The Scheme of Themes


© Copyright 2002

By John L Patton, tiltjlp




From the earliest days of mechanical gaming devices, people have been willing to spend money to be entertained, or for a chance to win money. Today, state and regional lottery games, all with fancy, gimmicky names, attract millions with the nearly impossible dream of untold wealth. If we look at life a hundred years ago, the same was true, only on a much smaller scale. And back then the odds when more in favor of the customer.


A good example is Log Cabin, a 1904 Trade Stimulator. It’s a simple device which could still work its magic today. Either it sat on the counter, near the entrance, or where the men folk gathered, to swap stories and the latest news.

For a mere one-cent coin, gentlemen of the era could take a chance of winning cigars. Although I would imagine that if a non-smoker wanted to try his luck, some other prize might agree upon. And with seven chances to win out of thirteen slots, the odds didn’t seem too bad. 


But a closer look at Log Cabin will show that the odds are in favor of the business owner. Those small metal posts are set in such a way as to divert balls away from the winning slots. Just above the slots which award 2, 3, or 10 cigars are a set of metal posts meant to discourage the ball from entering those winning slots. No such discouragement was offered above the losing spots, nor for the winning of only one stogie.


But an even better moneymaker for any business at the turn of the last century must have been one of those wondrous, mechanical, spring-loaded banks. The majority seem to have been comical in nature, with many others designed to either charm you, or jog a pleasant memory. These beautiful banks would be placed about the store, and many customers would invest a penny, just to watch the penny disappear into the bank, all in the blink of an eye. It’s not difficult to imagine a two or three year old child begging a penny to feed one of those magical banks.


This love of getting something for nothing helped get the Pinball industry established, and for many years, helped it thrive and expand. I would imagine that every Bingo design made was done with wagering in mind.

Since there have always been people opposed to gambling of any sort, the phrase “For Amusement Only” was born. There were still payouts, and of course wagering between players, but most always, this was done quietly, to avoid trouble for all parties involved. This eventually led to flippers, or some other “Skill Factor” being added to the games. This turned what had been games of chance into games of skill. While such a disclaimer looked and even sounded fine, few people believed that gambling had ended, or lessened.


Possibly the most original “Skill” enhancement used in what could be called a gaming device, but maybe not quite a pin- ball machine, was used in Juggle Ball, from 1932. Besides a launcher, there was a moveable rod, or cue stick attached, which the played used in hopes of influencing where a ball went, and how many points were earned. With practice, you’d learn to jog and prod the cue in such a way to mount a good score. A bonus would even be awarded if you spelled Juggle in the ball slots at the bottom of the game.


Both these unique gaming devices were recreated by Druadic, who has a fondness for “flipperless pins. It’s amazing how they figured out all the dynamics back in those days. Many of them are works of art”.

And while Druadic has done a few flippered tables, Pro Pool and Sky Kings being just two, he “has tremendous awe and a lot of respect for the craftsmen who pioneered what grew to touch some many lives, and provide so much enjoyment to the world”. 


But as interesting as these old masterful relics are, they don’t really have a theme outside of the actual wagering or game itself. Even early Bingo pins didn’t have much of a theme, outside of gambling. Probably the first real theme was baseball, although often it was just an excuse to sell wagering in a less obvious manner. Somehow, I doubt anyone failed to see past the “scheme of the theme”.


Once these gaming devices started to be replaced with real, live pinball games, most tables used a theme to attract a player, and to keep him, or rarely, her, interested enough to feed coin after coin into the machine. The less luck a game required, the more involved the player became. Credits for extra balls or free games became a standard part of the game of pinball. This gave business owners the option of offering payouts to regular customers or a free game play to someone who might not be known, and who might cause the owner trouble if a payout was offered.

Many of the early themes for pinball dealt with either fun activities or fantasies, such as a circus or flying carpet ride. Almost anything that was colorful and eye-catching could make a good theme. Since most pins until recently didn’t have sounds except for those thumps and clangs that echoed a mounting score, musical themes are a bit unusual.

One such Musical themed table has been provided to us by Luvthatapex, in Bally’s 1967 Dixieland.


Luvthatapex said “Dixieland was one of my favorites as a boy, and I played it for the first time when I was eight. I recall it fondly, and even had a chance to own a Dixieland. When I was ten, I was allowed to choose a Bally’s Trio or a Dixieland, as a Christmas present. Boy, was I torn. I liked them both, and finally took the Trio. I never regretted my decision, but often wondered how nice it would have been if I had chosen the Dixieland. Many years later, I searched for a playable Dixieland, but never found one.”


“Six months ago”, Luvthatapex continued, “ I joined the VP community and met both Plumb and Mr Fixx, along with many other friendly people. Mr Fixx has a Dixieland, and he took some great pics for me. With help from Plumb and Duglis, I was ready to recreate my childhood dream”.

“I spent every spare minute working on my VP adaptation. I was enthralled with finally seeing the table from my youth coming to life on my own computer. The closer I came to a playable design, the more excited I became, and worked day and night. When I finally was able to actually play a game, I was so thrilled. What a wonderful feeling. I tweaked it for days, until it was just as I remembered.


“I used my kids as beta testers for Dixieland, and that was so much fun. They still test every table I do. What a nice family hobby and project. I’ll continue making the tables I enjoyed when I was younger, which I call Lost Classics. You seldom find them anywhere, and if you do, they are not in a playable condition. It’s almost like preserving a small bit of history.”


So the next time you drop a coin into your VP Dixieland and hear those switches and relays resetting, think a moment of the pleasure and fun pinball has given you over the weeks, or months, or if you are truly lucky, the many years since that very first game. No, pinball isn’t important at all if viewed against all the problems in the world. Pinball is an innocent way to forget your worries for a few minutes. You might even make new friendships through VP.

So, while pinball passed its prime years ago, and may never reclaim those glory days, it hasn’t gone out of style. And  to those of us who call the VP community family, pinball is still alive. We need to salute every one of these talented men and women who help keep pinball from simply fading into the shadows of our memories. The imagination shown by those who design original tables, often leave me speechless.


Pinball might not be as important as we sometimes make it seem. Too many things is life are stressfull, so why not enjoy a break from reality, for a short while? So the next time you fire up one of your favorite tables, take a minute or two before you pull back the plunger. Look at the theme for the table, and see how it makes the game just that more enjoyable. And even if you decide that the theme isn’t very logical, or maybe a bit far fetched, chuckle a minute, and then, Let The Games Begin. Not too bad for a forgotten and forsaken relic, is it?

© Copyright 2002, By John L Patton, tiltjlp.