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Posted on Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Midwest Ann Arbor Pinball Museum to showcase 100 old machines

By Kevin Ransom


Clay Harrell has turned an old VFW Hall in Green Oak Township into the Midwest Ann Arbor Pinball Museum. His pinball machine collections includes more than 200 machines and about 100 will be showcased at the museum.

Kevin Ransom | For

There once was a time when any self-respecting beer joint or rock 'n' roll club in America echoed with the “ding-ding-ding” sounds of pinball machines - a time when their flashing lights and elaborate artwork were regular, visually-striking elements of the bar-scene interior landscape.

But when video games came along in the 1980s, the popularity of pinball machines in bars began to wane, mostly because video games were easier to maintain: Unlike pinball machines, video games weren’t loaded with moving mechanical parts.

So even though there has been a resurgence in the sale of pinball machines in the last decade or so, the vast majority of those sales have been to individuals, not bars or arcades. So, at this point in the history of American popular culture, most pinball machines are rightly viewed as cultural artifacts from bygone eras.

So it makes sense that someone would want to open a pinball machine museum, to celebrate that history. The Ann Arbor area has just such a someone - Clay Harrell, who has taken on the yeoman task of rehabilitating an old VFW Hall and turning it into the Midwest Ann Arbor Pinball Museum.

And in that respect, it will be a rarity: There are only a handful of pinball machine museums in the country, says Harrell - one each in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle and Asbury Park, New Jersey.

The museum, which is aiming for a mid-September opening, is technically in Green Oak Township, in the building formerly occupied by VFW Hall Post 1224. The hall closed in April when that post merged with another in South Lyon.

Harrell, who has been collecting, repairing and refurbishing pinball machines for about 20 years, launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the museum project. He’s reached his goal of $5,000, although the campaign officially runs through Aug. 29. But even with the $5,000 in hand, he will be sinking more of his own cash into the project.

For starters, the building needs a new roof, which he estimates will cost about $15,000, plus new flooring. So, donations are still welcome.

Harrell’s collection includes more than 200 machines, and about 100 of them will be on display at the museum. He says that about 98 percent of his machines were broken when he acquired them, but he is mechanically and electronically adept, so he got all of them up and running. Some of the machines date back to the 1930s.

“Pinball machines really are an art form,” says Harrell, a retired computer programmer who spent many years working for Parke-Davis and then Pfizer in Ann Arbor before the company closed.

“There are cultural and artistic aspects of these great old machines that are important,” says Harrell. “A lot of time and energy went into creating the artwork and design of these games, and they all offer sort of a snapshot of the era when they were made, so it’s interesting to look at them in that historical or cultural context.

“In the ‘50s, for example, a lot of the artwork on the back glass depicted Marilyn Monroe types, in bathing suits - except, it was the ‘50s, so the bathing suits were one-piece,” observes Harrell. “And a lot of them showed young people dancing who were smoking cigarettes.

“Another one from the ‘50s was called ‘Guys Dolls,’ which depicted the characters from the Broadway show ‘Guys & Dolls.’”

Rock 'n' roll has obviously been a popular recurring theme. “The whole licensing thing didn’t really happen until the mid-‘70s, with a machine called Wizard that depicted Roger Daltrey as Tommy and Ann-Margret as his mother from the ‘Tommy’ movie,” notes Harrell. “That one sold more than any pinball machine up to that point. After that came artwork depicting Dolly Parton, KISS, Elton John, Ted Nugent,” and other pop-culture figures like Evel Knievel and the Harlem Globetrotters.

(Harrell’s collection includes the Knievel, KISS, Elton and Globetrotters machines, as well as ones depicting Bobby Orr, Star Trek, Playboy and dozens and dozens of others.) As taken as he is by the artistic / cultural aspects of pinball machines, Harrell was first drawn to them because of his fascination with how they functioned mechanically and electronically.

“I’d always been interested in electronics, and figuring out how things worked, and repairing them,” recalls Harrell. “When I was young, I was enthralled with arcade stuff, and how they worked. There were no books that told you that stuff, so the only way to figure it out was to get one of your own, take it apart, and figure it out yourself.

“But over the years I accumulated so many that I got out of the acquisition mode several years ago. And then I looked at all of the machines I had, in my basement, and stored in a warehouse, that I realized I should put these on display, so other people can enjoy them, both as works of art, and because they’re fun to play.”

Yes, all of the machines in the museum will be operable, and visitors can play them. “Yeah, I would never put one out that isn’t operable. I’ll only have ones that people can touch, and feel, and play, and hear the bells, and watch the lights, and the ball pinging around. If you’re not into the artistic or cultural aspect, that’s where the fun is.”

Since the museum is located in an area that is zoned residential, his initial agreement with the township is that the museum can open to the public four weekends per year, but it’s also available for private visits and tours nearly every day for Kickstarter donors who contributed $20 or more.

The Midwest Ann Arbor Museum will be at 8891 Spicer Road, Green Oak Township. For more info, contact Harrell at 248-390-5382.

Kevin Ransom is a freelance writer who covers entertainment for He can be reached at


Alex Yeager

Mon, Aug 26, 2013 : 5:01 a.m.

Let's not forget that the Las Vegas Pinball Museum also has an Ann Arbor connection, and, even more specifically, a Pinball Pete's connection: In any event, you've got my pledge, and future support!


Sun, Aug 25, 2013 : 10:45 a.m.

there is actually another great pinball "museum/arcade/business/? " or whatever else you want to argue about calling it and it is not far from AA. Check out Marvins Marvelous Mechanical Museum located in Farmington Hills. I am sure they have a website. It is full of all sorts of privately collected and owned vintage arcade machines. It is worth the trip, and as far as I know, it is always open


Mon, Aug 26, 2013 : 4:06 p.m.

Marvin keeps his machines in immaculate shape, too - even though he often doesn't have that many. But the other oddities are worth the trip. Also, the Shark Club in Howell currently has about 50 working pinballs, from very old to brand new. Many of these are very interesting collectors editions and all can be played. This is a family-friendly restaurant/bar environment.


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 8:43 p.m.

My favorite was one called "Darling". My girlfriend and I would monopolize that machine for the entire duration of happy hour - or until someone would plop a quarter on top of the machine (how dare they!). Then there was the "Gator-Grabber". With this machine there was an extra button on the right hand side that when depressed would activate a grabber so as to retrieve the ball and send it back to down the side to be re-released. This same friend was playing with three of our English 111 classmates during lunch one afternoon. She was in charge of the "grabber". The classmate at the flippers said to her "Come on Wally, get that Gator!" ( I don't know where he got "Wally" came from). Anyway, my friend was the first one back from lunch and she took a seat next to me. One by one each of the 3 other classmates filed into the room and acknowledged my friend's presence. The first said "Hi Wally!" the next "Hi Gator", the last "Hi Wally Gator". Everyone was looking at her with a puzzled look. (Our class was very close-nit). From that day forward her official new name became "Gator". That was 1973. To this day she still goes by "Gator" to those of us from that era. One just never knows when some seemingly casual event will have a life-long impact. In this caseā€¦it was a pinball machine named The Gator-Grabber.


Sun, Aug 25, 2013 : 4:15 a.m.

Wow, and all these years I thought it was really called the Gator Grabber! Thanks for setting me straight.


Sun, Aug 25, 2013 : 3:01 a.m.

The game is called Nip It I there may be one at Cedar Point? This game is somewhat infamous in that it was on Happy Days at Arnold's even though the timeline isn't close to correct.


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 9:33 p.m.

Thanks Brad. I'm not familiar with that character, never saw the cartoons.


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 9:23 p.m.


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 3:13 p.m.

When are the 4 weekends? Also if you contribute $20 to the Kickstarter campaign you get free tours just about any time. Do I still need my quarter?

Samantha D.

Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 5:22 p.m.

On the Kickstarter project page it says that all the games are set to free play.


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 3:09 p.m.

One really wonders why someone would go to all the effort of relocating 100 pinball machines from one warehouse to what is effectively another warehouse (except for 1 weekend every 3 months). His comparison to the other four major pinball museums isn't very accurate since they're all open to the public every day. This will still be effectively a private pinball collection, of which there are quite a few.


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 2:01 p.m.

Anybody remember these fine pinball establishments from "back in the day"? -Cross-Eyed Moose -Tommy's -Draggin inn


Mon, Aug 26, 2013 : 1:51 a.m.

Yes it was upstairs above what is now NYPD.


Sun, Aug 25, 2013 : 5:34 p.m.

@metrichead - There was also one on Williams near Maynard


Sun, Aug 25, 2013 : 1:38 p.m.

The place at Packard/State was Tommy's at one point.


Sun, Aug 25, 2013 : 4:40 a.m.

Weren't there three Pinball Pete's in Ann Arbor? I remember besides the one currently on South U, there was on the southwest corner of State and Packard. But wasn't there another Pinball Pete's right across the street from the one on South U making it three?


Sun, Aug 25, 2013 : 2:57 a.m.

Mickey Rats Double Focus


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 3:03 p.m.

Brad, I have fond memories of the Cross-Eyed Moose!!!! Thanks for taking me down Memory Lane!


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 3 p.m.

And when Flipper McGee's was the place for pinball on South U, because Pinball Pete's was on the other side of campus, 2 doors down from Focus?


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 12:24 p.m.

"Since the museum is located in an area that is zoned residential, his initial agreement with the township is that the museum can open to the public four weekends per year, but it's also available for private visits and tours nearly every day for Kickstarter donors who contributed $20 or more." got really excited...until I got to this part. 4 weekends a year is the only time it's open to the public? It's not really a public museum then...or anything of the sort. What I don't because it's a VFW hall it should have enough parking space to accommodate being regularly open on top of the traffic not being a problem for a residential area that it's in. The VFW apparently wasn't a problem, why would this museum be any worse? I'd really like to check this place out....but with that 4 weekend only thing it's probably not going to happen now....and that's rather disappointing...


Mon, Aug 26, 2013 : 10:58 a.m.

If you knew the area you would know that the "old VFW" hall is located on a strip of dirt road no more than 2 miles long, between Whitmore Lake Road and M36. As far as it being residential, that must be because it is next to a farm. If you don't know where you are going (break out the GPS), you will pass it whether you come in from the east or the west.


Sun, Aug 25, 2013 : 6:17 p.m.

Yup, that's a real bummer. I wonder if they could have a membership or donor's club beyond just the Kickstarter that would allow people to come in more frequently.


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 1:54 p.m.

"Some weekend" is not 4 weekends out of 52. Who knows if one of those weekends will be one where I'll be available, or won't have conflicts...


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 1:27 p.m.

"I'd really like to check this place out....but with that 4 weekend only thing it's probably not going to happen now....and that's rather disappointing..." You can't find an hour on some weekend to check this place out?


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 12:01 p.m.

I wish them luck, but they're only going to be open four weekends a year. That's going to make it tough to build a strong following.


Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 11:30 a.m.

I hope he has Fireball!

Nicholas Urfe

Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 11:26 a.m.

Very cool.

Chip Reed

Sat, Aug 24, 2013 : 10:11 a.m.

The old canoe livery on Argo Pond used to have a wonderful collection of pinball machines and nickelodeons. This sounds great!