Midwest Ann Arbor Pinball Museum to showcase 100 old machines
Kevin Ransom | For AnnArbor.com
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 AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.