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NEWS: Vintage Flipper World Showcase In Review

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.

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NEWS: Coming Up…Vintage Flipper World Showcase, May 16-18, 2014

With Allentown just behind us, and all my money spent on the treasures there, I didn’t think that I would be able to get another pass from the family to head out to Clay Harrell’s grand opening showcase weekend of the Vintage Flipper World outside of Ann Arbor, MI. I was able to float the idea past my wife guised as a relaxing weekend away–-a weekend where our son would stay with his grandpa. To my surprise, she agreed! Probably because she saw the excursion as an excuse to shop while I spent the day playing pinball. Regardless, I’m planning to attend the Saturday event!

I’ve referenced Clay Harrell’s VFW project on this site a couple of times already so I won’t rehash the rich history. Just know that Harrell has filled an old Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall with 190 pinball games from every era and re-named the place the Vintage Flipper World (still VFW…I see what you did there).

The details: The showcase runs Friday May 16 5pm-10pm, Saturday May 17 10am-9pm and Sunday May 18 10am-4pm. Tickets are offered on a first come, first serve basis and are available here. Payment can be made through Paypal, and a printed Paypal receipt is required for admission. Friday and Sunday entrance fee is $20, while Saturday runs you $25. With Saturday’s ticket comes an entry into a draw for a Bally Odds and Evens pinball machine. You need not be there in person to win. Clay limited the number of patrons in the venue to not only control crowds, but to keep the lines short on the more popular games. The Saturday ticket is a hot commodity, so buy it fast if you plan on attending!

The games: This list is here. It is extensive. There are going to be complaints from almost everyone that their favorite game of a particular era isn’t present. That said, I’m going to complain in the most positive way possible! I’m surprised that Centigrade 37 and Volley do not make the cut in the 1970s category…then again, those are pretty popular games you’d be able to find at a friend’s place or on a league night (I know of three collections within 45 minutes of my house that have a C37, so there you go). The Bally solid-state lineup is impeccable. The System 11 collection hits all the high spots, however notable from their exclusions are Earthshaker and Dr. Dude. Since I’m a fan of this era, I wish more games that are unique for their rarity were present (Transporter: The Rescue, Radical!)…because using the above EM scenario, I can play a High Speed or F14 Tomcat nearly anywhere, but my chances of finding a Radical! is very limited. The DMD era games make up the bulk of the collection and its a pretty complete smattering of favourites and rarities (including a Safecracker and a Cactus Canyon).

The tournament (if you can call it that): Clay is de-emphasizing tournaments at the VFW. No world rankings, no whopper points, no hefty buy-ins. Certain games will be declared tournament games and if you drop a quarter in, you have entered the tournament. Highest score at the end of the day gets all the money in the coin box. Clay & Co. have the right to disqualify anyone they deem a “pro” or “ringer”. This is a very bold move. In essence, this show is for collectors, casual players and pinball connoisseurs, not for “pros” who spend hundreds of dollars to qualify to win a pot of $250.

The swap meet: The VFW site has plenty of room for folks to come and show off their wares. Vendors are encouraged. Parts guys from Pinball Life and Pin Restore will also be there.

The venue: As a Kickstarter backer, I got to see pictures and videos of this venue throughout its various stages of construction, and it looks to be the perfect place for a pinball showcase such as this. The venue is over 6000sq/ft and includes a pinball workshop on site. Surrounded by acres of land, there is plenty of room to barbecue or camp for the showcase weekend. The venue is located on the outskirts of Brighton, MI–at 8891 Spicer Rd, Brighton MI, 48116. Lodging available in nearby Brighton for those coming from out of town.

From Clay’s comments to Nate Shivers the other day on Coast2Coast Pinball, I fear this may be the only chance, or one of very few chances, we get to explore the wonders of the venue and its treasures within. It is cleared to open four times a year, yet Clay pretty much came out and said they would only be open once this calendar year, and left a big question mark if it would even maintain a yearly schedule. One can only hope this the opening weekend is a success. For me, the three-and-a-half hour drive is a drop in the hat to play some rare games, and some favourites too. For pinball starved aficionados in Michigan, Southern Ontario and Northern Ohio, excitement should be high for this type of event.

Further Reading:
Vintage Flipper World (VFW) – Home Page


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PODCAST: Coast2Coast Episode #83 – An Evening with Clay Harrell

Coast2Coast Episode #83 – An Evening with Clay Harrell

“The waves are big, and heavy, and really salty”. “I’d taken all the low hanging fruit, the ladder wasn’t tall enough”. Those are just two of many fantastic quotes taken from Nate Shivers’ interview with the unsinkable Clay Harrell. Nate covers all the bases in his interview with the pinball folk hero–the current Vintage Flipper World project, the failed Tilt Town venue, the TopCast interviews, and the Pinball Ninja webzine. This almost makes the article I wrote about Mr. Harrell a few weeks back seem moot…Nate got it all from the horse’s mouth!

A few observations:
— I find it very interesting that Clay had to bribe guests in the pinball community (the extent of which is not really discussed) in order for them to be interviewed on TOPcast. I wonder if Nate, in turn, had to bribe Clay?
— I love Clay’s stance on tournament players at pinball shows. He’s a COLLECTOR in every sense of the term. Ah, the age old dichotomy in this hobby…player vs. collector! He doesn’t dismiss tournaments completely, he’s just very matter-of-fact about how torpid they (and their participants) have become.
— Clay’s Vintage Flipper World is cleared by the township for four events per year. Clay’s language made it sound like there would only be one. If you read between the lines, there may only be one EVER. Hopefully the event is a success, and bitching is kept to a minimum so Clay and his gang have incentive to open the doors as often as possible.

I had a bit of insider information that this interview was coming…and I thank Nate for going out of his way to secure some time with Clay. Nate was a bit of a bystander for much of the episode, but he did have all the right questions that got Clay’s wheels turning. It didn’t take much…it’s almost as if Clay was waiting for an opportunity like this to open up about his place in the world of pinball. Clay is such a prolific character that I’m sure he has countless hours of interesting pinball stories left in him that could fill future episodes. Set up another interview, Nate!

Listen here!