I’ll start with a bold statement. Nobody has done more for the online pinball community than Clay Harrell. He, along with Lloyd the Goose, are probably the two biggest “Internet Celebrities” this community has produced (granted, both took very different routes to achieve such “status”).
An I.T. guy turned pinball repairman from Michigan, Harrell’s “fame” for many was solidified two ways: through his pin repair DVDs and online repair guides. Harrell recorded the DVD series, entitled “This Old Pinball”, under the pseudonym of “Shaggy”, a takeoff of Pinball Hall of Fame operator Tim Arnold’s appearance and mannerisms. Shot with your everyday handheld camera in the mid-2000s, the production is a cross between a how-to video and a cable access comedy show. Harrell is normally the foil to his wisecracking behind-the-camera sidekick Norm (another pin “celebrity” working under the cover of a pseudonym) and together they tackle the repair of such platforms as WPC, System 11 and a two-part volume dedicated to the ever troublesome Gottlieb System80. The price of the DVDs is nominal and they are all still available, with proceeds going to the not-for-profit Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. The repair guides, on the other hand, are a bit more elusive. At one point in the mid-to-late-2000s, these guides were available from Harrell’s website at no charge and collectively became the holy bible to the religion of fix-it-yourself pinball ownership. Have a problem with WPC general illumination lighting? Scroll down to the “When Things Don’t Work” section of the WPC guide and let the troubleshooting begin. The user-friendly guides have since been removed, some say due to a squabble about authorship, but if you dig hard enough on the ‘net or ask the right people, you’ll be able to find a copy. And you should have a copy. (Taking nothing away from PinWiki, they have devised an equally wonderful and helpful repair guide tool to keep your machine in working order.)
One cannot overlook Clay’s This Old Pinball podcast either, as it was a watershed online radio show that paved the way for all of the pinball podcasts that exist today. Clay was able to interview every influential pinball designer, artist and programmer on his show (with the notable exception of Popadiuk and Youssi). The recording of the show is 100% DIY (just like the TopCast videos) and unfortunately Harrell’s questions are fairly pedestrian and roll out as a mundane rundown of all the games to which the interviewee has been credited. The beauty of the interviews, however, occur when the questions are unscripted and the interviewee leads Harrell off the garden path to reveal tidbits and insider stories about working in pinball during their given era. Python Anghelo famously led Harrell off the aforementioned garden path, through a swamp, into a forest and off the edge of a cliff in his 90-minute interview/rant that trumped anything else Harrell had recorded or would record in the entire TopCast series. As the recordings came to a close in 2010, Harrell and his skeleton crew had hit their stride on the production end, and his three-part interview with Pat Lawlor stands as the most polished and organized of the bunch.
Harrell is also the Pinball Ninja. A pay-to-read site, Harrell charges $15USD for access to his WordPress “webzine” that chronicles his pin repair house calls across Michigan. Pinball Ninja takes the best of what Harrell has been successful with in the past and creates something new with plenty of substance. Whereas the pin repair guides were general outlines for fixing specific machine platforms (Sys11, WPC, etc.), the site takes a more This Old Pinball approach, looking at a specific machine and using it as a repair test case. Some of these repair candidates are projects located in Harrell’s shop, but most often they are in a client’s home or out on location. Each entry looks at one specific machine and what ails it. As of writing, Harrell has topped 800 fixes, and are a part of nearly 900 overall total entries. All are written with Harrell’s signature panache (often tongue-in-cheek and with a hefty dose of sarcasm) and are accompanied by plenty of photos and a summary video of the actual troubleshooting/repair. In the earlier days of the webzine, Harrell tried to keep his position as creator of the site under wraps as entries were written by an “anonymous pinball ninja”–it was the worst kept secret in pinball. He now uses the moniker in title only, rather than a clandestine pseudonym. I’m a paying customer, and it’s downright fascinating watching him whisper his way through a fix in someone’s Michigan basement. (Make sure to keep your eyes peeled on Pinside, as Harrell regularly surfaces to announce a flash sale for Ninja membership, normally around major holidays, where he drops the price from $15USD to $10USD.)
For all the good he has done for the community, Harrell does have his detractors. His online presence comes off as very brash and sarcastic, and its easy to see that he could rub some the wrong way. A bit of muck raking appeared on rec.games.pinball in February of 2010, chronicling the messy fallout between Harrell and Jim Schelburg of the Pingame Journal (amongst other unsavoury tidbits). There was a rumoured falling out between Harrell and Arnold along the way as well . Not much more to say here other than there are bound to be personality clashes within such a tight-knit niche hobby such as this.
Harrell’s latest venture is the (partly) Kickstarter funded Ann Arbor Pinball Museum. Harrell closed his club in nearby Novi and moved the pins to an old VFW hall giving them a permanent home while maintaining a “club-like” environment. The Kickstarter campaign’s goal was $5000USD. It was easily achieved and ended up raising over $10,000USD for roofing and other facility costs. Again, the project had its nay-sayers, as Clay had been unable to keep the now-defunct Tilt Town afloat, and if I’m not mistaken he was a part of another failed pinball venue in Michigan as well. With the Ann Arbor project funded, Clay now prepares for the official opening show at the VFW Pinball/Vintage Flipper World site on May 16-18, 2014. The venue is not open year round, but rather follows a PAPA model where the public is welcome about four times a year–tickets must be purchased in advance and are limited in quantity. With his years of experience behind him, it sounds like Clay has it all figured out.
Love him or loathe him, Clay Harrell has certainly given his all to an online community that seems to be growing daily. To many he’s just a name from a forgotten time when a Twilight Zone could be bought for $2000, but when examining the scope of what he has offered to this relatively small hobbyist community, his contributions are almost immeasurable.
Former home of the repair guides, current home of the TOP DVDs – http://www.pinrepair.com
TOPcast – This Old Pinball’s Online Podcast – http://www.pinrepair.com/topcast/past.php
Pinside – Building a Better Pinball Show(Ann Arbor, MI model)
rec.games.pinball – The REAL Clay Harrell (Beware: Long and obscene)
Vintage Flipper World – The Ann Arbor Pinball Museum
Concentrate – He Sure Displays a Mean Pinball
Email Clay at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange paid access to http://www.pinballninja.com