The pinball game Rescue 911 thumps with heart-racing music and large-scale emergencies: wildfires, flashfloods, robberies and hostage situations. On a recent Friday night at the new Fernandina Beach Pinball Museum, the game, which is based on a popular TV show whose heyday was more than 25 years ago, throws a monumental situation at a boy about 12 years old, who is controlling the flippers: a wife in labor. “Are you OK?” asks ‘dispatch’ through the sub-woofer, while sirens scream and flashing lights animate the playfield, industry parlance for the game board under the glass-topped cabinet. The boy and his friend laugh.
Pinball is an unpredictable game in which steel balls hit bump(er)s in the road, and it’s likely the young players did not anticipate such a scenario when they arrived at the arcade for a night of retro recreation.
And yet, as comical as the game has become, it is important for them to maintain focus. In pinball, the goal is to rack up points by keeping the ball in play.
The pinball arcade officially opened Nov. 17 and the boys working their way around the game room less than 24 hours later have the place to themselves, though word is spreading; by December, players will often be shoulder-to-shoulder as the room pulses with bells, whistles, music and excitement.
The machines are lined up against opposing walls; if the boys stick to the floor plan, they’ll next play a deceptively simple-looking baseball game designed in the 1950s that moves players around the field when the ball drops into a hole marking a hit or home run. A top-mounted lever controls the flipper, which serves as the bat, and because the timing is slower than the side-buttons found on contemporary machines, the balls quickly drain.
Though it’s not a loud or sophisticated machine (the baseball players are simple cut-out figures, paper doll-like, and the field is not a diamond but a circle), the game is engrossing and surprisingly competitive. Still, when the opposing player is up by more than 10 runs, moving on to another pinball machine seems like a good idea. The Simpsons pinball machine with Homer, Bart and many more of the TV cartoon’s colorful characters, awaits.
Most of the arcade’s 18 pinball machines, which date from 1952 to 2015, are based on popular TV shows or blockbuster movies. Twilight Zone, Maverick and The Addams Family, a 1991 release that’s the industry’s best-selling game of all time, are part of the lineup. Yes, Wizard! is here. The game, inspired by the 1975 movie Tommy, a musical fantasy based on The Who’s rock opera album about a young pinball wizard, sits between Al’s Garage Band Goes on a World Tour and Black Rose, where the goal is to sink pirate ships. Signs placed at each machine announce the year of release, manufacturer and designer. According to the sign over Wizard!, the machine was first sold in 1974.
Arcade owner Tim Trickett says pinball machines were often made as promotional items to boost box office ticket sales for new movies. “You’ve seen how McDonald’s does movie tie-ins, right?” he said. “Pinball is part of that. A big movie gets a big game because it gets people excited.”
Trickett, 68, who operates the arcade at Sadler Square shopping center with his son Jeremy, 36, capitalizes on pinball’s connection to the cinema in the arcade’s lobby, where movie posters announce games as “Now Playing” and those on the way as “Coming Soon.” According to signs, Pirates of the Caribbean is the next acquisition.
“If you’ve noticed, we’re playing off a pirate theme,” he said.
The company logo is a pirate, à la Captain Jack Sparrow, surfing a curled blue wave atop a pinball machine. “Come ride the pinball WAVE,” is the company’s working tagline. It is an appropriate niche for an arcade in a city where pirates historically pulled into port and contemporary clubs of swashbucklers and wenches promote good cheer at community events and fundraisers.
Trickett bought his first pinball machine about two-and-a-half years ago at a local secondhand shop and then went on a buying spree, searching the Internet for used games. He doesn’t want to say how much he has spent on machines, but The Addams Family pinball game sells for more than $6,000 on some websites. After filling his house and garage with pinball machines, Trickett decided to put the machines to work, citing practical reasons.
“The games need to be played to operate efficiently,” said Trickett, a retired mechanical engineer who knows his way around the inner workings of each machine and easily removes a backbox to display the mechanics and explain repairs. “They can’t sit idle, so why not let other people enjoy them?” he asked.
Trickett often enlists his wife Jessie to help staff the arcade and he’s hung a couple of Jeremy’s paintings in the bathroom. Before moving to Fernandina Beach, Jeremy worked as an artist in Chicago, covering canvases in an abstract style, using intense red and blue paint. Admittedly, the game room could use some color. The arcade occupies space previously used by an insurance company and the décor remains office-beige.
Players don’t seem to mind the bland surroundings, however. Once the plunger is pulled, the pinball machine claims full attention. Randy Linville, who splits his time between Fernandina Beach and Atlanta and is at the arcade with his wife Laurie and teenage daughter Jennie, says the games are fast and exciting. “I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m having fun,” he said.
As closing time nears, there are about a dozen players lingering at machines and everyone looks sorry to go. Jennie, 15, says she isn’t a pinball player or video gamer, but would like to come back and bring a couple of friends.
Don’t bring quarters. They’re not accepted for play at the pinball museum, which may be a bummer for players seeking the full-tilt experience of their youth in the 1980s and 1990s when the machines, at their peak of popularity, required coins to release the silver balls and pull the plunger.
Still, the coinless approach is convenient. The arcade offers one-price unlimited play, based on age and number of users. It’s advantageous not to worry about making change when your concentration is needed at the Addams Family mansion where the secret bookcase holds hidden treasure: a multi-ball bonus point playing frenzy and opportunity to make the envious three-initial screen announcement that you have mastered the game.
Trickett calls pinball a “beloved” American pastime. On the arcade website (fbpinball.com) he says: “Many of us baby boomers recall happy times playing these machines for a quarter back in the 1950s and ’60s. We spent hours trying to hone our skills and get those high scores … . Today you can relive some of that past.”
Julie Connor, 53, remembers. “When I was young, we had a game room that my friends and I used to go to all the time in Jacksonville,” she said with a wistful look around the room. “My favorite was Galactic.”
“Galaxy,” Jeremy interjected, temporarily distracted from playing Space Jam, his favorite game.
“That’s right, Galaxy,” said Connor, who wasn’t playing because she had takeout waiting at the Luck Wok restaurant next door. “I didn’t know this was here. Wow.”
Trickett says the arcade is available for party rentals and even hosted a bachelor party immediately following the grand opening. “It was older guys who remembered playing these games when they were growing up,” he said.
While pinball was popular decades ago, the game traces its history back to 1700s France, when Louis XIV and crowds of aristocrats played a table game with balls and pins, known as bagatelle. Trickett says pinball has always had a loyal following and he is eager to share the game’s history, including pinball’s ban from the 1940s through the 1970s in major U.S. cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. “They thought it was gambling,” said Trickett, who admits that sometimes money was exchanged. (On the website, he calls it “cash prizes.”) When the ban was overturned in court, pinball became known as a game for young rebels, he says.
Today, just one company still manufactures pinball games. That’s Stern Pinball in the Chicago suburbs, where factory workers assemble several thousand parts, largely by hand. The International Flipper Pinball Association promotes the game, primarily through tournament play.
The Fernandina Beach Pinball Museum is planning to participate in tournaments where official scores can be registered for state, national and even international recognition. But competitive points aren’t the reason people should play pinball, says Trickett, adding that he got hooked for a simple reason: “Pinball is fun.”
Fernandina Beach Pinball Museum, 2106 Sadler Rd., 435-8424, fbpinball.com