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October 15, 2018

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Pinball Hall of Fame a balm for the Vegas soul

It’s the anti-Strip — it reminds us of a simpler time


Tiffany Brown

Tourists and locals alike visit the Pinball Hall of Fame at 3330 E. Tropicana Ave. in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009.

A Pinball Player Paradise

Tim Arnold owns and operates the Pinball Hall of Fame, a museum of over 200 pinball games that patrons can still actually play. Arnold plans to double the hall's size and selection by moving closer to UNLV.

Pinball Hall of Fame

A vintage pinball machine waits to be restored at the Pinball Hall of Fame at 3330 E. Tropicana Ave. in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Pinball Hall of Fame graphics

Graphics from games at the Pinball Hall of Fame at 3330 E. Tropicana Ave. in Las Vegas are seen on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Pinball Hall of Fame

I’m hanging out with gun-slinging cowboys, trapeze artists, bowling queens and rock stars. Mike and Ikes litter the carpet. Flickering lights catch my eye as I load fistfuls of gumballs into my mouth and join in on the collective nostalgia that is the Pinball Hall of Fame.

Museums are scarce in Las Vegas. History is forgotten. Casinos are king.

That’s why the Pinball Hall of Fame may be one of our city’s most precious gems. Pop culture Americana glows in vivid colors from the restored machines. Gottlieb and Bally brought us here. Tim Arnold, owner of this collection dating to the 1950s, welcomes us.

It’s our own little Coney Island hidden in the back of a strip mall on Tropicana Avenue and Pecos Road. All we have to do is stroll through the door with a pocket full of quarters or dollar bills.

Arnold promises a “far better return on fun than any Las Vegas casino environment.” I guess in a town where game machines are everywhere — grocery stores, gas stations, hotels, neighborhood bars — comparisons are inevitable.

If gambling is a “sin,” why isn’t pinball? Maybe it’s the sport itself, the promise of nothing other than entertainment. No Megabucks, no flashy car, and definitely no chips or slips to cash in at the end of the run. We keep playing because narratives unfold before us.

We’re in Miami Beach one minute, sipping Canada Dry ginger ale the next. I’m playing baseball (back when baseball was baseball and not a game of money) then playing with “The Simpsons.” Captain Fantastic is here. Vixens point ray guns. Harems worship magicians and bobby-socked women in skirts bowl at now-vintage lanes.

We’re not risking the family fortune. We’re not living for a potential payout. We’re living for history. We sling quarters, down sodas, feel the adrenalin, watch the lights, hear the music and distinctive sound effects. Clever contraptions knock around under the glass. The ball slams into bumpers. It rolls through the flippers. It shows no mercy.

Another quarter. Another chance.

Barkers are literature — catchphrases encourage us to continue on: “It’s fun to compete!” “Try again.” “Two can play.” “Score more, Champ.”

It is the antithesis of glamour. Here, the house always wins, but the money goes directly to charity and sustaining a local hangout bereft of Vegas pretense.

No Strip designers, no marble pillars, no high-end fabrics, no textured wallpaper. There is no need for any of that because we remember the pizza parlor, the roller rink, the neighbor’s basement, the bar around the corner and the symbiotic relationship with pinball.

Collecting and restoring the machines are Arnold’s passion and they are for us to play.

He is trying to reach out to tourists at a new location — the museum is planning to move by Nov. 1 to 1610 E. Tropicana Ave. The more players, the better the survival of the machines. But really it relies on us to keep going. It’s a Las Vegas thing.

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