Do they still make pinball machines? They do, in a huge new factory near Chicago -- with most selling to the 1%

Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Lifestyles

When he meets me at the factory entrance, he steps back to reveal a vast cubicle farm.

It looks like a large tech start-up.

There’s no posterity-minded museum of old Stern machines; many were sold over the years to keep the company afloat. The only obvious link to the past is the antique playing boards that line the walls of the creative development department, serving as decor. The room is massive, two floors, high ceilings and, unlike older factories, lots of light. There’s the sales and marketing team. The operations team. The folks in tech services. At the back, where the familiar pinball ka-ching, ka-chings can be heard, are designers, artists, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, software developers.

Higher up, lining second-story offices, are images from the IP that now drives Stern, a who’s who of the cultural images that grace its machines: “Star Wars” and Marvel and Metallica and “Ghostbusters” and “Lord of the Rings” and Harley-Davidson and Led Zeppelin and “Stranger Things” and “Jurassic Park” and “The Simpsons” and Rush.

On a riser at the center of the floor are a few machines still being tested, in particular the new “Jaws” machine that Stern just released, with input from Steven Spielberg. Above the machine is a video camera, fixed on the board. If anything is off during testing, designers rewatch the footage. It takes a couple of years to get this far. The plunger — the pull-knob that fires a pinball — was crafted to resemble the yellow barrels Robert Shaw shot into the shark; to get it right, Universal Pictures loaned them a prop barrel to digitally scan. A shark head bursts from the board, lifting a fishing boat into the air. A miniature chum bucket swings. The reedy voice of Richard Dreyfuss — who recorded lines that get triggered throughout gameplay — bounces out.

As digital as the guts of this thing may be, the experience is far from virtual.


You can see why, as wildly unpredictable as the industry has been, it requires a factory. “It’s such a handcrafted product,” said Jack Guarnieri, owner of Jersey Jack Pinball. “People forget, yet anyone who makes these things can tell you: build 10 machines in a row with the same parts and, depending how tightly a rubber is fixed to a post, or how a lever gets adjusted, that’s an assembly line full of small tweaks. It’s not a video game.

“And yet that’s also the best part — the randomness.”

Before we go to the assembly line, a brief local history. The roots of pinball, some historians insist (including Sharpe), began with the invention of certain board-based games in the 19th century. But the first machines to resemble pinball as we know it — pegs, coin-operated play — appeared in the 1930s, with the Chicago-based company Gottlieb. Its success led to dozens of imitators; then soon, just a handful of Chicago makers. If you visited an arcade in the past 50 years, you know the names of the largest: Williams, Bally, Gottlieb. Flippers were added in the 1940s. Also, lights. Factories were scattered. Williams had a Waukegan plant for a time; Gottlieb was in Northlake. But for years, the action was around Humboldt Park and Roscoe Village.

Stern began with Sam Stern, a Philadelphia coat factory foreman who sought his luck in pinball and moved to Chicago. He became president of Williams, then Bally; in 1977 he bought the Chicago Coin gaming company and created Stern Electronics, which made the arcade classics Berzerk and Scramble. But pinball could not catch a break. For decades, several states and cities (including Illinois, New York and Los Angeles) deemed pinball illegal; legislators decried it a game of chance (i.e. gambling), or cited the industry’s uneasy proximity to Chicago mobs. By the 1970s most of those laws were dead, but then video games came along. After the arcade business collapsed in the early 1980s and Stern Electronics left gaming, Gary Stern, Sam’s son, started a pinball business as a subsidiary of the game company Data East.


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