He’s a pinball wizard, really
Barry D. Brown is an iconoclast, an outlier dedicated to an archaic legacy: the pinball machine. His distrust of modern technology is shown in his e-mails, which he types. like. this. with. a period. between. almost. every. word. For. clarity. He. says. But talk to him about preserving the uniquely American pastime of arcade games, and his words flow, mentioning companies reminiscent of long-ago days: Gottlieb, Bally, and Williams.
As a player, collector and pinball repairman, he’s fascinated by the mechanics of the game — the maze of targets, ramps, orbits, flippers, and bumpers. While many pinball machines used to sit idle, covered in dust in grandpa’s basement, as with many vintage analog products — think vinyl records, board games, print books — they’ve made a comeback.
Pinball machines are no longer in almost every pizza parlor and corner store, but as a pinball technician, Brown says now he sees pinball machines in many McMansions, along with the requisite pool table, air hockey, and cocktail bar. Since pinballs can be finicky to move, Brown makes house calls from Maine to Waltham; he calls himself “Pinball Barry.”
Brown, of Dover, N.H., started almost three decades ago to repair not just pinball machines but also jukebox, claw machines, and other coin-operated games. But how times have changed. In the ’80s, Brown had dozens of machines on his route, but with the advent of smart phones, Xboxes, and PlayStations, pinballs almost disappeared from the landscape.
Brown, 58, admits he is “the last of the Mohicans,” a pinball technician who is in the industry for selfish reasons: he can set his own hours and pursue his “pinballiphile” interest. He worked as a electrician and fixed machines on the side, then discovered that he could earn anywhere from $60-110 an hour as a pinsider. Pinballs are time-consuming to troubleshoot and Brown needs to carry lots of different parts and tools but he finds satisfaction in keeping these beloved machines alive and running. “The inside of the machine is as fascinating as the game itself,” said Brown. He spoke to the Globe about being a pinball wizard.
“I was always fascinated by mechanical things when I was a kid. I got my first pinball machine when I was 13 years old; I bought it with my bar mitzvah money from a local kiddy time operator. It was a Gottlieb single-player and it sure made a lot of noise — dings and chimes. I had it upstairs in my bedroom; later as a teenager, I had five to six pinball machines, including a Cyclone and Jokerz by Williams. These were strong pinball powerhouses. After I got my driver’s license, I had a small van and ran some machines commercially, putting them in establishments such as bowling alleys and making sure they kept operating. Pinballs always need a lot of preventative maintenance, especially as they get older, because parts break; there are connector and wiring issues; bulbs burn out; and pieces get loose on the playfield. But properly serviced, a pinball machine can last for years, like Gottlieb’s Humpty Dumpty, the first pinball machine manufactured with electromechanical flippers. I’ve worked on hundreds of machines over the years and used to sell them on consignment.
“A lot of old-timers who used to fix pinball machines are disappearing from the business. I supplement my pinball repair by also fixing slot machines, air hockey games, and other novelty equipment including jukeboxes as well as Hammond organs. Jukeboxes are simpler to fix than a pinball in many ways, but it depends on the mechanism. A lot of these gadgets are in man caves or small businesses or even family campgrounds.”
“Pinball machines are very pricey now; it’s over $5,000 for a new one, and refurbished ones, like the Addams Family, a game that came out in the early ’90s, can cost even more as a collectible. We lost Gottlieb — the company went out of business in the mid-90s; Williams stopped making pinball machine, and Stern is the only pinball manufacturer that I know of left in the country, along with a boutique pinball manufacturer out of New Jersey. That’s why it’s important to keep the old classics running. For me, fixing pinball machines is like reliving my childhood. And whenever I get a chance, I still like to play pinball just for the enjoyment of it all.”