ARE THERE REALLY PINBALL COLLECTORS?
AKA - FOR THE FUN OF IT - COLLECTING PINBALLS
by Russ Jensen
When I tell most people I collect pinball machines, they seem quite surprised, primarily, I suppose, that anyone would collect something that large. It shouldn't seem that surprising, however, when you realize that automobiles are "collectibles" and one could cram quite a few pinball machines into an antique car.
Granted physical space to house a collection is a major obstacle to pinball collecting, but the problem can be solved by either limiting the size of your collection (as few as three or four machines can be considered a "collection"), or if you have the funds, build or rent the space you need.
When I first started collecting pinballs, it really didn't occur to me that anyone else would have the same idea. The more I got involved with my hobby, the more contacts I started making and began to discover I wasn't alone in my enthusiasm.
I recently sat down and listed all the people I knew who could be considered serious collectors. I came up with more than 65 names, which is probably only a fraction of the total number of pinball collectors. Thirteen names on my list have what I consider "large" collections (more than 20 machines), with 23 having "small" collections (less than six machines). What is amazing to me is that all these individuals apparently got the idea of collecting pinballs on their own since there has not been the publicity, organizations, publications, etc., concerned with pinball collecting as there has with other hobbies and collectibles.
A distinction should be made between "collectors" and "hoarders". Collecting is generally accumulating a group of similar items which have some kind of historical significance. Also, collections are usually displayed. Hoarding, on the other hand, is accumulating all articles of a certain type and storing them away in the hope that they will increase in value and can be later sold at a substantial profit.
A good example of the hoarding of pinballs is a certain West Coast arcade owner who has stored in his basement practically every pinball machine he's ever operated since the 1940s. When asked about selling any of his treasures, he replies, "Yes, but it will take big money," a term he refuses to define. This individual will most likely keep those machines until he passes on, at which time they will probably be discarded by one of his heirs who has no idea of their value to collectors.
Collectors, on the other hand, take pride in their collections, eager to show them off to fellow collectors or just anybody who happens to come along. And they enjoy talking about their hobby at great length with anybody who will listen. A collector will also most likely have a "specialty," ‑ a specific sub‑class of the item collected in which he is particularly interested. For example, my specialty in pinball collecting could be said to be "wood rail, electrically operated pinballs," although I have several machines outside that category as well.
Examples of a few specific collectors and their collections will further illustrate. John Fetterman and Steve Young, of Elysburg, Penn., and Lagrangeville, N.Y., respectively, share a common collection of close to 200 pins. Their specialty is flipper games of the 1950s and '60s. They are particularly concerned with the play appeal and playing characteristics of flipper games and are accomplished players who really enjoy all aspects of pinball machines. Both have also written numerous articles for collector publications on pinball characteristics and restoration. Steve, along with fellow New York collector, Gordon Hasse, has just started publishing the first pinball collectors periodical, the "Pinball Collector's Quarterly."
Daine Smallwood, of Seattle, Wash., specializes in "bingo pinballs," although he has other types in his collection of more than 50 machines. He is an expert on restoring bingos and extremely knowledgeable about the various bingo machines features.
Sam Harvey of Pomona, Calif., specializes in flipper games of the 1960s. His present collection of more than 50 machines includes Gottlieb's 1963 "Slick Chick," indeed one of the most challenging games of that period. Sam takes justifiable pride in the condition of the machines in his collection.
Marc Fellman and Wade Wright, co‑owners of Gizmo's arcades in Omaha, Neb., also have vintage pinballs. In fact, they have more than 400 machines specializing in pre‑1970 flippers. Local and Midwestern television stations have featured their collection and interviewed the duo about modern pinball as well. Marc and Wade are hoping to someday display their collection in an "appropriate museum situation."
As previously mentioned, there are at present no organizations, and until now no publications, devoted exclusively to pinball collecting. Pinball collectors, for the most part, are "on their own" using newspaper want ads or classifieds in other magazines as a way of locating and selling games.
The benefit to the collector of the low profile is the current lack of interest in "speculation" such as has happened to some extent with slot machines and jukeboxes. Pinballs, for the most part, can still be purchased at "reasonable" prices and this will probably remain the case for some time. The large size of a pinball will limit the number of collectors and the resulting limited market will continue to reduce the potential benefit to speculators.
Finally, a word or two on my personal experience in dealing with other collectors in the past several years. I have found an almost overwhelming friendliness and spirit of cooperation among these people. The exchanging of information and parts, and the loaning of schematics for copying, seems to be "the rule, not the exception."
The prevailing thought seems to be "if I can be of help to a fellow collector today, I may very well need the favor returned tomorrow." Let's hope this spirit continues and that pinball collecting will always remain the fascinating hobby it is today.
Russ Jensen is a well‑known pinball collector and author. This article previously appeared in Amusement Review and The Coin Slot.