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FEATURE: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Michael Jackson and Pinball

It is surprising that no official Michael Jackson pinball machine exists.  His global celebrity and constant image reinvention lends itself nicely to a pingame.  Despite the lack of a licenced pinball bearing his image, the troubled pop icon’s relationship with this crazy hobby of ours runs deep. From being photographed with machines, to having a solid row of Sterns at his Neverland Ranch, Mr. Jackson certainly appears in the footnotes of pinball history. I originally intended this article to chronicle the somewhat bizarre eBay sale of a Data East pinball machine mocked up to promote a Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial (yes, you read that right: a pinball machine was made to promote a promotional advertisement), however, in doing some preliminary research, I realized that perhaps a brief exploration of Jackson’s connection to the pinball world would be beneficial to situate the one-off Data East “Pepsi Chase” machine into proper historical context.

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A Thriller-era Michael Jackson playing a Bally Space Invaders. A Bally Time Zone is in the background.

 

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Mr. Jackson as Peter Pan, airbrushed on the hood of Jackson’s Neverland golf cart.

Michael Jackson had a unique take on the idea of opulence: commissioned paintings of himself in nineteenth century royal garb, life-size superhero statues, animatronic robots, carnival rides, live animals (Bubbles the Chimp being the most famous) and, of course, arcade machines. These days, a pinball machine or stand-up video cabinet is probably the most normal thing you could own from that list, but in a time when having one (or multiples) in your home was a rarity, it was just one more reason to characterize the King of Pop as a weirdo. I’m no Jackson expert, but I assume his love for coin operated ephemera stemmed from his fascination with being young and refusal to let the feelings of childlike wonderment slip away. Some call it Peter Pan Syndrome. Mr. Jackson did nothing to help this persona characteristic, as it was reported that he himself leaked an untrue story that he was spending time in an oxygenated chamber to defy the effects of growing old.  As Jackson aged, the public perception of his obsession with being young became more troubling to comprehend…and then the allegations of child molestation surfaced.  His public image went from “obsessed with being a young child” to “obsessed with being WITH young children”, and it is a reputation that never really went away.  Michael Jackson’s is a story of a childhood lost to super-stardom, and he tried just about everything he could to recreate those lost feelings and memories. In the end, I guess that is what many of us from our generation are doing as well: trying to recapture, or somehow commoditize, those fleeting moments from our youth by amassing souvenirs of a bygone era.

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The Jackson 5, Michael in the middle, surrounded by a Bally Kick Off and Six Million Dollar Man.

Sentimentality aside, here are a couple of the more interesting pinball footnotes in Mr. Jackson’s oeuvre:

In the book Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion Dollar Empire by Zack O’Malley Greenburg, there is one amusing anecdote retold about Jackson and a pinball machine. Luckily for you, the reader, you don’t have to plow through Greenburg’s book for one small reference. Washington Times reviewer Mike Musgrove does the hard work for us and mentions it in his review:

“Although he later became famous for his erratic behavior and million-dollar spending sprees, music executives who worked with Jackson from the beginning of his career turn up in Greenburg’s pages to declare that the young singer had a head for business. Jackson wrote notes in the margins of his contracts, recalls a former CBS records executive; Jackson made attentive comments in meetings, remembers another business associate. Unfortunately, the most memorable anecdotes that Greenburg unearthed tend to undermine his thesis –– such as the time Jackson called his lawyer in the middle of the night to complain about a broken pinball machine. Oh, Michael!”

Dollars to doughnuts a service call was made for the malfunctioning machine–I can’t see the King of Pop busting out the soldering iron and multi-meter to diagnose and replace a fried transistor.

Another interesting pinball footnote comes from the song “Liberian Girl”, which appeared on Mr. Jackson’s Bad album in 1987. Watch the interviewer try to ascribe feeling to Mr. Jackson’s authorship of the song, only to be shot down by the King of Pop himself, saying the inspiration came from his gameroom:

The video for “Liberian Girl”, which in all honesty was a throwaway song from the Bad album, featured Billy Dee Williams, Paula Abdul, Lou Diamond Phillips, John Travolta, Whoopi Goldberg, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Debbie Gibson, Steve Guttenberg and a host of other decades-past throwbacks (including Mr. Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles). Sadly, no pinball machines appear. The credits for this wandering, directionless, annoyingly self-reflexive piece run almost as long as the video itself, giving each “star” a still frame and text credit (Bubbles gets one too, just before Suzanne Somers). After listening to the song, any guesses as to which pinball machine Mr. Jackson was playing that inspired the beat?  (I’d guess either Williams Big Guns or Space Station, for the record…)

In 2008, Julien’s Auctions secured the right to liquidate Michael Jackson’s gameroom and other items from the Neverland Ranch, which had recently been foreclosed. All the items were removed from Mr. Jackson’s property and the original “arcade” space from the Ranch was recreated in a downtown Los Angeles building for public viewing. Shortly after securing the rights to sell, Mr. Jackson reneged on the agreement with the auction house, wanting instead to keep the items. Courts intervened, and a settlement was reached: in lieu of selling the items which had already been staged for auction, they would be displayed publicly, for a short time, in a museum-like exhibition entitled “The Collection of the King of Pop”. Thankfully, the people over at Pinsane.com have preserved a virtual walkthrough of the arcade collection. In looking over the items, I guess it is somewhat impressive, but I wouldn’t call it jaw-dropping.  The collection features a garden variety assortment of arcade games (curiously, no Moonwalker), and the pinball fare included the newest Stern titles of the time (Striker Xtreme, Austin Powers, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Terminator 3, and The Simpsons Pinball Party) along with two Williams Superpin classics (Star Trek: The Next Generation and Indiana Jones: The Pinball Adventure). It is interesting to note that Indiana Jones is the only pinball machine not powered on for the interactive tour. I’m unclear as to the status of the gameroom items after their public exhibition.  The King of Pop died just a few months after the exhibition’s closing and Julien’s continued to be the go-to source for estate liquidation. They famously sold the jacket he wore in the Thriller video for $1.8 million dollars in 2011.

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“Pinball Row” from Julien’s Los Angeles exhibit of Jackson’s arcade memorabilia.

Perhaps the oddest connection to the pinball world is the seemingly never-ending sale saga of a “Pepsi Chase” pinball machine cobbled together from a Data East Laser War machine.  All signs point to the machine first appearing in 1987 at the time of the release of Mr. Jackson’s aforementioned Bad album. Jackson was a long-time Pepsi pitchman. He most famously set his hair on fire at a mock concert filmed by Pepsi for a commercial–the torched tresses were due to ill-timed pyrotechnics. Despite a lawsuit that followed, Mr. Jackson and Pepsi continued their mutual promotion into the late eighties when a five-minute television commercial titled “Chase” was produced (or, over-produced, much like the music videos of the time: everyone thought they were an auteur no matter the medium).  The commercial featured tired action film tropes and a version of the song “Bad” with lyrics changed to suit the Pepsi brand.

At some point, someone took a Data East Laser War machine and repurposed it to create the one-off “Pepsi Chase” pinball machine. One can probably draw the conclusion that Data East had little to do with the machine’s re-theme, and was probably mocked up as a promotional piece by a third party. The re-theme kept the Laser War playfield unchanged, adding only new side art and a new backglass.  We do have a picture of Mr. Jackson playing the machine, and the haircuts of the people in the picture do look historically correct (which, for me, is a great indication of authenticity!) The game has floated in and out of the pinball community’s consciousness through marketplace sale advertisements over the past few years.  Curiously the Internet Pinball Database has no entry for the game, and little information exists other than the cached sale listings.  As I stated before, my gut tells me Data East had nothing to do with building the machine for Jackson or Pepsi, even though Data East is a company whose motto could have been “Licencing Everything”.  They were known for pricy one offs based upon existing machines—they most notably made two Aaron Spelling machines at his wife’s request and made a single unit for film producer Joel Silver.  Looking at pictures of the Spelling and Silver games, you can tell Data East did them in house as the art has all the spit and polish of a professionally assembled game.  Everything was themed: playfield, music, callouts, DMD animations, backglass and side art.  The “Pepsi Chase” machine is a little bit harder to peg due to very few pictures and incredibly faded artwork.  Data East was a new company at the time, Laser War was their first game.  Was the “Pepsi Chase” machine their first attempt at re-theming production games to kickstart extra income, or was this a private firm cobbling together a promotional piece to further the link between Mr. Jackson and Pepsi?  It is hard to tell.

The game first appeared in a California Craigslist ad in June 2010, which read:

“I am helping a friend sell a one of a kind pinball machine. We had an expert check on the validity of the claim. He looked for over 3 months for another machine like this and assured us that this was the only one of its kind EVER PRODUCED! Pepsi teamed with Michael Jackson for the famed faulty Pepsi ad in the late 80’s and as we all remember, Michael caught fire during the filming of one of the shoots. This machine was made to commemorate the joining of Michael Jackson and Pepsi. Michael Jackson originally wanted this machine, but my friend was able to get his hands on it. It initially was going to be shipped to Germany (all lettering is in German and coinage is based in the old german deutschemarc). This is the perfect piece for an avid pinball machine collector or the ULTIMATE MICHAEL JACKSON fan. All of the commentary during the game was done by none other than Michae Jackson himself. The machine recently underwent an overhaul. Springs and rubber were replaced during the service. My friend is only willing to entertain serious offers. Don’t waste our time with a lowball offer. If you want to search the internet to locate another, go ahead and try. This is the only one out there. Machine works great and can be turned on inside the locked area or you can use Deutcshmarcs.”

The three pictures above were included in this Craigslist ad.  The machine appears to be sun-faded and washed out, and may be a sign of the less-than-professional materials used to create the Jackson/Pepsi art.  The “selling for a friend” theme seems to be key in the Pepsi Chase machine history. The Craigslist ad incorrectly links the Chase commercial with the one in which Michael Jackson’s hair catches on fire: four years separates these events.  The listing says the machine was made to “commemorate the Joining of Michael Jackson and Pepsi”: they had already been partners for quite some time by the time that this game would have been made.  There is lots of verbal bravado using incorrect facts, which shows that the seller may not know all that much about the history of the game.  The seller also claims that the machine was made in the United States for export to the German market. The Craigslist ad also hints that custom speech was used to replace the original Laser War sound package. Some of the best pictures that do exist of this machine were originally included in this ad. From them, we can see the Laser War playfield looks to be in its original state.  Overall, the ad kind of smells fishy…but in the way all pinball ads smell fishy when written up by non-pinball enthusiasts: too much exuberance and salesmanship, leaving the pinball-attuned reader questioning the entire body of the work.

Pinball community mainstay “Pistol” Pete Haduch shared his e-mail correspondence with the same seller (at least it appears to be the same seller) on rec.games.pinball in May 2011.  The game’s owner writes:

“I have a friend who has a rare pinball machine. He was told it was a one of a kind. If you remember the Pepsi venture when they hired Michael Jackson on to push Pepsi (when Michaels hair caught on fire), they had some promo stuff with Michael and Pepsi stuff pictured together. Well, my friend has a pinball machine depicting Michael jumping off the back end of a Pepsi truck. The whole game has Michaels real voice as the actual voice over. Id like to know if you could put a value on this, or maybe know someone who can.  Thanks, Mike in California”

Pistol Pete’s response:

“Having never seen it really makes it tough to put a price on it. Photographs and video of the game would help, but your best bet is a local auction house for putting a value on the machine. The value could fall into several different categories: Pinball machine for a game player (probably the lowest), dedicated pinball collector, MJ memorabilia collector, pinball and MJ collector (best price). Being a one-of-a kind machine should also make it more valuable as long as it was produced by one of the major pinball companies such as Bally, Williams, Data East, Sega or Stern as replacement parts could still be available. If it was converted from a game to be used as a prop then it would most likely have a lower value than a game produced specifically for MJ by one of the major manufacturers.”

Mr. Haduch did not receive any further correspondence or photos from the seller. Nothing more seems to come of this. There doesn’t seem to be a retelling of anyone in the pinball community going to see this machine. No high quality pictures. No videos of gameplay. Nothing.  A revised Craigslist ad for what appears to be the same machine, surfaces a bit later, titled “Pin Ball Machine- Michael Jackson (Covina)” and reads as follows:

“This Pin Ball Machine is a one-of-a kind Pin Ball (which was verified by Orange County Arcades). This 4-player machine was built by “Data East Pinball, Inc.” out of Chicago, Illinois in 1987 for when Michael Jackson filmed the “Pepsi” commercial. I was told it is a “re-export” from Germany (all verbage [sic] and coin mech’s are in the German Language). The digital stereo sound system has recorded voice modules that sound just like MJ when targets are hit. It is a “three ball” machine that features the game “Chase / Laser War” but all the art work was designed to feature MJ (back glass portrait and cabinet artwork). The artwork on both sides of the cabinet are slightly faded (very obvious showing MJ driving what appears to be a Laborghini Testarossa down a highway passing a “Pepsi Truck”). The artwork was designed by “Hudson Graphics of O’connor Associates, Inc. The design team was “Team #28”. The machine works well. I am moving so I must sell. You can own this highly collectable Pinball for a fraction of what it is worth and own a piece of Pop History! Sacrificing for $3,500. Ask for Mark: Days (626) 331-3011 Evenings (626) 484-0274.”

The game’s seller is now Mark, not Mike.  Again we have a reference to custom, non-Laser War speech/sound. The first appearance of artwork and design information is teased, but it turns out these names are taken from the unmolested Laser War playfield: (Margaret) Hudson and (Kevin) O’Connor did the Laser War art package, while Team #28 was the collective codename for Joe Kaminkow and company who did the Laser War design. There is still no reference to any markings, trademarks or signatures on the replaced side art or playfield. The ticket price of $3,500 isn’t totally insane, but the “sacrifice” prefix placed on it by the seller is a bit dramatic. The price, in my opinion, remains not totally out of the question for a one-off curiosity that Michael Jackson himself may have played.  But at this point, we are without physical proof that the game was played or owned by Mr. Jackson.

Fast forward to late last year when the same Pepsi Chase machine surfaced on eBay. Remember how I said the first Craigslist ad seemed kind of fishy, and the $3,500 price tag on the second was somewhat reasonable? Yeah, forget all that with this eBay listing. The location of the game has apparently moved from California to Louisville, Kentucky. And the price has appreciated nearly thirty times in value: to a staggering $100,000USD. Seller “hollywuud8” has a glowing 100% feedback record: the majority of Mr. Wuud’s 313 transactions he played the role of the buyer, having only been credited with four instances of seller feedback. The auction is currently live and has been so since just before Christmas 2014.  It inevitably does not sell and gets relisted every four days or so. Photos are again sparse: two general pictures of the game’s side art and backglass with a copy of the December 20, 2014 USA Today placed within the frame to prove the pictures are current.  We also get to see the photo of Michael Jackson actually playing the machine for the first time (the seller includes the photo twice for some reason).

The description of the machine from the ad is as follows:

“used. and everything that comes along with being used. some scratches on metal. 1 nick break in wood, small, top left corner. some bad fading on the sides, but can still make them out. and the pinball machine plays. and the playfield is good. we think it look’s supper. like some one took good care of it. we are giving the Michael Jackson pinball a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. it can be refurbished if some one want’s to have it done. will be like new. but hey, Michael Jackson played on this very pinball machine. Michael Jackson loved pinball and arcade machine’s. we think this is the pinball machine that got Michael Jackson to start collecting pinball and other arcade machines, and we also think this was the pinball machine he was playing when he came up with Liberian girl.”

The machine has seen better days, obviously. It is nice that the seller doesn’t pawn off the machine as a museum showpiece, giving it a mediocre five out of ten for overall quality. I would challenge the final deduction that this was the pinball machine Mr. Jackson was playing when he came up with Liberian Girl. The song would have long been in the can and completed for the Bad album by the time the Chase commercial was being filmed. Anyhow, what follows is the lengthy description from the body of the listing. Having been relisted over fifteen times at the time of writing, I’m sure plenty of questions have been asked of the seller. He has been generous enough to answer them as part of his product description:

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Michael Jackson was and is the king of pop. we loved him in Kentucky. this is from an a estate sale. from someone that loved Michael jackson so much, that they had to have this pinball machine. after all, pinball and arcade machine’s played a big part in Michael Jacksons life. this is from Michael Jacksons bad tour day’s. the pepsi commercial ” the chase” probably one of the longest commercial’s ever. only someone like Michael Jackson could pull that off.  this was made by pepsi ( can you imagine someone made you a pinball machine)  what a complement. and he owned it, and played it, and loved it. we have at least two of the picture’s showing Michael Jackson playing his pinball machine. if you are a Michael Jackson collector, or loved him. how could you not want this. and this is it. there weren’t any other Michael Jackson pinball machines made.

we are offering a choice for the high bidder. you can have the Michael Jackson pinball machine delivered the way it is to you. or you can have it restored by a  professional ( we will pay for this service out of the money we get for the Michael Jackson pinball machine, in other words, it is included in the bid. if you want this service. ) it will be gone over cosmetically and mechanical wise. the Michael Jackson pinball machine will be close to new as possible. just like when Michael Jackson himself, would play on it. and loved it. please note. this service might and probably will mean it will take awhile, could be weeks or month’s to get done. we wont know till it happens. also, any money’s we pay out of the auction money we get, for the restore of the Michael Jackson pinball machine will be nonrefundable.  here is how this work’s .we will ship off  ( we will pay the shipping to get it to the restoration place as part of the restoration ) the Michael Jackson pinball machine. WE have a place in mind, they are supposed to be one of the best. we wont say there name right now. they will then be able to tell us a time line. and get the restore work in progress. then after the work is complete, the Michael Jackson pinball machine  will be ready to be shipped to the lucky new owner.

will add more pictures later. and more information on the listing. as we get it.

here are some questions we got and the answers we gave about the Michael Jackson pinball machine.

meszar2 asked this question.

so the owner does not want to add additional pictures so what is the plan with the machine when it doesn’t sell? for pinball collectors condition is everything and she is trying to get a 100,000 for a machine that you cant see other than the very faded side of the machine!?!?! I did a google search on this machine and there are pictures out there from a craigs list post selling this machine or one like it back in 2010 so I am perplexed wont allow pictures of the game. one has to assume the game is in poor condition and the reason there aren’t any picture’s showing the true condition of the machine is that it will show just that! I know you just listed this machine for the owner so please don’t take my question negatively against you. it’s just a pinball machine like this has a lot of collectible value for a pinball collector. , just perplexed as to how the owner can expect some one to pay any dollar amount for a machine you cant see. good luck with the sale!!!

hi meszar2. you got to remember that this is a estate sale. all of these items very emotional to sale. the lady that owns this Michael Jackson pinball machine says the same about this machine that she says about the other arcade items machine’s she is selling. and that is she don’t care how long they take to sell. and for your google search, this is the same pinball machine. straight out of California. we know, because we are the one’s that bought it for the person or the estate as it is now. right off craigslist. the person that passed checked the story. and it was 150 percent legit. ( we went out on a limb, and recommend that this person buy it also, even before he checked the story.) we sent the money order. the person that sold the machine was great, and had taken good care of this machine. it got picked up. and delivered, with out a problem. and that is how is the Michael Jackson pinball machine got to Louisville Kentucky. to later be sold at an estate sale.

pinballwizardmitch asked this question.

hello, as a big huge pinball and big huge Michael Jackson fan, I am very interested in this auction, and think it is awesome you have this. can you post some detailed picture’s of the playfield and back glass thanks so much.

hi pinballwizardmitch. yes we can get more picture’s. remember this is a estate auction. we have to drive where the woman lives to get picture’s. we are doing this for free. on our own time. we can take picture’s of the out side of the machine , but with the play field the lady is trying to decide to put pictures up or not. on one hand, she thinks who ever buys it , wont want the picture’s of the play field all over the internet. but on the other, she knows . people want to see it. right now, she is not putting picture’s of the play field up. that’s what we got to respect. she make’s the decisions on these estate item’s we have been selling for her. and we just say yes mam or no mam. she sold the new old stock major havoc arcade kit to a collector in a country in Europe, I cant think of the country’s name right now. he was happy to get it. and quiet a few other arcade related items to other’s. and every one has been happy with them.

since_2010 asked this question

i’ll give you 3000 for it without any pictures. 10,000 if I can get a lot of photos of the playfield and under the cabinet.

hi since_2010. what a great offer. you see the value we knew was there. and that is great. after all, we aren’t just talking about a pinball machine. we are talking about the king of music, Michael Jackson. and this Michael Jackson pinball machine was one of the things he loved. we are going to have to decline your offer though. but, your question has helped us make what we think is a good decision. we at the winning bidders choice, like leave it as is, or have us ( meaning the lady that owns the Michael Jackson pinball machine, have it restored to as new as possible, as we can get any way’s by professional’s.) and this will involve having the part we pay out for restoration to be nonrefundable. this way, any one concerned about not being enough picture’s. or not being able to come by and see the Michael Jackson pinball machine in person. wont have to worry. it will be as close to new as we can get. ( and to any bidder’s. this will take some time to get done. could be week’s. or 3 or 4 month’s. really don’t know till it happens. )

since_2010 asked this question also.

is this machine available to view in person before I place a bid.

hi since_2010. the lady that owns the Michael Jackson pinball machine and or the other arcade machines that are for sale. doesn’t want anybody coming to where she lives. this is because of a violent burglary that happened. and she says she is sorry, because she knows people want to come and see them. but, she likes to feel safe in her home. she hopes everybody understands.

Yikes, where to start. First, I guess it is kind of nice that the seller will have the machine completely restored before shipping it—a service that is included in the hammer price. Maybe they should offer to have the game restored to its original condition…as a Data East Laser War. It is confirmed that this is the same machine from the California Craigslist advertisements.  I needn’t say that the price is outrageous, it goes without saying.  I will say that it is very convenient that the machine belongs to someone other than the seller.  And that the lady who owns the machine is afraid of visitors so viewing the machine is impossible.  And that she doesn’t care if it sells or not.  And that the seller is too busy to take more detailed photos.  And the seller’s grammar.  And.  And.  And.  We could go on for days here.  I’m sure the machine exists and that it currently resides in the greater Louisville area, but further to that, I’m calling baloney on many of the facts contained within.  Sure, there is a sucker born every minute, but a sucker big enough to outlay $100,000USD on a machine whose origin is completely unknown with only two detail deficient pictures of it attached in the listing?  I don’t think so.  If only this machine could get into the right hands, or be accessed by the right hands, to gain a bit more knowledge about it.

I don’t think the eBay auction for the Pepsi Chase machine bears too much more analysis.  The pinball community has already concluded that it is a seller trying to hook a whale with some questionable business practices.  I wanted to collect the verbiage used in the auction listing to preserve it, and place it alongside the other appearances on Craigslist.  Since little information exists, perhaps it would be helpful to gather what we know and put it all one place, no matter how ridiculous that information is.

I know people talk about themes that were no-brainers in pinball’s hey-day all the time, but how in the hell did a Michael Jackson pinball machine proper not get produced in the late-80s or early-90s?  Slash, guitarist for Guns ‘n’ Roses and avid pinball enthusiast, used his celebrity sway to get Data East on board for a GnR pinball machine in 1994.  Jackson’s brand would have been ripe for a transition to the arcade world (and was, Sega released Moonwalker in 1989 to warm-ish reviews).  It would have been a fantastic, synergistic promotional tool for his worldwide brand (a fact that someone, somewhere picked up on when putting together the Pepsi Chase machine).  With Jackson’s apparent appreciation for the game of pinball and Data East’s love of licencing, I cannot fathom how this partnership didn’t happen.   Actually I can fathom it: by 1993 the sex abuse allegations against Jackson came to light, and really killed all chances of a game being produced whose main demographic would be young adults.  If someone really wants a Michael Jackson machine in their collection, they’ll have to spend $100,000USD to get one, or build one themselves.  I wonder what his high score was on Striker Xtreme?

Further Reading:

Pinsane.com – Julien’s Auctions Michael Jackson Memorabilia: Arcade Walkthrough

Julien’s Auctions – King of Pop, A Once in a Lifetime Public Exhibition

San Diego Pinball Club – Michael Jackson/Pepsi Pinball Machine

Montreal Arcade & Amusement Collectors Association – Michael Jackson Pinball

rec.games.pinball – Never knew about this pinball machine: Michael Jackson/Pepsi Pinball Machine

eBay – michael jackson 1987 chase pepsi arcade pinball machine. from the bad tour days.

Pinside – Michael Jackson Pinball Machine Resurfaces on eBay

Anthony King – Michael Jackson The Chase Pepsi Commercial


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FEATURE: Roger Sharpe’s “Pinball!”

I responded to an ad on Kijiji (the Canadian version of Craigslist) that advertised a “Pinball Machine” book. I clicked through the ad to find it was a copy of Roger Sharpe’s 1977 landmark coffee table book entitled “Pinball!” with photos by James Hamilton. The ad claimed the book came with the original dust jacket and that it was a first edition. Further, the ad went on to state that the book was signed by the author. Included was a photo of the inside end paper–scrawled in felt-tip pen it read “Best Wishes, Roger Sharpe”. The seller was asking $40. I immediately sent over a message and by Tuesday afternoon I had arranged a weekend pickup. Mr. Sharpe’s book is difficult to find on the secondary market, a signed first edition in good condition with dust jacket intact even more so. As an example, Amazon lists about five of them from their third-party sellers, and the cheapest one, which is also a signed first edition, will run you $250USD+$3.99USD shipping (this was on Amazon.ca. Quick! Amazon.com has one for $45.00USD+$3.99 shipping!). I have always wanted the book, however, I was not willing to pay the astronomical prices the book commands. I wasn’t looking forward to the Saturday morning drive to the other side of Toronto to pick it up, but I would have been silly to balk at the chance of owning it for $40CAD.

For someone like me, who admittedly is more comfortable talking about and working on games from the Solid State era, the contents of this book are foreign territory. Mr. Sharpe chronicles the emergence of pinball as a national pastime from its pre-war roots as modernized bagatelles, up to the colourful, noisy, non-licenced Electromechanical machines we recognize as a pinball machine. As stated in the introduction, the book was released in 1977, so the most recent games that are photographed are the Bally releases Captain Fantastic and Night Rider, however the text does briefly reference games that rode the crest of Solid State technology, like Evel Knievel and The Atarians. It is almost unbelievable that Sharpe chose this moment in time to release his book, as it bisects the EM and Solid State eras perfectly. Sharpe and Co. tie a bow around the manufacturing, playing, operating and legislating of pinball machines before the dawn of circuit boards and LCD displays.

Much of Mr. Sharpe’s writing early in the book is flowery and dramatic, which isn’t much my taste, but was probably influenced by the subject matter. I get it: he was trying to put feeling and emotion into the static workings of a mechanical machine. He is, in essence, trying to show that the machines are dynamic, almost alive when controlled by the player. Mr. Sharpe gets over-zealous in the text about playing a Bally Old Chicago, describing each ball in elaborate detail. This is a zeal that has waned and faded within the pinball community over the years, perhaps lost to a more jaded generation such as ours, who are now more focussed on resale values and the number of after-market mods in our prized machines. Some lines are very quotable, if not written specifically for entertainment value alone:

“Playing pinball is like making love: It demands the complete concentration and total emotional involvement of the player. Nothing else will do.”

Python Anghelo put that line of thought into circulation, but it looks as though Mr. Sharpe minted it in this book. I would disagree, however. I’m not totally sold on the similarities between sex and pinball. However, my wife may find a comparison between the two…given my reputation for “short ball times”…

A large part of the book is dedicated to chronicling the history of the game, which, now, can be taken for granted, as we can piece together our own history using various sources on the web. However, nothing of its kind would have been available in the 1970s and Mr. Sharpe’s documentation of pinball history and culture brought legitimacy to a pastime that had always been thought of as residing on the lowest rung of the cultural ladder, and thus, had its history discounted and ignored. Giants of the industry, Sam Stern, Harry Williams and David Gottlieb are given their due in hearty helpings. Mr. Sharpe gives little significance to his own efforts of helping break through the legislative barriers in New York City, which can now be viewed as an incredible pinball landmark. It’s a good thing that everyone who has since interviewed Sharpe has made him chronicle, in detail, the experience, thus we have an accurate play by play of what happened that day in April 1976. The book only provides only one photo of Mayor LaGuardia’s “public busting” of pinballs in 1941, which seems to be too few for such an important event.

But Mr. Sharpe paints a beautiful picture of the pingame back in 1977. Let these words wash over you:

“Pinball games are no longer relegated to rundown arcades and shabby taverns. Carpeted, well-lighted game rooms, college student unions, suburban shopping malls, airports, department stores, and a new generation of family amusement centers–these are the places where contemporary pinball wizards can be found.”

Ah, to live in a time where pinball seemed to exist everywhere. Currently, the shopping mall arcade is all but dead, and you’d be lucky to see a pinball machine worth dropping quarters into at a family amusement center anymore. One can argue that pinball has come full circle, and has reclaimed its original home in the “shabby tavern”, which is now affectionately dubbed the “dive bar”.

Mr. Sharpe’s apparent vision for the book was that of situating pinball as a global phenomenon and he does so with panache. We are treated to gorgeous photos of long extinct bars, coffee houses and arcades from across Europe by photographer James Hamilton, each photo expertly capturing a slice of pinball life. Sharpe’s text adopts long-standing stereotypes of European countries and applies them to pinball culture. Sharpe paints a picture of the “rigid”, community-oriented German, the emotional “individualist” Italian, the “subdued” and “loyal” Brit and the “cool and detached” Frenchman. The Spaniards are given particular attention for their love of fast games with a steep pitch and their outright government-imposed ban of American-made machines. Both of these factors led to the Spanish re-working American machines to their own liking and adopting a prolific pinball manufacturing industry of their own. Sharpe couldn’t resist referencing stereotypical Spanish swordplay to punctuate the section:

“The players seem to slash at the speeding ball, like swordsman duelling with a deadly opponent.”

The book is also ahead of the curve in many instances. Mr. Sharpe references the machines as “work(s) of art”, at a time when they were pegged as little more than money-making amusement machines. There is also the “bold” proclamation that the arrival of video games and Solid State technology would change the face of the pinball forever, and I think we can all agree that it did, and to an extent that eclipsed what Mr. Sharpe had in mind. He then calls for a pinball “olympiad” where all the great players would converge and compete–an objective that Mr. Sharpe would later help establish through the creation of the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA), which in turn would pave the way for competition-based organizations such as the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA). Further, Mr. Sharpe dedicates space to describing how someone would go about examining and buying a game for use in a home environment. I’m not sure if Mr. Sharpe foresaw the movement, en masse, of pinball machines into basements across North America nearly four decades later, but he foreshadowed it quite nicely. Sharpe’s advice for buying a machine remains eerily true for the modern-day buyer:

“If you are thinking of buying a pinball game for your own home or apartment, however, be careful–especially if you are not dealing with an established firm […]. Examine the machine thoroughly before you buy it. Try it out. Then try it again. If there are problems, find out how they can be fixed, and ask whether the game is guaranteed or not. Service is important, too. […] Your choice of games is of course a personal decision, but I recommend picking a machine that will continue to be challenging and exciting every time it’s played.”

It’s as if Mr. Sharp was warning buyers about deceptive sellers decades before Craigslist even existed, and concludes by suggesting the buyer select a “deep” game long before the term “deep” became an overused buzzword in this community.

The book, as a whole, has worth in both its word and its photographs. It is a snapshot of a snapshot of history: we can look back upon how Mr. Sharpe looked back upon pinball. Sadly, Mr. Sharpe has not revisited the coffee table book format to bring the story of pinball into the Solid State era and beyond. The idea of a follow-up book is another popular question Sharpe has to field in nearly every interview. His answer is, most often, that it would be a immense undertaking to execute correctly, an undertaking that he cannot tackle at this time in his life. This is a man who has worked hard in the industry for countless years, and I’m sure he’d like nothing more than to rest, play pinball and enjoy the company of his grandchildren, rather than trek across the world compiling information for another book. In any case, it’s a different time now. If the pinball revival hits full stride and the machines become front and centre in popular culture once again, Mr. Sharpe (or perhaps his sons, Josh or Zack) may be able to capture the spirit of the original book. Otherwise, he’d be writing about, and photographing private basement arcades across North America, which is not the overall vibe Pinball! attempted to capture. (I believe there is a market for a picture book about private pinball arcades though…a huge untapped market.) Until such a time when Mr. Sharpe decides to put pen to paper again, we will have to make due with the similarly titled book “Pinball” by Argentinean photographer Santiago Ciuffo. My copy is in the mail, and I’m excited to see how his book stacks up against Mr. Sharpe’s beautifully crafted love letter to the game we all know and enjoy.