Vintage Flipper World is situated inside of an unassuming white panelled building, along a country dirt road on the outskirts of Brighton, Michigan. If you are not looking for it, you’ll miss it. If you didn’t have prior knowledge of what the building looked like, you’ll probably drive right past it. Therein lies the charm of the VFW, brainchild of Clay Harrell and his merry band of pinheads. The location makes sense–serene, unobtrusive, subdued–given that Mr. Harrell has a long and arduous history with disparagers, detractors and backbiters in the pinball community at large. The VFW literally puts space between those people and Mr. Harrell’s dream of a pinball oasis–acres and acres worth of space.
Inside the hall is much less serene, as you’d expect an old Veterans-hall-cum-arcade filled with around 200 pinball machines to sound like. Not to mention the ever present sound of classic rock emitting from the hall’s public jukebox. I walked the aisles and let the sounds of the different decades wash over me. From the soft clamour of Electromechanical chimes, to the electronic squawk of early Solid State technology, to unforgettable call-outs you’d recognize anywhere (“Move your car!”, “The Ma-Mush-Ka!”, “Ooh, nice organ!”). This is an arcade on steroids, with no stand-up video games in sight. In short, it is what many of us picture the afterlife to look like.
I attended the Saturday of the three day event. I had a ticket pre-purchased and with good reason–a crudely written sign hung above the door: “Sold Out”. Selling a limited amount of tickets in advance gets the thumbs up from this reviewer. It kept crowds extremely manageable. I had to wait to play a game once (Big Bang Bar). All other games I wanted to play were free at one point or another during the seven hours I spent there and in every case, I had the option of having a couple games in a row on any given machine (there was never anyone standing by waiting for their turn). Free posters were given away so everyone could leave with a small souvenir to pin up in their gameroom. Other, more traditional concert style posters, were sold for $3USD each.
The area immediately to the left and right of the entrance is filled with woodrail pinball games, and to be honest, I didn’t spend much time there. I played a few games on a woodrail called Niagara, but that was it. The rest of the facility held too many other treasures that kept my attention for the entire day. The main hall has games lining each wall and three rows of games lined up back to back, creating four aisle ways that run the length of the building–thus games flank you on either side when walking down a desired row. The game selection is organized very well, for example all of the Bally Solid State games and Williams DMD games are grouped together in the same aisle. The Williams DMD aisle was rocking the entire time I was there, and with players shoulder to shoulder playing (sometimes two-player) games, it got very crowded, so much so that it was hard for someone to walk the length of the aisle without elbowing someone. If you have a wide leaning stance while playing, like me, be prepared to be nudged, bumped into, and stepped on in this area. The other aisles were much more airy and easy to navigate. There is also a back room of games, containing more high-profile WPCs (Twilight Zone, Monster Bash) and other oddities (Safecracker, Joust), as well as the aforementioned Big Bang Bar. The playfield “art” that lines the hallway to this back room, I’d like to add, are probably in better condition than some of the playfields in my games currently. This is only one aspect of decor. Everywhere you look in the entire facility there is neon…it’s a stark contrast to the vintage dark-stained exposed wood beams and plaster of the aging hall, but it helps create the arcade mood.
Game selection was overwhelming. The line of ealry-Solid State Stern games is unbelievable, and probably the most complete on display in the entire world. The row of Electromechanical Gottlieb games ran the length of the building, in nearly chronological order and ran from early offerings like Slick Chick and the “Flipper” series all the way through later wedgeheads like Neptune and Golden Arrow. The classic Bally solid state games were an impressive sight to behold lined up next to one another. The obvious draw was the Williams WPC area, as I stated above, and I would be hard pressed to name a game that was glaring from its exclusion (they didn’t have a Popeye, but I don’t think anyone was hollering for a refund because of its exclusion).
All games were exceptionally clean and fully functioning. Outlanes opened to the max, pitch set high, and playfields waxed to a high gloss…all making for very fast, very punishing games. The games included looked to be choice examples from their respective runs: no lifting mylar, no broken ramps, and every bulb shining bright. There may have been one feature that wasn’t working on one game that I played, but that was on a Strange Science, and I’m not at all familiar with the rules of the game, so it could have been my ignorance, not a mechanical glitch. Techs wandered about and had playfields lifted amongst the players flipping away, themselves fixing on the fly. One minute a Whirlwind is out of order with two VFW staff pulling the glass off…ten minutes later, I’m playing the game, fully operational. I actually witnessed staff pulling a Demolition Man out of the lineup on a pin dolly, and brought back to the workshop for further diagnosis and repair, as the problem looked to be much more severe than a lame flipper or disconnected wire. No “Out of Order” sign needed here.
The staff was friendly, courteous and altogether welcoming. You could see the club members beaming with pride to have a world class facility like this and witnessing so many visitors enjoying themselves within the confines of their stomping grounds. I swear, at one point over the course of the day, there looked to be more staff members in their orange shirts than there were paying patrons at the facility. It must have been an “all hands on deck scenario”, knowing a full week in advance that the VFW would be at prescribed capacity. I saw Mr. Harrell briefly out in the furthest reaches of the parking area, but never again over the course of my visit. However, as much as I wanted to shake his hand and say thanks, I was having a banner day playing some games I had not played, or had played only once or twice before.
Just as I did in Allentown this year, I spent a minuscule amount of time with DMD era games, as most of them can be found in private collections close to home. I ventured down the aisle with classic Bally and Stern games first, and I couldn’t pull myself away, spending nearly half the day awash in Solid State bliss. I have very little experience with older solid-state Sterns, and was able to get schooled in a clinic of what the company was doing back then with an almost complete oeuvre to choose from. Iron Maiden was absolutely punishing as was Viper, I laughed off Split Second on first glance, but it ended up being the Stern machine I played most. I had my first go at Orbitor 1, and I’ll echo the sentiment that it’s the pinball equivalent of the morning after a wedding with an open bar. I had some pretty decent scores on Harlem Globetrotters On Tour, Centaur and Nitro Groundshaker, and I now want to own them all. A game that I had not played all that much, Vector, also stood out as a deep, well designed game with a seemingly endless amount of shots and gimmicks. I played EM games Neptune and Lucky Hand for an insane amount of time, as they are add-a-ball Gottleib classics and the “Wow’s” just kept on ringing up. I didn’t fare so well on the System 11 games I love so much. I drained my pants off on Fire! and Elvira and the Party Monsters, which didn’t give me too much hope as I currently own one that I am restoring and the other is at the top of my want list. I’ll have to chalk it up to the games being setup on “extra unforgiving”. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I got to play the super-rare, super-wide Williams Algar, but as I expected, it played much like all the other Williams games of the era. I had a go at my childhood “sweetheart” that is no longer in my collection, Solar Fire, and followed it up by playing its other three siblings in the Williams dual-level game series (Jungle Lord, Pharaoh and Black Knight). Jesus, these are all basically the same game. No wonder pinball was in such trouble back then!
Not having the velvet rope of “THE TOURNAMENT” at the facility was a nice change of pace. All games were accessible to all paying customers. Two games–Bally Strikes and Spares and Williams Fun Fest–were the “tournament” options. Drop a quarter in the coin slot, and if you beat the previous score posted on a sticky-note on the backglass and have it stand all day, you win the money in the cash box. Honour system applied, and the games were on free-play, so if you just wanted to play and didn’t want to “enter” the tournament with a quarter, you didn’t have to. Scores, early in the day, were quite modest, and I forgot to return to check their status before I departed. Mr. Harrell’s insistence that the focus be on playing games and having fun rather than competing rubbed some from the “It’s More Fun To Compete” community the wrong way, but I don’t think that was the type of crowd he was looking for anyhow. This was a showcase for collectors and folks who wanted to pay a small amount of money with nothing to take away except the fun and excitement of playing amongst a well-kept collection of vintage machines. Egos and holier-than-thou attitudes were checked at the door. I say this being a world-class flop at playing pinball. Maybe if I were a ranked player, I’d have my panties in a bunch, too. But it didn’t look like the club needed the support of the tournament players. Everyone had a smile on their face, and there were WOMEN! GLORIOUS WOMEN! More women than I’ve ever seen before at a pinball event! If they key to getting women to come out to these events is to axe the tournament characters, I say it is a path we should follow to pinball equality!
In all, it was well worth the 7-hour, round trip drive. It is nice to have a facility such as this within driving distance, however, the frequency of the facility being open to the public remains unknown. The VFW collection rivals that of the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. Yet, the VFW collection wins hands down in the category of organization, atmosphere, and general game maintenance. The tech area the club has organized looked to be world class, and stocked every pinball part imaginable. The club members donating their time to making the show run in a smooth fashion, from those parking the cars to those soldering loose wires, should be proud to have a hand in such a project. After years of floundering in pinball flux for a viable location to house his immense collection, Clay Harrell now has the VFW. He has shared it with the community for one weekend, and hopefully he chooses to do so on a regular basis. It felt like being at a town hall meeting in small town America, and pinball machines forever held the floor. If you didn’t experience it for yourself, I guarantee you would have been in awe of the passion and excitement that exuded from this unassuming pinball Mecca on the outskirts of Brighton.