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Pinball Wizards of Orange County

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Nothing obvious separates the home of Brad Chamberlain from the others on this quiet, tree-lined Anaheim Hills street. Two stories, a small front yard, two-car garage.

But inside, medieval knights hoist their lances. Detectives interrogate murder suspects. An annoying kid with a big, fat mouth constantly taunts. Hell, even Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson are at the party. People plunge, flip and shoot.

And nobody's high on anything; except pinball.

Brad Chamberlain playing 'Bride of Pinbot' | Photo: Joel Beers.

It's the monthly meeting of the Orange County Pinball League, and some 50 people ranging in ages from 18 to 60 are competing on 12 of the nearly 40 pinball machines in Chamberlain's house. Chamberlain's gig is installing and operating pool tables, ATM machines, electronic jukeboxes and pinball machines in bars, pizza parlors and other businesses throughout Orange County and neighboring environs.

But his passion, like his fellow competitors, are these marvelous hybrids of sound and spectacle, electronic and software; machines designed for amusement that are as enjoyable to look at as they are to play. And they're quite addictive.

"Hey, I didn't even like pinball that much when I was growing up," says Chamberlain, 45. "I mean I played it, but I was into video games. But once I joined this league, I couldn't stop playing."

'The Twilight Zone' | Photo: Joel Beers.

Before you read on, let's get one thing straight. You're about to be disappointed. After reading this story, perhaps your teen-age memories of playing pinball may be rekindled and you might be tempted to reach out to the Orange County Pinball League and request membership. Too bad. The league is maxed out. A couple of months ago, the Orange County Register ran a story on the league and some 40 people e-mailed the league asking to participate.

"We hate to say no but there's only so much room," said the league's founder Chris Enright.

The league, which was founded in 2005, meets once a month at private houses in Orange and Riverside counties and Long Beach. The houses need to be large enough to accommodate 50 members competing on 12 pinball machines. And while not all of the league's members own that many machines, there are enough diehard collectors to keep the league running at full tilt.

In Chamberlain's house, only the kitchen, bathrooms and a cozy entertainment center look normal. The rest of it -- the living room, two upstairs bedrooms and his garage -- is lined wall-to-wall with pinball machines and classic video games. And even when he's not hosting a league meeting, chances are good he or his partner, Jesse Preciado, are getting in touch with their inner teen.

'Monopoly', 'The Simpsons' | Photo: Joel Beers.

Unlike many other collectibles -- Barbie dolls that never leave the box, baseball cards that never leave their plastic sleeves, comic books left unread -- if you collect pinball machines, you're banging your pleasure machines every chance you get. Gross, I know, but it's true. Pinball makes everyone happy, no matter what.

"I don't think any pinball collector doesn't play (his or her) machines," Chamberlain said. "It's impossible not to."

'Indiana Jones' | Photo: Joel Beers.

The advent of video games in the 1980s could have signaled the death of pinball. Once Pac-Man, Defender and Asteroids captured the youthful amusement game market, pinball seemed, for many, an antiquated relic. But pinball manufacturers kept tweaking their games, adding ramps for high-speed performance, state-of-the-art sound and visual effects, and creating literal works of art.

"There was resurgence in interest in pinball machines around 1990," Chamberlain said. "While they're still rare to find them on-site, the collector's market is very strong."

Chamberlain operates about a dozen pinball machines in Orange County, Long Beach and Riverside County. It's a small part of his business but one very close to his heart.

'The Simpsons' | Photo: Joel Beers.

"These things are works of art and, since every one of them can be modified, they really appeal to people like engineers or who like to tinker with these," Chamberlain said.

Today, only one manufacturer, Chicago-based Stern, makes pinball machines. It makes two a year, with each release numbering 5,000. New, they retail for about $4,500. Their value obviously drops once they're played but, if you were able to snatch up one of the most popular machines of the early 1990s, such as "Elvira's Scared Stiff," "The Addams Family," or "The Twilight Zone," and were able to keep your hands off it, it can fetch much more.

'Elvira's Scared Stiff' | Photo: Joel Beers.

"I've seen some machines that are still in the box going for as much as $20,000 on eBay," Chamberlain said. And they are definite works of art. Sure, most works of art don't cost 50 cents to play, and aren't usually displayed in dive bars or pizza joints. But don't tell an owner of "Elvira's Scared Stiff" that he doesn't own a Matisse or Picasso. "Absolutely they are works of art," said the OC Pinball League's Enright. "There is art on the cabinets, the playing field, the translights in the backbox, the flat plastic covering up the mechanisms. That's all typically hand-created stuff that has been mass produced." Like any work of art worth its salt, they can appreciate in value.

Internal view of a pinball machine | Photo: Joel Beers.

Every pinball machine can be modified. Waxing the playfield or adjusting the height of a machine's back legs make it play much faster. The computer software can easily be hacked to change game-play. The tilting mechanism can be tweaked. Some creative types have even taken an older, run-down machine, sanded it down and created an entirely new game, like the one-of-a-kind "Studz," which the owner of a gay bar in Las Vegas turned into an homage to male beefcake.

Since every machine can be modified, the same model can play quite differently.

"I liken them to cars," Chamberlain said. "Two people can both own a 1965 Mustang, but those cars will drive differently after 10,000 and 100,000 miles. It's the same with pinball."

Chamberlain bought his first video game in high school: a Pac-Man machine for a couple of hundred dollars. He installed it in a 24-hour donut shop in Garden Grove and says over the next 20 years, it netted him $20,000. Since then, electronic machines have been his livelihood and he's done well enough to afford a home with an infinity pool overlooking Anaheim Hills Golf Course.

Brad Chamberlain playing 'Elvira's Scared Stiff' | Photo: Joel Beers.

Pinball machines are a very small part of his business. The advent of home game consoles basically eradicated arcade parlors from the culture. You can still find pinball machines in pizza parlors and the occasional bar, but you rarely see more than one machine.

"They don't make a lot of money," he said. "They are expensive to maintain, since circuitry can burn out and there are so many parts." He estimates on a good week, a pinball machine nets about $50.

But while pinball machines have generally retired from public view, the zeal of collectors has ensured their survival. And there are signs that pinball might make another comeback.

'Jurassic Park' | Photo: Joel Beers.

"I think Stern has really caught on that by linking them to popular culture, it might expose them more," Chamberlain said. "It used to be that pinball machines had a generic theme, like aliens or race-car driving. But now, they are all licensed properties. All the new ones are tied in to movies or rock bands, like "Lord of the Rings," or the Rolling Stones and AC/DC. I think the hope is that if you make a machine themed around something that is familiar and popular, more people will seek them out."

(For a list of pinball machines that can be played in Orange County, check out www.ocpinball.com).

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Top Image: Pinball Machine. Photo by Joel Beers.

About the Author

Joel Beers has reviewed theater for OC Weekly since its inception in 1997. Among his awards are first place for entertainment criticism from the Southern California Journalism Awards in 2008, and second place in arts criticism fro...
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