The mafia, Louis XVI – and the curious history of pinball

Europe’s largest pinball museum in Budapest is a fascinating primer on the game’s surprisingly colourful history – involving police raids, Chicago mafiosi, and a wild party at Louis XVI’s castle

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, October 2014)

Balázs Pálfi was five or six when he fell in love for the first time. “It was in a hotel near Budapest, when I climbed onto a small chair to play pinball. It was love at first sight – every time I saw a pinball machine, I wanted to play, though I wasn’t always allowed. It’s a simple joy that’s never left me.”

Today, Pálfi owns and runs Pinball Gallery Budapest (or Pbal), the first pinball museum in Hungary and the biggest in Europe. It is home to around 170 machines that he’s collected over the past five years. Visitors can turn up and play 130 of them, including some of the all-time pinball classics, as well as legendary arcade games, from Space Invaders to Pac-Man. Above each machine is a little sign telling you its history.
“Every time I play, it takes me back to my childhood,” says Pálfi, now 42, who quit a job as a fund manager before he started collecting pinball machines. “It’s totally different to a video game – you’re in the real world, and you’re using mechanisms rather than technology. I don’t see that as a retro thing, I see it as something timeless.”

After Pálfi bought his first machine, 1986’s Strange Science game, in 2009, he couldn’t stop. In 2010, he spent €30,000 (NOK245,000) buying a batch of 50 machines from a pinball operator in Poland – and began struggling to find room to house his purchases. The idea of a public space formed, but it took until April 2013 to find a suitable space, a basement right in the centre of town in District XIII, not far from the Hungarian parliament and the iconic Széchenyi thermal baths. After that, it took another year to get permission from the ministry, prepare the space and fix the machines , as more than half weren’t working when he got hold of them.

While it’s fun to simply come here for a game on machines with themes such as Indiana Jones, the Addams Family and Arabian Nights, it’s also a good way to get a handle on pinball’s surprisingly colourful history.

It arguably all started with a lavish party in 1777 at the royal Château de Bagatelle outside Paris. Queen Marie Antoinette had challenged her brother-in-law, the Comte d’Artois, to renovate the dilapidated maison de plaisance within three months – with the help of more than 800 workers, Louis XVI’s brother managed it in 63 days, creating a stunning estate surrounded by manicured gardens.

The château needed to open with a bang, so as well as courtesans and illusionists, the count had a new game commissioned, a narrow inclined billiards table on which players would use cues to shoot an ivory ball towards fixed pins. The game was dubbed bagatelle, and became a hit with the French aristocracy, eventually spreading and morphing into billard Japonais (Japanese billiards), which replaced the cue with a coiled spring and plunger (and had very little to do with Japan).

But it wasn’t until 1871 that modern pinball was arguably invented, when US-based British inventor Montague Redgrave was granted US Patent #115,357 for his “Improvements in Bagatelle”, which shrank the game to a tabletop size, with marbles instead of balls and small metal pins as wickets. At Pinball Gallery Budapest, you can see the Redgrave Parlor Bagatelle from 1871, a rusted wood and red metal board with some parts missing, which Pálfi proudly claims to be the first modern pinball machine.

Still, it wasn’t until the 1930s when pinball really took off, its target market having shifted from the French aristocracy to the unemployed youth of Depression-era America, who wanted to find cheap entertainment to pass the time. Coin-operated bagatelles had appeared, now called “marble games” or “pin games”, and you could find them in drugstores and taverns across the US.

Pioneering designer David Gottlieb’s 1931 Baffle Ball game became the first major pinball hit, and signalled the beginning of two of its most important companies. Gottlieb distributor Ray Moloney had sold all of his units of Baffle Ball (more than 50,000 of them in the States), so he developed his own version, called Ballyhoo, a version of which you can now see at Pbal.

It was slightly more challenging than Baffle Ball and was even more of a smash, selling 50,000 units in just seven months. Moloney called his new company Bally after his game, creating a rival to Gottlieb’s company. Both would design and build machines into the mid-1990s.

On the way, Bally became a 20th-century entertainment behemoth, before being bought by Hilton Hotels in 1995. It ran casinos, arcades, fitness clubs and the famous Six Flags amusement parks, and made everything from fitness equipment to early arcade games and even a home computer, the failed Bally Professional Arcade. The early Bally machines, sometimes called “Bally’s bingos”, were often used for gambling, which worked because there was little or no skill involved.

Thus, pinball was banned in most American cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago from the early 1940s until the mid-1970s. New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia believed it robbed children of hard-earned nickels – so, just weeks after the Pearl Harbour attacks, he told city police that their top priority was to round up pinball machines and arrest their owners. The machines were smashed with sledgehammers, many by the mayor and police commissioner themselves, before they were tossed into the Hudson River.

Pinball became legal in New York in 1976, when a pinball hotshot – 26-year-old magazine editor Roger Sharpe – was called to play in front of a city council hearing to prove that pinball was a game of skill (and therefore immune to gambling). Struggling with a new machine, he played his Hail Mary, promising that he’d use the plunger to send the ball into the middle lane at the top of the machine. He later said that, had he missed, “I’m not sure pinball would be legal today.”

Still, some places persisted with bans – an 80-year ban in Oakland was only overturned this year; the local RadioShack restaurant chain held a month-long pinball competition to celebrate the lifting of the ban. It’s perhaps for this reason that pinball has its place in popular culture as a sign of teenage rebellion – the Fonz in Happy Days plays in just about every episode; The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, is about a deaf, blind and dumb boy who becomes a pinball wizard; and The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob once proclaimed that, “Television has ruined more young minds than pinball and syphilis combined.”

All of this is represented, albeit obliquely, in the form of iconic machines at Pbal in Budapest. You’ll find, for example, Gottlieb’s 1947 Humpty Dumpty machine, the first in history to use player-controlled flippers, adding skill to the game for the first time. The early flippers lacked the power to get the ball to the top of the machine, so Humpty Dumpty has three pairs.

Pálfi’s favourites, though, didn’t come until the early 1980s, another golden age, when classic games were also being developed for early arcade machines (by 1981, in the wake of Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Defender, the arcade video game industry was worth US$8 billion).

Pálfi’s all-time favourite is Fathom, made in 1981 by Bally: “It was from when I was a child, and it’s still a great game, with beautiful graphics and challenging gameplay. There are lots of balls, the sound’s great, it’s just really exciting.”

Another from the era he points to is Gottlieb’s Haunted House (1982), famous for its use of Bach’s organ piece, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Some consider the Haunted House the perfect pinball layout.
Today, only American company Stern regularly produces new pinball machines, like the bestselling AC/DC game, yours for US$7,495 (NOK27,200). Pálfi has one of Stern’s 2013 Star Trek machines still in its box, ready for its “ceremonial opening” (Stern’s other game themes include Metallica, Mustang and Iron Man).

Nowadays, machines are increasingly in the hands of collectors – part of the reason Pálfi wanted to get the public playing. “Twenty years ago, there were no pinball collectors, and almost all the machines were owned by operators who’d have them in their arcades or whatever. Today, around 80 per cent of new machines go to collectors, many of whom are buying up the old ones. The problem with private collections is that not everyone can play on the machines. I wanted to get people playing – it’s not only great fun, but you’re playing on a piece of history.”

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