By Russ Jensen
Every once in a while I start thinking of my early association with pinball and remember little things, such as games I used to play and the environments in which they were located. I have decided to share some of these "remembrances" with you to give you some insight into "where I came from" when it comes to pingames, at least as far as my childhood was concerned.
As far as I can remember, the first pinball machine I ever played was located in the Eagles Lodge hall on Broadway in Glendale, California. I was about 8 years old and once a week my mother took me for violin lessons in Glendale. At some point in time the location of these lessons was moved from a downtown building to the Eagles Lodge hall. The lessons were given in one hour classes, and if you arrived early you had to wait in the "lobby" until the previous class was finished.
While waiting in the lobby I noticed two interesting machines there. One was a large console slot machine, and the other a pinball game which had a picture of a street intersection on the backglass. I remember on several occasions asking my mother for a nickel and playing this machine.
It fascinated me; especially the little cars which mysteriously appeared in the picture and advanced as the bumpers were hit; a form of "light animation" with which I was to become quite familiar in the future. I also remember the manufacturer's name of this game as being Genco.
Several years ago, when answering an ad in the newspaper, I found, and subsequently purchased, the game I had played at the Eagles Lodge. It turned out to be Genco's STOP AND GO from 1938; not to be confused with the game of the same name they put out in 1951. As soon as I saw the backglass of this game I knew it was the game I had played as a kid. The machine, however, had a repainted cabinet and I eventually traded it off after trying to restore the cabinet art myself. In a way, I wish I had kept this game as it was in very good shape, except for the cabinet art, and was an excellent example of early backglass "light animation".
When I was about 11 years old, some friends and I were "exploring" an abandoned building in the small town of La Canada where we lived. The place had once apparently been an automobile repair shop of some kind and had not been used for anything for many years. Out back of this place we found what looked like an interesting item, so we went and got a "coaster wagon" and hauled it to my house.
Well, it turned out to be a pingame with the name ROCKET on the playfield, which of course, was Bally's first electric payout pinball machine from 1933. We could not at that time make it work because we were unaware that it required battery power to operate. So after playing with it for awhile, I guess we probably dumped it, although I can't remember for sure what happened to it. This game, however, was the first pingame that I actually had in my possession.
As a child I always had an interest in electrical things. My father, an electrical engineer in the telephone and later the aircraft industry, had taught me about electrical circuits from the time I was about 5 or 6. And when we moved to La Canada (when I was in the fourth grade) I had my own workbench in the back of the garage.
At that time my mother would many times take my sister and I to downtown Los Angeles on the bus, which required us to change busses in the neighboring town of Montrose. It just so happened that the corner where we waited for the bus was also the location of the shop of a local coin machine operator, a Mr. Glenn Catlin by name.
The area where Mr. Catlin put out his trash for collection was right behind the bus bench and I soon discovered that he threw out various electrical items which I often recovered and brought home to experiment with in the garage. On several occasions I even got bold enough to knock on his door and ask him if he had anything that I could have. He was always very friendly to me.
Once I remember being invited into his shop and seeing many slot machine mechanisms (without cases) setting on a long bench. When I asked about them he told me that they were there awaiting pickup by the Sheriff's Office to be destroyed as they were illegal. The one thing I remember clearly about them was that many, if not all, of them had pictures of various animals (lions, monkeys, elephants, etc) on their reels.
Another thing I remember about Mr. Catlin's shop is going by there several times at night and noticing a lighted sign in the window reading "All Electric Pingames, $10 and Up". Once, when waiting for the bus, I saw an entire pingame out in the trash. I remember it had a short backboard with pictures of horses on it. I knew it was too big to carry home on the bus, so I waited until that evening and asked my dad if he would go get it for me. Well, we drove to Montrose but, as luck would have it, it was gone!
Shortly after that, Mr. Catlin moved his shop out of that building and into a "quonset hut" building on the same lot as his home, about a mile away. One day I went to his new location and knocked on the door. He answered and invited me in. When I asked if he had any electrical parts he wanted to get rid of he surprised me by offering me an entire pingame if I could haul it away. Well, I went home and again asked my dad for help and we went back to Mr. Catlin's. He then gave me two pingames, Bally's VARIETY and VOGUE, both from 1939. Pinball machines had been outlawed in most of Los Angeles County years earlier and he could no longer legally operate these games.
NOTE: Since pingames were illegal in much of Los Angeles County, other types of amusement machines were operated in their place. These included various "gun games" made during World War II (which had just ended a few years earlier) and "roll down" games put out by Genco after the war. These games somewhat resembled pingames, having a lighted score-indicating backboard, but they delivered to the player five wooden balls (about the size of tennis balls) which he would roll down the playfield to drop into scoring holes at its back. These holes were covered by a glass to keep the player from touching the scoring contacts.
After setting up these games in my garage, and using my electrical knowledge to get them going, other kids in the neighborhood played them and asked where I had gotten them. Two of the boys who lived near me soon went to Mr. Catlin's and got their own games. One got Chicago Coin's MAJORS OF '41 and the other Genco's VICTORY. Since these fellows had no knowledge of electrical things I was called upon to get their games going, and keep them that way.
Well, as you can imagine, word of these games spread quickly throughout our small town, and before long there were quite a few pingames in the hands of young boys. News of my repair knowledge also spread, and I ended up working on most of them at one time or another. Other games I specifically remember working on during that period were Bally's CROSSLINE, Chicago Coin's ROXY, and Genco's METRO (a game which I now own). I eventually traded my VARIETY for Genco's SEVEN UP (another game I currently own).
After a while I got tired of VOGUE and SEVEN UP and sold them to an ex-neighbor who had moved. A while after that I went back to Mr. Catlin's and he gave me a "console style" game by Stoner, called ZETA. This game, made in 1938, had a circular playfield with a crude "pop bumper" in the center of it. A very novel pingame indeed. I eventually traded ZETA for Exhibit's LANDSLIDE which I took with me when my family moved from La Canada to Inglewood in 1951. That game a friend and I eventually dismantled when we were in high school.
My mother's family lived in Memphis and our family often took summer vacations there. Once or twice I spent the entire summer with my relatives, returning home to California on the Greyhound bus. My uncle worked as a door-to-door salesman and I often accompanied him on his daily rounds. He liked to have a beer two or three times a day at local bars. At that time, the late Forties and early Fifties, almost all of the beer bars in Memphis had "one-ball" horserace pingames.
Even though it was technically illegal for kids to play these machines, my uncle was friends with the bar owners and they would generally let me play them with nickels he supplied. One game which was found in many of these Memphis bars at that time was a Bally game called EUREKA. Other Bally one-balls I remember playing were CHAMPION and TURF KING (a game I currently own).
One-balls weren't the only pingames operated in Memphis either. The local "country store", up the road from where my relatives lived, also had an amusement type pingame. The one game I specifically remember playing there was United's pre-flipper game SINGAPORE. I used to like to play this game at the store. My grandmother, however, was somewhat "old fashioned" and didn't believe that young boys should play pinball.
She eventually let the store owner, Mr. Terry, know that she didn't want me playing the game and threatened to stop trading with him if he continued letting me play. This angered me and I wrote a letter to my father complaining about my grandmother's unreasonableness in this matter. A few years ago my aunt found a copy of this letter which she gave to me, which I now have as a souvenir of that incident.
A "famous" game I remember playing in Memphis was the first flipper pinball, Gottlieb's HUMPTY DUMPTY. I first played this game in the Raleigh drug store in Raleigh, Tennessee, a Memphis suburb. I also played other flipper games in various restaurants, drugstores, etc in Memphis. Two games I specifically remember playing there were Genco's PUDDIN' HEAD (1948) and United's BLUE SKIES (1948). I also remember playing Gottlieb's HAPPY DAYS (1952), but didn't remember the name, only its tic-tac-toe format. In those days almost every cafe, and many drugstores, in Memphis had pins, as well as the beer bars with their ever-present "one-ball".
Also, during one summer-long visit to Memphis, my cousins and I paid a visit to the back alley behind one of Memphis' well-known coin machine companies, Southern Amusement Co., which was located a few blocks from my great aunt's home in the city. We found in their trash a small baseball machine, Bally's HEAVY HITTER, and the backbox of a Chicago Coin's KILROY, both of which we brought home to my grandmother's house in the country. I got the baseball game to partially work, however I believe some parts were missing. The KILROY head was just a souvenir, however.
Once, for my return bus trip to Los Angeles, my uncle gave me a five dollar bill with instructions to use it only for playing pinball, a gesture I greatly appreciated. Almost every (if not all) Greyhound stop had pingames so I really "had a ball", excuse the expression, playing pinball during this trip. I can recall that many of the games I played at those bus stops had names of cities and states, a popular theme for pingames of the late Forties and early Fifties, which seemed quite appropriate to me for these bus station locations.
When I was in the ninth grade my family moved from La Canada to Inglewood, a suburb of Los Angeles. At that time there was only one high school, Inglewood High, in the city with a second one, Morningside High, under construction, which was to serve the area of town where we lived starting the next school year.
In order to get to and from Inglewood High I had to ride a public bus for about three miles. Directly across the street from the school, where I waited for the bus to go home, there was a malt shop where many of the high school kids hung out. One day I noticed a pinball machine in this place with kids crowded around it. I went in to see what it was and found out that it was Exhibit's BANJO, one of that company's early flipper games from 1948.
After that, I started going in there each day for ten or fifteen minutes, before taking the bus home, and watching the kids playing the game. There was, of course, also a jukebox in that shop and I remember hearing one song played over and over again. It was "Rose, Rose, I Love You", which was either by Guy Mitchell or Frankie Laine, I believe. The next time I heard that song, by the way, was in the late Sixties in the movie "The Last Picture Show".
One day about that time I remember going to the shop of the coin machine operator who operated that game. I talked to a man there who was working on a pingame. I asked him if there was any chance of my getting a part-time job working on games, and told him of my past experience working on the pinballs owned by us kids in La Canada. He told me that they couldn't hire me if I wasn't in the Electrician's Union, which I believe was just an excuse.
At that time, around 1951, Inglewood was one of the few cities in Los Angeles County which allowed pinball machines. I also remember several machines at a local miniature golf course there. Well, about a year later, the city of Inglewood also outlcwed pingames! After that, the only nearby city where pins were still legal was Long Beach.
Up until just a few years ago, there was an amusement area on the waterfront at Long Beach known as "the Pike". When I was a teenager, in the late Forties and early Fifties, I would often travel to Long Beach, either by streetcar or hitchhiking, and visit the Pike.
I remember that they had two fairly large amusement machine arcades. One of these arcades had all pre-war, non-flipper, pingames (probably 30 or 40 of them) all equipped for 2 cent play. These games had a wide push-in type coin slide in which two pennies were placed side-by-side.
I enjoyed playing these machines because they reminded me of the games I had owned and worked on when I was younger. I even recognized some of them as being the same as those machines. One game I specifically remember being at that arcade was Gottlieb's PARADISE, which had a large picture of a peacock with his plumage spread all over the backglass. I just found out recently, by the way, that my friend Richard Conger now owns one of these machines.
The other arcade, I remember, had the more modern games set up for nickel play. I do remember, however, that they had a one-ball horserace machine equipped for penny operation which I played on several occasions. I have heard stories in the last several years that there were also bingo pinballs operated at the Pike in later years which were also set up for one-cent operation. The only time I visited the pike since the Fifties, however, I remember that the arcades were closed.
Ever since the 1930's, Pico Street in Los Angeles has been the location of that city's "coin machine row". I remember as a young teenager taking many walks down Pico and exploring the coin machine distributorships there. Places with names such as Siking, Luenhagens, and C. A. Robinson, to name a few. Little did I know at that time that the great Harry Williams once had a shop there, the location of which I probably walked by many times without knowing it.
I can remember entering some of those distributorships with their showrooms displaying lines of brand-new wood-rail pinballs. I would, when I was brave enough, (and nobody seemed to be looking) sneak a game or two on one of these shining new beauties. I remember Pico being a very fascinating street for a young pinball fan in those days.
It is interesting to note that at that time those pinballs could not be legally operated in the city of Los Angeles, or many of the surrounding communities. These machines were there, however, for purchase by operators in other parts of Southern California without such restrictive laws.
Well, there you have it, a "trip down memory lane" with yours truly; recalling the many incidents, places, and games associated with my early interest in pinball. An interest which lay dormant for almost twenty years after I took apart Exhibit's LANDSLIDE in the early Fifties, only to resurface again in the early 1970's when I bought another pingame, and which has continued for the past 25 or so years. And it is still going strong!
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