In a recent article I talked about trying to find arcades in the western region and at the time there was only one place in Southern California where you could get your Pinball fix was at Pinball Forever. Owner Dave Miner along with his wife Heather and Daughter Rachel decided to share his vast collection, knowledge, and love of Pinball with the public. The location in Santa Ana California has been running on and off for a year and he has finally tried to get on a regular schedule. It’s hard to own a small business but it’s even harder to convince the general public to embrace an art form that some had thought died long ago. Recently I interviewed Dave and discussed how his collection started and how he is trying to save the art form for future generations.
Pop Culture Maven: You obviously started with your love of pinball as a kid as we all did. So how did you go from a fan to a collector?
Dave Miner: The first game I bought was in 1983 from a local operator in Buena Park. There was an arcade nearby and they were connected. I looked at the game they had for sale call Circus from Gottlieb from 1980. It was a solid state game and a big wide body game and it had Circus themed art by Gordon Morison that covered the whole game and the back glass and play field it’s just a beautiful game. It turned out to be one of Morison’s last games that he did the art for. I just thought it was as pretty as a pinball machine as I have ever seen. I remember playing it from a couple of years before and so I bought it and brought it to my folks house. I was still in high school so that’s where it sat. I rapidly learned what it was like to own a pinball machine. It was fascinating to open the glass up and to see how things worked and that got me hooked into it.
PCM: So now seeing how many machines that you have here I see that it didn’t stop there.
DM: Pinball machines breed (laughter) and they don’t seem to need another one to breed. I think that when you discover that you can get machines that you played and loved where you were younger and at the time I think that Circus machine was like $300.00 so they were within range of an average college kid who was working at the time and was able to save a little money and get the games. There was no question at the time I was focused on getting machines that I loved when I was a kid. The games from the older part of pinball history came later.
PCM: You obviously have a 9 to 5 job, but where do you go to find machines.
DM: Well in the early days when they were still producing machines you would go and buy them from a distributer. But over time you start to meet people who had pinball machines for sale because they would buy or get them from people who wanted to get rid of them. A lot of times people would give them away because they just wanted to get them out of there house. In many cases they couldn’t even move the games. That is still true today there are a lot of people who give away pinball machines but of course they are not working. But if they were working they would hire movers to move the games. But since they don’t work they don’t want to hire someone to fix it or move it. Over the years I have been able to meet most of the pinball collectors across the country that do a fair amount of business and that has enabled me to reach out into eras that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to reach into. There is no question that some of the games that are here, if it wasn’t for my friends in the pinball hobby it’s impossible to get some of these games.
PCM: A lot of collectors like you might have a duplicate machine or one that they are not as fond of they might trade or buy or sell so it keeps it in the family so to speak.
DM: Yes there is very much that part of it. A lot of times you get a game when it’s outside of someones primary collecting era or a possible duplicate and they have a better one. So you get the worse one. There are times where you will run across where you have to make a deal to buy several games in order to clear out a place or the deal is they can have the one game as long as they take all three of them. People who love and search for pinball machines they always wind up with more machines than they can manage because the things are not small. Because very few people sell, trade or giveaway working pinball machines every machine becomes a project. You never get one that is never in need of at least something. Usually they don’t work at all.
PCM: We are past the time of regular manufacturing of pinball machines. While there are a few new machines still made the heyday of pinball is gone.
DM: There are hundreds of thousands of machines in people’s homes of which very few work correctly. The biggest challenge with the hobby is that there a quite a number of traders and collector’s of them only a few fix their own machines. That is quite a surprise actually. Even some of the people who operate pinball places around the country do not know how to fix their own machines. Although today it doesn’t seem like I know how to do it. (laughter) (He is referring to a couple of machines that broke down while we were they that day) We all have our days.
PCM: What is has been your most amazing find, that came out of the blue.
DM That’s a tough question. Over the years as I have tried to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Going back to your first question, you focus on your era and that’s where they stay and never leave it. For me it was interesting to see how pinball got to my era. So what became the challenge was to be able to get games that represented the key elements of pinball history going backwards as well as going a little bit forward. I started to do the research and learn about the games you would really like to have. Sometimes you would see the game at say the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas and relies that this is part of history. Probably the game that stands out in my mind is a machine from the 1950’s that Bally made called Balls-A-Poppin. It was the first intentional multi-ball game and of course you know that in the 1950’s you could use the ball lift on all of the single player games to give yourself all five ball at once. So what was the point of a multi-ball game? So Balls-A-Poppin was set up so when you did certain things it would store up the number of wild balls that you would get and when you made the shot it would eject those wild balls on the play field but would not charge you for consuming your ball in play. So the game was able to keep track of that and it was a two player game. So it was pretty cool because of the advance mechanism that Bally had built for their bingo machines made it possible for them to do that. So that was the preface of that. What happened was there was an ad I think on Mr. Pinball that someone had listed a Williams single flipper game. Williams made about five or six single flipper games in the 1950’s and you will never see those game in Southern California. But there was mention of this game and it was for sale locally and it said I have others. And I said to myself WHAT, how do you have others of this type of game? I called on it and she was very friendly but an interesting personality as many pinball collectors are. And she said I have some other games and what are those other games I asked and she named them off and Balls-A-Poppin was one of those games and I said I will be over there in 20 minutes. Usually I don’t like to do Mr. Pinball or Craigslist. Mr. Pinball is OK but Craigslist is very bad. Because you don’t want to do something that the other person doesn’t want to do and they usually don’t know what they are doing when they are selling a game. I went over to her house and the one flipper game was in very poor condition it was basically unusable. I do regret not making a deal for it because you will never see that game very much. But the Balls-A-Poppin was in very good condition but had a reproduction back glass. That was how I was able to get that game which is very rarely seen for sale. You said how much do you want for the game and what she named I was able to pay her. That’s how I like to do things. I don’t like to squeeze non pinball people. It turns out that the games came from her brother from the mid west and I think that the brother had passed on and she was having some of the games shipped over to her. She lived in this modest home and her place had very cool and rare vintage pinball machines in it. So I bought the Balls-A-Poppin and later bought a couple more from her. I unfortunately wish I had bought more from her and I know the person who go the rest of them (sighs).
PCM: I don’t know if people are familiar with two other places near Southern California. The Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda California and The Las Vegas Pinball Hall of Fame. So for us who have been lucky enough to go to those two locations is great but now for people who live in the Los Angeles area have Pinball Forever is such a rare treat. So what made you decide to set this up.
DM: The real motivation behind this was many years ago there was an entry on the pinball database site where a user was reviewing a game that the name escapes me right now but I’m sure it was an older “wooden rail” machine. Many of the commenters were talking about the gameplay. But he said that this was his favorite pinball machine and what he wouldn’t give to play the machine again. And you realize that some of us are fortunate enough to travel and go up to Alameda or Chicago or to experience pinball in its greater glory. The vast majority of people in Southern California are not going to be able to go on many hundreds of dollars trips just to play pinball. It’s just not happening for lots of reasons. I figured well why shouldn’t people be able to come here to Southern California to play these great pinball machines. After all in the golden era there was pinball everywhere here. We know that there are millions of people who have some kind of attachment to pinball and they live here and wouldn’t there be a demand for that. That sort of got me galvanized to do it and the biggest reward of being here and doing this is when you get people who you can see there not going to be traveling but the clearly love the game. We have had people with a whole range of physical disabilities who come here and just light up and the time that they are here they forget about everything else. Because they are able to do the thing that they never thought they would never be able to do again. It’s easy for us in the hobby to forget that. Most people do not imagine that this can exist and that is the part that is continuing to surprise me. Everything should be available everywhere but it’s just not.
PCM: In Closing what makes the trip to Pinball Forever worth going to?
DM: You need to come here with one of two things. Either the experience of having played pinball when you were younger and enjoying it, that’s one approach. Or a curiosity or appreciation for what made America interesting and certainly in the American pop culture experience over the years. When you come here you see the history of how America has evolved both in technology but in the way that it sees the world around it. The art of the pinball machine is something that connects you with every era and allows you to have a window into the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s or the 80’s that is very immediate. When you see the back glass lit up, the game is there ready to be played you have one level of engagement with it and you actually play this art. I think it’s an experience that does not have a lot of parallels. When you go to exhibits of retro stuff typically it’s behind glass you can’t touch it and you can’t do anything. Here you can in engage with it in a way that’s kind of neat. The best part for me is when people bring there families and you see everyone from the 80 something years old playing these games to the 5 year olds carrying around stools that we have so they can reach the flippers and proudly playing the machine just like the 80 year olds, or even couples that play one flipper each. It’s all very cool and makes you relies that pinball is something that can connect generations and people of different outlooks like few things really can. It’s worth trying to do that and it’s worth making the trip out to see what it’s like at least once. We haven’t had too many people walk out the door unhappy let’s put it that way. That’s been the biggest good thing for us.
PCM: Thanks very much Dave for taking the time to talk with me about Pinball Forever.
DM: My pleasure.
Now here is my review of Pinball Forever. First I admit that I grew up in the golden age of arcades when video game boom of the late 70’s to about the mid 90’s before the demise of the arcade industry in general. While I did like pinball honestly I was more of a video game fan. But as I have been able to go to places like Las Vegas Pinball Museum and Pacific Pinball Museum I have discovered a real love for pinball. The great thing about Pinball forever is Dave Miner. His love of pinball is truly infectious. He not only has the best stories about pinball, arcades and even video games but he also loves to hear your stories and knowledge. There are very few people around like Dave these days and that’s sad. Pinball Forever currently is a reservation only set up. You purchase your tickets in advance online for a set time frame and day. While not being open on a regular schedule is a bit of a drawback you must remember that this is still a start-up business and Dave has a regular job. Once you get there you are greeted by Dave’s wife Heather and daughter Rachel who will check you in. Once your time starts Dave will take you on a history tour. He has set up the machines by era’s and he will tell you the history of some of the machines in the era. Once you have done that you are let loose to play any machine you want. They are all set to either free play or credits. Dave, Heather and Rachel are alway check on everyone and will play doubles with you if you like.
If you pay extra Dave will take you on a really special treat of some of the first pinball machines ever. These machines are super rare and at least one that is the first two player pinball is the only one known to exists. You are even allowed to play a few of them. This VIP tour is a real must for first timers or just to play super rare machines over again. He even has what is considered the first pinball machine ever.
Dave also make sure that the machines are in tip-top shape and lets everyone know that if a machine has a problem just let them know. I can not stress enough what a great experience Pinball Forever is. It’s one of the few places that you and family and friends can have a really good time and have an almost once in a lifetime experience of playing rare and hard to find pinball machines. I have taken may friends and family and no one has ever been disappointed. While a lot of people recently discovered pinball with the Pinball Arcade for multiple gaming platforms that in no way replaces of playing a real pinball machine. Pinball Forever needs to be supported not only for fun but for the preservation of this great pop culture influence. No matter where in the Southern California area you live in it’s well worth the drive to visit Pinball Forever. You will not be disappointed. WHen you do go make sure that you mention that you heard it here and please pass it on to friends and family.
You can email Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
Here are some more pictures of the great machines that Pinball Forever has. I’m sure that at least one of you favorite machines is there. If not I am sure that you will certainly find a new favorite one to play because I sure have.