country. While lots of topics will be covered, I won't reveal details of any particular collection, since I hope that individual collectors will "take pen in hand" in the future and write articles of their own describing their prize games.
Of the 35 or so pinball collectors I personally know of, slightly less than half live on the West Coast. Of these 16 people, 8 live in Southern California, 6 in Northern California (mostly in the bay area) and 2 live in Seattle. While there are no formal collectors organizations, many of these people know each other at least through letter or phone contacts. In my own case, some pinball acquaintances, like Sam Harvey and Jon Norris, have become good friends.
Swapping of information like copies of schematics and photos of machines is becoming more and more common as people begin to learn about each other. In fact, it is my opinion, that the unselfish free exchange of information among pinball collectors is more wide-spread than in any hobby I know.
West Coast collectors, like those in other parts of the country, represent all ages and occupations. I know a policeman, an engineer, an insurance agent and a contractor who have little in common but their love of pinball. It's interesting to note, however, that one occupation seems to predominate among pinball collectors -- that of educator, both at the High School and University level. For example, of the 16 West Coast pinball collectors that I know, there are 5 who are connected with some form of education.
The types of machines collected vary from collector to collector, but most people have defined or limited their collections in some way. While there are some "general collectors" who try to accumulate games from all eras (30's through 70's) most people tend to specialize. Some collectors specialize in 60's games. Some prefer "multiple coin" machines like "bingo's" and/or "one-balls." At least one collector I know prefers pre-flipper games and another is interested only in pins that incorporate the "captive ball" feature.
Probably the biggest difference between collecting pinballs on the West Coast and in other parts of the country is the availability of games. At least in Southern California, games of the thirties and forties are found more frequently than those of the fifties (which appear to be hardest to find). This scarcity of fifties machines in Southern California is probably the result of pingames being outlawed in many localities during that period. One city, which I believe always allowed pingames, was Long Beach. And many of the games surviving in this area today were operated there. I understand that fifties games are rather prevalent on the East Coast, the South and in the Mid-West. So it doesn't surprise me that many fifties machines purchased by Southern California collectors in the past several years have been shipped-in from other parts of the country. Pinballs from the sixties on the other hand are, for some reason, beginning to show up here more often in recent months than in the past.
The other big difference between pinball collecting on the West Coast and in other parts of the country appears to be the prices of older machines. Prices, in general, appear to be higher in the West, although occasional "bargains" can be found if you shop around. The lower prices for older pingames in other parts of the country are, most likely, the result of the greater availability of these machines as mentioned above. The scarcity of "wood-rail" flipper games on the West Coast is reflected in higher "asking prices" for these games (usually between $350 and $800). I stress ”asking price" since I'm sure, that in most cases, if a game is actually sold the price paid is generally less than what was originally asked by the seller. Most sellers here are private parties who have come by these games sometime in the past and have no real idea what they are worth. They usually ask a high price, believing the game is "antique" and, therefore, worth a lot of money. When confronted with the "real world" of potential buyers, these people usually discover their initial price to be unrealistic and eventually settle for quite a bit less.
My own experience has been that if I see a game I would like to own advertised at a high price, I wait awhile and let the seller discover from other potential buyers that his price is too high. In most cases, I end up with the game at a much lower price without the frustration of haggling. Of course, you always run the risk of someone else buying it first -- but it's usually worth the gamble.
As far as repair parts go, the situation here is probably just like it is everywhere else. Unless you are lucky enough to find a cache of parts from an old operator (as one California collector recently did), parts are generally of two types. "New" ones, or those cannibalized from other games. By "new" parts, I mean parts manufactured for pingames of the seventies (primarily coils) that will fit older games. (I am constantly amazed by the high degree of interchangeability of parts among games made in so many eras by different manufacturers). Unfortunately, these "new" parts will soon begin to disappear since new ones are being used in today's solid state pins. So stock up now -- while you still can.
The second source of parts is the "parts game." An unrestorable machine that has been declared a source of parts. It is usually very difficult for a collector to make such a decision about a game since the desire to restore it is always foremost in his mind.
My personal criteria for a "parts game" require that both the playfield and the backglass be badly damaged or missing. Or, that the internal wiring be almost completely destroyed or missing several major components. The playfield damage must be extreme warping or buckling of the surface or extreme loss of the painted artwork.
But once the hard decision to "part-out" a machine has been made, these games contain a wealth of usable electrical and mechanical replacements. Such games should be considered "treasures," since one "parts game" can provide material for countless restorations.
What will the future of pinball collecting on the West Coast be? Only time will tell. The availability of games could decrease, but I think there are still enough old pins lurking about to satisfy us for some time to come. And, since I'm closing on a positive note, let me add that I believe the spirit of increased cooperation and interchange of information among fellow collectors can only serve to strengthen the hobby and make it even more enjoyable for all.
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