A few brief moments after the doors opened for the first time at Headquarters Beercade’s new pinball expansion, Michael Messaros strolled over to a brightly colored “Tales From the Crypt” game. He was quickly absorbed by the process of tapping two red buttons on either side of the glowing machine to launch a silver ball up a series of ramps and bumpers toward the direction of the Crypt Keeper’s ghoulish face.
“It’s great,” said Messaros, 36, of Wicker Park. “I really like the physicality of it. It’s not like a video game where it’s just a series of ones and zeroes. Everything that’s happening is real.”
For pinball enthusiasts, it’s hard to believe the renaissance on the local scene is real. Over the past three years, tables have popped up at Emporium Arcade Bar in Wicker Park, the record store/arcade museum Logan Hardware in Logan Square and Bottom Lounge in the West Loop. But when it comes to public play in the city of Chicago, one of pinball’s biggest moments in decades arrived last week as the year-old beercade in Lakeview remodeled the old Uncle Fatty’s Rum Resort space and filled the 7,000-square-foot facility with 20 tables, making it the biggest collection of machines in Chicago and one of the largest pinball palaces in the Midwest. According to pinside.com, there are now more than 70 pinball tables available for play in the city.
“It’s a thrill,” said Gary Stern, CEO of Stern Pinball in Melrose Park, the Chicago-area company that was until recently the last pinball manufacturer in the world and has partnered with Headquarters to provide some of its popular new machines such as “The Avengers” and “X-Men” to the beercade. “Chicago has always been the pinball capital of the world. My father started making games in 1947, and they were all in Chicago. Just as Detroit is the home of the automobile, this is the headquarters of the world for pinball.”
Once descended from an 18th Century French parlor game called bagatelle in which noblemen used a small cue to shoot balls into holes, pinball emerged as a major pastime during the Great Depression after the cue was replaced with a spring-powered plunger and pinball pioneer Harry Williams invented the tilt anti-cheat mechanism. The game especially exploded after designer Harry Mabs created the first flipper on a game called “Humpty Dumpty” in 1947. They were ubiquitous through the ’70s and early ’80s after The Who’s “Tommy” made countless new pinball wizards, but “Pac-Man” and other video games chomped the quarters away from the game in the mid-’80s. In turn, the arcade itself died a slow death in the ’90s and ’00s as people began staying home to play video games.
“It was tough,” Stern said. “We were competing with other entertainments that didn’t exist before. The internet, movies-on-demand and video game consoles that weren’t around in the old days.”
Meanwhile, the city of Chicago made it tough on businesses who wanted pinball machines and arcade games. It adopted a resolution in 1988 designed to keep kids out of arcades during school hours, though it was later ruled unconstitutional. The city also began requiring business owners to get a special Public Place of Amusement license, and zoning laws say arcades have to be 125 feet from a residential district. Chicago’s last true neighborhood arcade, Dennis’ Place for Games in Lakeview, shut its doors in 2007. Three years ago, it was difficult to find a single playable pinball machine in a public space in Chicago beyond ones tucked away at bowling alleys or dive bars. That’s why many twentysomethings like Dustin Munsell hadn’t really played pinball before the recent boom.
“I started coming to Headquarters last year, and I found that I really liked the South Park game,” said Munsell, 27, of Lincoln Park. “It’s not really something I did before because it just wasn’t really around.”
But the popularity of pinball machines is now going full tilt, according to Stern, who said his company sold more than 5,000 machines in 2012.
“What we’ve seen is a growth of pinball worldwide, not only here in the U.S. but even places like Italy, Australia, Russia and the Middle East,” he said.
Part of the reason the owners of Headquarters decided to expand with pinball instead of more arcade games was the popularity of the two machines in the original bar.
“Pinball got a lot of action,” said Headquarters Beercade co-owner Mark Kwiatkowski. “So when we realized there were no pinball parlors in this market we thought, ‘What a great opportunity and an extension of our brand.’ ”
In particular, Kwiatkowski noticed Headquarters' females customers taking to pinball.
“Girls tend not to be as interested in video games as the guys, but they automatically gravitate towards pinball,” Kwiatkowski said. “I think everyone understands the game, and the basics are fairly simple.”
Joy Doyle agreed. “I think more girls will come here because pinball is more of a gender-neutral game,” said Doyle, 25, of Wicker Park, between her first and second shots on the “Playboy” pinball game at Headquarters. “It’s logical--something you can figure out right away.”
For a lot of people ages 20 to 35 discovering pinball for the first time, part of the appeal is getting away from a smartphone, according to Stern’s director of marketing Jody Dankberg.
“You can text or check your email pretty much everywhere; you can even do that while you’re driving,” Dankberg said. “But this is something you have to pay attention to and keep your phone in your pocket.”
It’s also unpredictable, Stern said. “The ball is wild, as Harry Williams used to say,” he said. “It’s not programmed like video games. It’s not something that can be completely controlled or directed.”
Messaros has a simpler reason for the appeal of Headquarters. “What’s better than playing pinball and drinking beer? It’s a great idea, I can’t believe no one thought of it earlier.”
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.
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