The Real Pinball Wizards

By Trevor Ballanger

In most dark arcades and bars is the uncharacteristically bright corner past the pool tables where a pinball machine sits waiting to be played.

It doesn’t take a fan of The Who or Jodie Foster to realize these mechanical games have made a mark on pop culture history. So it makes sense that as the home of pinball, Chicago has one of the last remaining manufacturers of the classic game, Stern Pinball Inc., 2020 Janice Ave. in Melrose Park, Ill.

One of the biggest struggles the traditional game manufacturer deals with is competing with technology. Owner Gary Stern said some of his pinball games have been made into apps for smartphones in an effort to keep up. Marcin Wichary, a Google User Experience designer, was recruited to assist with the evolution of pinball entertainment. He said as technology evolves, so does the culture surrounding it.

A resident of San Francisco, Wichary said while he was in Chicago he took a tour of Stern Pinball, played a few rounds and was surprised at the advances already made in the design’s modernization.

Each machine is composed of more than half a mile of wire and 3,500 parts. Jody Dankberg, marketing director of Stern Pinball, said the idea is to simplify the internal makeup of the machines. By 2013, the systems could be connected to Wi-Fi and capable of face-to-face competition. Manufacturing techniques are being tested to increase the game’s innovative process as well.

“Like any design exercise, it’s probably a lot harder than you think,” Wichary said. “They’re more electronic than ever.”

Stern Pinball is making attempts to build awareness of the game. The company asked Wichary to design a pinball-themed Google logo to appear on the web browser’s home page, and has hosted pop culture events to promote newly designed games at Comic-Con International in San Diego. According to Stern, pinball is competing the same way as all other forms of entertainment.

Aside from the technological modifications, pinball machines have become a sought-after collectible. Game enthusiasts, competitors and people in general simply want to have one in their homes. Stern said owning one makes a statement, and some people compare their pinball machines to Ferraris.

According to Dankberg, pinball machines have become a “luxury item.” Prices start at $5,000 and increase, depending on the style of the game. Celebrities have proven to be enthusiasts of the company throughout the years. Stern Pinball was commissioned by film and TV producer Aaron Spelling’s wife, Candy, to make two custom machines worth $500,000. Other fans include Michael Jordan and Kid Rock, who Dankberg said is an avid pinball enthusiast.

“It’s fun; it’s something to be involved in,” Stern said. “We’re not making hard luck machines. We’re making fun.”

Different titles appeal to different patrons who determine the success of a particular machine. Three or four new models are made each year, Dankberg said. The company tries to get the most world-renowned and A-list titles for their machines. Superhero titles like Batman and Transformers remain popular for long periods of time. Their latest model, an AC/DC-themed machine, is expected to do well. Limited and premium editions give owners the chance to own a highly original piece of merchandise.

Stern has been involved with the game industry since he was a child. He was two years old when his father became an operator and distributor of games in Philadelphia. Before moving to Chicago in 1947, his father approached the owner of Williams Manufacturing Company, an entertainment manufacturer and asked to purchase half of the business. Stern later followed in his father’s footsteps and began his own game company in 1986.

The demand for Stern Pinball’s games goes beyond U.S. borders, with more than half of the company’s orders sent overseas. Although the game isn’t as in demand as it once was, Stern said the company takes a patriotic stance on being an internationally successful company.

“We think it’s very important,” he said. “It’s not just American, it’s Chicagoan.”

A launch party for the new AC/DC model will take place Feb. 24 at GameWorks, 601 N. Martingale Road, Suite 115 in Shaumburg, Ill. Call (847) 330-9675 for more information. Tours of Stern Pinball can be taken Monday – Friday from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.