THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE ... AND MORE
originally written by Russ Jensen in 1983
edited, and additional comments by Jim Schelberg - 1997
Ever since the 1930s, movie makers have used pingames as props in certain scenes as a natural adjunct to the locations depicted. Television, as well as the stage producers, have also followed this tradition. The producers of these dramatic presentations obviously felt that pinball was a part of "Americana," and as such, certain locales would not seem natural without a pingame, at least in the background.
Probably the most widely used locations for pinball machines in the movies, plays, and television shows are neighborhood bars. It seems to me that most all such locations depicted a machine, or at least the sounds of one, being played in the background. A good example of this was the TV show, Archie's Place, with its ever-present pinball machine.
The next most common location in which pinball is depicted is the small cafe. There are many scenes in locations of that type also showing a pingame. The example of this that is probably most familiar to all is Arnold's of Happy Days fame, but more about that later. Other common locations showing pins are bus stations and the legendary New York City candy store. Scenes in this later type, however, could only realistically show pingames in the era prior to 1941, since pinball was banned from that city at that time.
Famed author and playwright, the late William Saroyan, was apparently one of the first people in the literary arts to realize that pingames were definitely a part of the American Scene. In the mid thirties he wrote a short story, The Crusader, whose title even came from a pingame. The major locale in that story was the lobby of a small hotel in Saroyan's own hometown of Fresno, California. A primary feature of the lobby was a pingame that was constantly being played. The name of that game was Crusader. Bally actually made a game by that name in 1933, which could have been remembered by Saroyan when he wrote this piece.
Then, in 1939, Saroyan released a play, The Time of Your Life, which was to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1940. The story is set in a San Francisco waterfront saloon called Nicks and revolves around its various patrons, their problems, feelings, and aspirations.
One of these people is a young Assyrian, Willie Faroughli. Willie's ambition is to beat the pingame in that saloon and throughout the play he is seen and heard in the background playing the machine. Then, near the end of the play, Willie's dream is fulfilled. The machine suddenly starts to make strange noises, lights begin to flash, and a bell rings six times. Willie counts off the rings, which signify the six nickels he has won. At this point an American Flag pops out of the top of the machine and begins to wave. Simultaneously, an internal musical device starts to play "America." The other patrons get to their feet and begin singing the song. Willie has triumphed!
Real pingames, of course, do not display all the gymnastics of the one in the play, but Saroyan was using this to illustrate Willie's feeling of accomplishment at fulfilling the goal he had set out to achieve. The six nickels he won certainly did not compensate for the numerous coins he had spent trying to win, but his feeling of accomplishment outweighed any monetary considerations. Willie summed up his own feelings within the lines from the production, "I'm the kind of guy who makes up his mind to do something and then goes to work and does it. There's no other way a man can be a success at anything."
Over a year ago, I had the pleasure of seeing this play performed by a Los Angeles area theater group, the Group Repertory Theater, and enjoyed it tremendously. I loaned them the 1941 pingame that was used for the stage setting. I also have a videotape of a production of this same play shown on public television a few years ago. The play was made into a movie in 1948 with William Bendix cast in the role of the bartender. So far, I haven't been fortunate enough to capture the film on tape, but this is one of my great ambitions. (I have since been able to get the film--RJ)
The one pinball machine that I have seen most often in both movies and TV shows is Chicago Coin's Majors Of '41. In fact, no less than three of these games have been shown together, in both a 1940s movie and a much later TV series.
A post World War II movie called Till The End Of Time, starring Kirk Douglas as a returning serviceman, has a barroom scene in which three of these games are being played when a fight breaks out. Years later, in an episode of the popular television series, Star Trek, three pinballs of this same type are again shown, along with another game that I cannot identify. This time, the scene is a 1920s gangster warehouse where several members of the Enterprise's crew are being held prisoner. The fact that three Majors Of '41 pingames appear in two productions widely separated by time leads me to believe that these games were probably stored in a studio prop warehouse somewhere in Hollywood.
(The Star Trek episode Russ refers to is called "A Piece of the Action" and originally aired on January 12, 1968. The crew of the Enterprise come to a planet called Sigma lotia II, inhabited by humanoids who have based their society on one book, published on earth in 1992, titled Chicago Mobs of the Twenties. It was left on the planet by a visiting earth spaceship and became the basis of the Lotian society to such an extent that it took on a religious importance and was referred to as, "The Book". It goes to show that if there are gangsters, even in space, there must be pinballs, right? The game Russ couldn't quite make out has recently been identified as Williams '52 Twenty Grand..ed.)
These, however, were not the only instances where this particular game has shown up in movies and television. In the 1975 film, Hard Times, there is a scene set in a Louisiana "cajun" barroom during the Depression. A fight breaks out, and there is Majors Of '41, only one this time, right in the middle of the action, actually getting shoved around. After the fight, the character played by Charles Bronson shoots holes in almost everything in the place (including an early Wurlitzer jukebox) save for the pinball machine. I guess the producers realized that early pinball backglasses are virtually irreplaceable.
Yet another appearance of this "pingame actor" was in an old Happy Days show. The scene is in a pool room where Richie goes to recover Potsie's bicycle after it is stolen by a gang of hoodlums. Although the game is in the background of the shot, and can only be see briefly, it can be identified as our old friend, Majors Of '41.
A few years ago, on the TV series The Incredible Hulk, an episode centered around a New York City game arcade. The hero, David Banner, found temporary employment in this establishment as a game mechanic. The place was owned by a kindly old man who was in trouble with gangsters. The arcade scenes contained at least two early woodrail pins, but only brief shots were shown of them (except for one shot of the inside of the backbox of an early game David was repairing).
By viewing the videotape, I later tentatively identified one game as a 1940 Genco Big Town. Incidentally, a brief glimpse of this same game is also seen in a drug store scene in the 1946 classic movie The Best Years of Our Lives. Among the later model games to be seen in the arcade where David was working is Gottlieb's 1967 King Of Diamonds.
The 1959 film classic Anatomy of a Murder also includes pinball as part of the story line. James Stewart plays a lawyer hired to defend a young woman accused of murder. On the night in question, she had been playing pinball (one of her favorite pastimes) in a local bar. During his pre-trial investigations, Stewart visits the bar to interview the bartender. In this scene there are several good shots of the game, a 1957 Gottlieb World Champ.
Another classic movie showing an old pingame is the 1954 Spencer Tracy film Bad Day at Black Rock. In this story, Tracy travels to a small western town just after World War II to investigate the death, years before, of a local Japanese farmer; an event the townspeople would rather not have delved into. The center of activity in this town is a small cafe, in which can be seen an old pingame probably dating from around 1939. The name cannot be easily determined since the several shots of the backglass are all somewhat out of focus. (Author's note--This game has since been identified as Genco '39 Follies.)
The 1974 movie, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, also contains an episode dealing with pingames. One of Duddy's money-making schemes involved importing a load of pingames from Canada to New York and trying to set them up there. In one scene, he is playing a pinball in his room while discussing the project with his wife. Later, he is seen demonstrating this same machine (a 1957 Williams Arrowhead) to a potential location owner.
A pingame plays a bit part in the movie Escape From New York. This futuristic film shows Manhattan Island turned into a maximum security prison in which inmates are forced to fend for themselves, as long as they don't try to escape. One man has set himself up as the King of New York and, in one scene during dinner at his place, an old pinball machine can be seen in the background as part of the furnishings. This picture is badly out-of-focus, but it looks quite a bit like the World War II conversion Oklahoma-- a rare game indeed!
Enough of pingame "bit players" and on to movies in which pins play more important roles. Two motion pictures come to mind in this category: Tommy and Tilt.
The 1975 rock opera, Tommy, has been credited by some as reviving the nation's interest in pinball in the '70s. The story revolves around a deaf, dumb and blind youth who finds fame and fortune (and incidentally eventually regains his lost senses) after becoming a pinball champ and beating the reigning pinball wizard (played by rock star Elton John) in a lavish pinball tournament. A song from this film, "Pinball Wizard," also became the pinball anthem and resulted in the coining of the term "wizard" to define an expert pinball player.
There are three major pinball episodes in this film. The first is when Tommy discovers a 1965 Gottlieb Kings & Queens high atop a junk heap in the middle of the night. Amazingly, the machine is apparently connected to electric power as the boy immediately starts playing it and despite his handicaps, discovers that playing pinball is his "thing."
After gaining a reputation as a player, Tommy is pitted in a pinball playoff against the reigning wizard, Elton John. In this lavish tournament scene Tommy is playing his old favorite, Kings & Queens, while Elton plays a 1965 Gottlieb Buckaroo, which, believe it or not, is fitted with a piano keyboard in front of the playfield. Tommy finally beats Elton, attaining astronomical scores, and becomes the new wizard.
Tommy then becomes wealthy, due to his pinball prowess and fame, and miraculously regains his lost senses. He decides to open a holiday camp; a place where people from all walks of life can "do their own thing" and gain a better understanding of life. Among the pleasures at his camp are an abundance of pinball machines for the patrons to enjoy. Many games are shown being played, all dating from the '60s.
As people are shown playing the various machines, the camera focuses on the backglass of a Gottlieb Royal Guard. All of a sudden the backglass is shattered as "bad guys" begin to terrorize the camp and destroy all the pinball machines! The scene is absolutely heartbreaking to all pinball collectors, and many can't even bear to watch it! One backglass after another is shattered by hammers and then, to add insult to injury, the games are set on fire. The final scene of this sequence shows a field of wrecked pingames with some still smoldering. A terrifying and awesome sight indeed! An interesting sidelight to the film is that Bally came out with two pinball machines having a Tommy theme; Wizard! in 1975 followed by Captain Fantastic a year later. (These games have become classics highly prized by collectors. They feature Dave Christensen artwork and the design talents of Greg Kmiec..ed.)
Another motion picture based on pinball is one of Brook Shields' earliest films, a little epic titled, simply, Tilt. Although not critically acclaimed, this movie still shows up on television "late shows" and is often screened at pinball hobby events such as Chicago's annual Pinball Expo. This movie has a strong negative aspect as it shows pinball connected with gambling, an image the pinball industry has finally managed to shed after many years.
This film centers around a young pinball wizard from Santa Cruz, California, who has acquired the nickname "Tilt" because she has never been known to tilt a game during play. She befriends a young aspiring musician, who is also devoted to pinball. His major ambition, however, is only to win a game of pinball played against the arcade owner from his home town in Texas. This rotund gentleman, known behind his back as "The Whale," once fired our hero for cheating while working at his arcade.
The young man convinces Tilt to travel with him across the country, presumably so he can go to Nashville to make a demonstration record. Actually, his plans are to travel to Texas and have Tilt defeat "The Whale" in a public pinball match. During this trip, stops are made at various arcades along the way where the couple hustle pinball in order to aid their dwindling finances.
They finally reach Texas, and Tilt finds out why she's there. She decides that she should help her friend in his music career instead of embarrassing "The Whale" in a public contest. She secretly goes to the arcade late at night and challenges the owner to a match then and there, with the understanding that if she wins, "The Whale" will finance the demo record. During the contest, Tilt tilts the pingame for the first time in her life, but "The Whale" decides to help the young man anyway because he knows the girl is sincere in her efforts.
The pinball photography in this film is outstanding, including close-up shots of the ball at playfield level. Many games are shown, including one invented just for the film: a solid state game, Koala's Cosmic Venus. Although several people I have talked to did not care much for this film, I thought it rather enjoyable. There is certainly more pinball in this film than in any other movie ever made.
My pet peeve, when it comes to the use of pingames in dramatic presentations, is when the game used obviously does not fit the era in which the story is set. The most glaring example of this is the pinball machine shown in "Arnold's" on Happy Days. The story, set in the '50s or early '60s, features the Bally 1973 Nip-it. While this game has probably become the best known "pin-actor" in the world, one would have thought the producers might have used a little more care in casting.
(The following is an excerpt lifted from a post to the internet newsgroup, rec.games.pinball, by collector and Pinseller To The Stars, Herb Silver. "The Happy Days, show was filmed at Paramount. You trivia guys may be interested to know that I sold that game to Paramount in 1978 for a movie that was never released. They used it in Happy Days, thinking the 'gators on side of the cabinet looked very '50ish..ed.)
Another example of this type of situation occurred several years ago in another popular television series, The Waltons. One of the Walton boys is playing a "marble machine" while his girlfriend looks on. The story supposedly took place in the late '30s, but the machine used is a steel rail model obviously from the '60s or '70s. The writer, however, partly compensated for this error by referring to the game as a "marble machine," a term frequently used in that era to denote a pingame.
In most other instances I have seen, where a pinball machine is used in the movies or TV, the date of the machine usually agrees with the period of the setting within four or five years.
As I have explained throughout this article, pingames have been a part of certain settings in dramatic presentations from the 1930s until the present. But what of the future? We are currently in a period of declining use (in real life) of pinball machines in the types of locations described in the examples above. Video games, I'm sorry to say, are replacing my old friend, the pingame, in more and more locations. But this apparently is what the majority of the game playing public desires. Will Hollywood take note of this and start casting videos in the parts previously held by pinball (in a modern setting only, of course) or will the pingame continue to be around?
(Since Russ wrote this article, pinball has continued its roller coaster popularity ride. It recovered from the video craze and rose to previously unattained heights only a few years ago. Presently pinball, along with much of the coin-op industry, is on the downside of the curve, but is just now showing signs of improvement. Through it all, pinball continues to show up in the media. A week doesn't go by that we don't hear of a pingame in a Broadway stage play, motion picture or, especially, showing up in a television show.
Just last Thursday (February 13, 1997), a Williams 1989 Bad Cats was the star in a scene from the mega hit show, ER, even if it was not exactly the use of the machine Williams would like portrayed. During a convenience store robbery gone sour, a kid/hostage uses the game to aid his escape through a grid ceiling. The crook tries to pursue the kid, but falls though the grid, face first, on to the playfield! Tempered or not, it was messy. Nurse Hathaway spends the next few minutes picking chunks of playfield glass from the crook's face. Any press is good press???
Star Trek, with three different pinball machines of the same name, has returned the favor by featuring pinball in three of its incarnations. The most recent appearance was in last season's "Q" episode of Star Trek: Voyager. It seems that even the omnipotent residents of the Q Continuum spend some time attracted by the lure of the silver ball.
Pinball has developed a permanent presence on a number of current shows. One, in particular, is Fox After Breakfast, which features a Manhattan apartment setting and displays a pingame in its living room. It is interesting that in many cases the pinball is not shown merely as one of many arcade-type game displays. It stands alone, chosen for the attributes only pinball can offer. That is one reason, at least, that the answer to Russ' question, "Will pinball continue to be around?" is a definite "yes."..ed.)