THE "WONDER-STAR PINGAMES"
- THEY'RE "SPECIAL WHEN LIT"
By Russ Jensen
I'm sure many of you sometime in the past have heard one or both of these expressions regarding something being brightly lit - either "lit up like a Christmas tree" or "lit up like a pinball machine" - I know I have. Well, it turns out that there once was a connection between pingames and Christmas trees, believe it or not!
Back in 1939 the Exhibit Supply Company produced three pingames which boasted an unusual style light-up bumper known as "Wonder-Star Bumpers". These bumpers utilized lights which were constructed from a special type of Christmas tree lamp also known as the "Wonder-Star". But more about these Christmas tree lights shortly.
First, let me tell how the idea for this article came about. The story starts many years ago when my good friend and fellow pinball collector Richard Conger of Sebastopol, California first got involved with pinballs as a young teenager.
Young Richard had acquired two old pingames, Genco's FORMATION from 1941 and Gottlieb's wartime game KEEP-EM-FLYING, (for that story see Richard's Coin Slot People interview in the Summer 1992 issue of COIN SLOT) and had them in his bedroom. At the same time a friend loaned Richard an additional game, Exhibit Supply's 1939 pingame CONTACT, which just happened to have the aforementioned "Wonder-Star Bumpers".
When that friend later moved from the area he took his CONTACT with him, but that game and its unusual bumpers stuck in Richard's mind. A few years ago Richard, who had grown up and had increased his pinball collection to several hundred pingames, acquired another 1939 Exhibit game, AIRLINER, which had these same bumpers; but he still yearned for his long remembered CONTACT.
Sometime after obtaining AIRLINER Richard was perusing the Antique Trader advertising paper when he saw an ad from collectors Jim and Treva Courter of Simpson, Illinois wanting to purchase "Wonder-Star" Christmas tree lights. Richard immediately realized that the Christmas lights pictured in their ad were the same as were used on both CONTACT and AIRLINER.
At that point Richard corresponded with the Courters who were surprised to learn that their favorite Christmas tree lamps were also used on pinball machines. Richard, however, was still interested in acquiring an Exhibit CONTACT.
Now, a short time back, Richard received from a fellow coin machine collector back East a bunch of clippings involving pinball related items taken from various antique advertising papers. While looking through these Richard was stunned to find a letter to the editor to one of these papers from a person only referring to himself as "S.K." from Green Bay, Wisconsin which included a photo of Exhibit's CONTACT which he owned and requesting information as to its age and value.
That was the "good news"; the "bad news" being that the clipping was about a year old. Determined to try and locate "S.K.", Richard phoned the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce and got the name and address of a local newspaper. He then placed a classified ad for a two week period asking that the "S.K." who owned a CONTACT pinball game call him.
Well, believe it or not, within three days "S.K." called Richard and before long a deal was struck and Richard made arrangements to have his long sought after prize shipped to him. But, I'm very sad to report, the game got damaged in shipment and the "Wonder-Star" lamps were broken. Richard, however, had once located some of the Christmas tree variety lamps and is currently attempting to restore his prize.
Richard's story, however, was only half my impetus for writing about these games. As some of you who have been reading my past articles might recall, I have mentioned several times a "pet project" of mine - to discover the identity of the first pingame to use the once common pinball term (and scoring feature) "SPECIAL WHEN LIT".
For the uninitiated an explanation of SPECIAL WHEN LIT might be in order. This notation on a pinball playfield for many years (primarily throughout the 1940's and 1950's) meant that if a certain scoring objective (bumper, kickout hole, or rollover switch) was activated by a ball in play, and an associated light in or near that item was lit, then the player would be awarded one free game (or "replay"). The term "EXTRA SPECIAL WHEN LIT" meant essentially the same thing except that in that case more than one replay could be earned by the action.
In the past I had narrowed the date of this down to sometime in 1939, but could not say for sure, although I had made a good guess which game it was, which just happened to be correct. In order to verify this, however, I needed to look at the advertisements for all pingame produced in 1939.
So to solve this mystery once and for all, I purchased from the New York Public Library the microfilm of BILLBOARD magazine (one of the major advertising media for the coin machine industry at that time) for the entire year of 1939. I then began my search of the pingame ads looking for the first use of "SPECIAL WHEN LIT".
After searching through the first of two rolls of film (which went through April) I found no such game. A search of the second roll, however, verified my original guess that the game in question was Exhibit Supply's AVALON which was first advertised in August. That game, incidentally, also had the aforementioned "Wonder-Star bumpers".
At that point I began searching the rest of the 1939 ads for the second use of "SPECIAL WHEN LIT", but was quite surprised to not find another game that year to use it. But, since my Genco METRO from late 1940 uses the term (or at least EXTRA SPECIAL), the second "SPECIAL WHEN LIT" game must have come out sometime in 1940, but I don't think I'll invest the money to find out, at least not at this time.
(NOTE: Since first writing the above I have gained a little more information regarding the second "Wonder Star pinball". When my friend Sam Harvey showed me some photos he had taken at a Northern California pinball 'get-together' called "Pinathon", two of these photos were for the early 1940 Gottlieb pingames BORDER TOWN and BIG SHOW, both of which had "Specials". I still don't know, however, which (if either of these) is the second "Special When Lit game".)
So, to sum up; I had long planned to write an article about the first "SPECIAL WHEN LIT" game when I firmly established what that was. After I discovered that it also had "Wonder-Star bumpers", and heard Richard Conger's story about obtaining CONTACT, and also heard that "Wonder-Star" Christmas lamps were collectors items, I thought I would put it all together in one article.
THE CHRISTMAS LIGHTS
Before I start discussing the pingames, a few words about the Wonder-Star Christmas tree lights. When I decided to write this article I contacted Bill Courter in Illinois and asked for information on the Wonder-Star lamps and their manufacturer. Mr. Courter sent me a nice "care package" containing pictures and written information regarding these interesting items.
A one page information sheet which he sent, titled "The Matchless Electric Company and Their Wonder-Stars", written by Bill and his wife Treva, provided the following information: "The Wonder-Star has been called the 'aristocrat of Christmas lights.' They are unique, beautiful, and a joy to behold. Wonder-Stars were made by the Matchless Electric Company in Chicago, Illinois. The stars were used for both indoor and outdoor lighting.
The Matchless Electric Company was incorporated in Illinois in 1918 by Paul C. Dittman, Otto Berndt, and Jacob H. Jaffe, 'to manufacture, buy, sell, and deal in electric, automobile and bicycle supplies and accessories.'
The company was changed to Century Lamp and Tube Company in 1930. Century Lamp and Tube was dissolved as an Illinois corporation in 1934.
Paul Dittman was the principle stockholder in a new company called The D-G Electric Company incorporated in Illinois in 1929 by Samuel E. Hirsch, Sidney J. Wolf, and Robert Cohler: 'to deal in all kinds and descriptions of electrical devices and apparatus...' The D-G Electric Company changed its name to Matchless Electric Company in 1931."
The names of that company's stockholders, and the patents the company held for Wonder-Star lamps were then listed. The paper then went on to say:
"The Matchless Electric Company apparently did very little consumer advertising. No ads have been found in the popular magazines of the time. Wonder-Stars are shown in the 1939 and 1940 Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogs and no others. The glass stars were called 'Star Lights' in the 1939 catalog. The company did put out literature and a two-page information sheet was published in THE GOLDEN GLOW, courtesy of David Harms in 1988."
After listing the various sizes of Wonder-Stars (there were 7, ranging from 1 15/16" to 3 1/8"), the paper concluded with the following remarks:
"The stars were sold through department stores such as Marshall Fields, Chicago (I have a box confirming this). The glass Wonder-Stars were apparently sold during the 1930's and early 1940's. Some glass points have a small round sticker indicating that they were imported from Czechoslovakia.
The Matchless Electric Company was dissolved as a corporation in 1954. However, our research indicates that the Matchless Electric Company continued in business through 1959-60. No listings are to be found in the Chicago and Cook County Industrial Directory or in the Illinois Manufacturers Directory after 1960. We do not know what products the company sold or if they continued producing Christmas lights during these later years."
Finally, on a personal note, I can remember very well my parents having several "Wonder-Star" lights on our family Christmas tree in the 1940's when I was a kid.
Now that you know something about the Wonder-Star Christmas lights, let's talk about the pingames.
THE 'WONDER-STAR' PINBALLS
When Exhibit Supply Co. advertised its first pingame to use "Wonder-Star" bumpers, CONTACT, in Billboard magazine in April of 1939, these unique bumpers only got a passing comment. An arrow pointing to these unusual lights merely referenced a comment which stated "'Wonder-Star' Bumpers. First Time Ever Used On Any Coin Machine"; the real fanfare for these devices having to wait for the next game to use them.
CONTACT, however, was highly touted in the advertisement, especially as to its earning power for operators, with such statements as "Smashes All Records for Earnings - DEMANDED EVERYWHERE" and "2200 Locations Can't Be Wrong". In addition, the ads for CONTACT in both Billboard and the other popular coin machine trade magazine of the time, Automatic Age, showed the playfield layout with arrows pointing to the game's various play features.
CONTACT's fascinating 'light animated' backglass was amply described. Its primary scene showed an aircraft carrier with an airplane constantly taking off, making a loop, and landing back on the ship. Hit's of the game's 100 point bumpers caused this to happen.
Other descriptive panels and associated arrows in the ad pointed out the other backglass features, such as the lighted name panel, the thousands light panels, the 10,000 panels, and the free-game projector found on the 'replay models' of the game.
The game's 'action features' were also highly touted in the ads. Most of CONTACT's action came from its many "pop-out scoring pockets" which were said to provide "thrilling action" and also to be "absolutely new".
This last claim, however, was not entirely true as they were apparently a modernized revival of the first electrical action device, the ball eject holes introduced by Harry Williams on his famous game, also called CONTACT, about five years earlier.
This probably was not such a coincidence, however, since at the time Exhibit's CONTACT was produced Harry Williams was working for the company and probably involved directly with the design of this great game also. Incidentally, when the original CONTACT came out a version of it was also produced by Exhibit which was called LIGHTNING.
CONTACT had no less than 13 "pop-out pockets" scoring anywhere from 500 to 3000 points when a ball landed into one of them. The action of these pockets was described in detail in the Automatic Age ad which stated "IMPORTANT - When a ball falls into a 500, 1000, 1500, or 3000 pocket the ball remains until the value of the pocket is counted by HUNDREDS! Each hundred as counted registers of back board".
Other CONTACT features described in the ads included two rollover channels which scored 1000 when associated "Wonder-Star" bumpers were lit, and a "trap ball" feature. That feature involved a ball being held in a special "pop-out" hole near the bottom of the playfield if it landed there. That ball could later be kicked out, directly into a hole which returned the ball to be played again, if another ball crossed a special rollover near the center of the playfield, and also provided that two "Wonder-Star" bumpers associated with it were lit.
Well, as you can see, Exhibit's CONTACT from 1939 had many interesting play features. This in addition to it being the first game to use the unusual "Wonder-Star" Christmas tree light bumpers.
After CONTACT, two games were issued by Exhibit before they again used the "Wonder-Star" bumper. ZIP, first advertised in Billboard in June, had a roller coaster scene on its backglass. This was followed by FLASH about a month later which had a speedboat racing theme.
Both of these games did, however, feature the "pop-up pockets" as used on CONTACT. FLASH even had a hole which gave 4 replays when it was lit; but it was not labeled "Special" however.
Then about a month later, Exhibit came out with their second "Wonder-Star" game, AVALON. Unlike CONTACT which barely mentioned its "Wonder-Stars" in its advertisement, AVALON gave them plenty of fanfare! There were pictures of stars all over the ad, even in the game's name and also used as "bullets" to highlight a list of some of the game's features.
There was one thing about these stars, however, which "Wonder-Star" expert Bill Courter pointed out to me when I sent him a copy of the AVALON ad. The stars which adorned the ad for decoration all had eight points. The "Wonder-Star" bumpers (and Christmas lights) only had seven. The illustration of the playfield lights, however, did show the proper number of points.
In the center of the ad, five of AVALON's special attractions were listed, each labeled as "NEW". The first of these referred to the "Wonder-Star" bumpers and stated "Wonder-Star Bumpers - alive with color and dazzling brilliance. Stand out with jewel- like beauty - compelling constant play". The reference to "Wonder-Stars" being "NEW" was of course not really accurate as they had previously been used on CONTACT several months earlier.
It should also be noted that the emphasis on "Wonder-Stars" on AVALON was so great that they were the only scoring components of the playfield. There were no "pop-up pockets" whatsoever!
The second "NEW" feature listed for AVALON was its "Special When Lit" bumpers. This, as I said earlier, was the first game to use this pinball term which was to be used on many, many games for several decades to come.
The idea of a playfield component awarding the player one or more replays when a light associated with it was lit was not entirely new, however, as in the case of FLASH's 4 replay "pop-up pocket" mentioned previously. What was new was the term "Special" used in that connection.
The third "NEW" feature described was referred to as a "rambling thousand light". Apparently the "Wonder-Star" bumpers (other than the two "Specials") would take turns lighting up during the game, the lit one scoring 1000 vice 100 as the unlit ones did.
Still another "NEW" feature on AVALON was referred to in the ad as its "New Mystery High Score Feature". This consisted of the game giving ("spotting", as it was called) the player one to four thousand points at the start of a new game on a random basis.
Well, as you can see, AVALON was a very flashy, feature packed pingame. Its backglass featured a nice beach scene which, I would imagine, was supposed to depict the beach near the city of Avalon on Catalina Island just of shore from Los Angeles.
I don't know of anyone who currently owns an AVALON; it is apparently a pretty rare piece. All I know for sure is that Richard Conger would love to own one to complete his ""Wonder- Star" pingame collection.
Well, the final pingame in Exhibit's 1939 "Wonder-Star derby" was AIRLINER, which was released (or at least advertised) less than a month after AVALON. The ad for AIRLINER was interesting because in contained absolutely no mention of "Wonder Star bumpers", only referring to them as "new type bumpers".
Unlike its predecessors, AIRLINER was a comparatively simple game, but probably not too easy to "beat", however. It had no point scoring at all; only an eleven number sequence, the completing of various parts of which enabled certain roll-over channels for scoring of free games ("replays").
The advertisement for the game did not say, but judging by the large number of replays possible if more than a few numbers in the sequence were completed, I would believe that the bumpers had to be hit in exact order ('1' first, then '2', etc.) in order to register. The way the game worked was like this:
If bumpers '1' through '3' were hit, a roll-over channel marked 'A' would be lit and any ball passing through it would give the player 2 replays. The next three numbers in sequence ('4', '5', '6') lit another channel ('B') which scored 4 replays. One additional number ('7') lit roll-over 'C' which scored 8 replays. Bumper '8' lit still another channel ('D') which scored 10 replays.
If the player was lucky enough to complete the entire eleven number sequence (which I should imagine was almost impossible to do) two things happened. First, an additional roll-over channel ('E') was lit which could score 20, 30, 40, or 50 replays (the amount preset by the operator who owned the machine). In addition, the player was given an extra ball to use to try and get through one or more of the five lit (and high replay scoring) channels.
At first glance one might think that AIRLINER would be an easy game to "beat" (win replays and thus play several games for free). But, by looking at the playfield layout, it would appear than even if the player completed enough of the sequence to light one or more of the replay scoring roll-overs, that getting a subsequent ball into a replay scoring channel would be no easy task. Those channels were well 'guarded' by rubber covered ball deflecting plastic pieces as well as by the bumpers themselves.
All in all, AIRLINER appeared to be a very challenging "sequence only" (no point scoring) game which lured the player into believing he could really "make a killing" by scoring a huge number of replays.
This type of game in those days was probably primarily used for gambling (the location paying the player off in cash for his free-game winnings). This as opposed to the "high score games", such as CONTACT and AVALON, where players often competed against each other to obtain the highest score.
Well, there you have it, a look at three interesting Exhibit Supply pingames of 1939. Although varied in play features they all had one thing in common - unique lighted bumpers fashioned from, of all things, Christmas tree lights; the history of which was also touched on.
In addition, I have finally answered for sure the question which has been nagging me for years - what was the first pingame to use the famous pinball term "Special When Lit"? The second "Special When Lit" game, however, must remain a mystery, at least for a little longer.
In closing, I would like to offer special thanks to Bill Courter and his wife Treva for the information they provided on the history of the "Wonder-Star" Christmas lights. If any of you have any information on the whereabouts of any "Wonder-Stars", or the Aladdin kerosine lamps which they also collect, you can contact them at Rt. #1, Simpson, IL, 62985 or by calling (or FAXing) 618-949-3884.
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