Spacemen, cowboys and quarters

Up close at Las Vegas' Pinball Hall of Fame

An up-close look at "Centigrade 37"

The scene at 1610 East Tropicana Ave. is a lot like any given Las Vegas resort on a busy day.

A symphony of quarters clanging, low-fi beeps, upbeat digital sounds and faintly distorted classic rock provides the ambiance.

Suggestive marquee art shows women in retro-futurist outfits that seem to be pulled straight out of a version of “Lost in Space” that was confined to the back of the video store.

Cartoons, both generic and familiar, make you feel just a bit too comfortable with parting with your money, while rock stars and TV characters from yesteryear beckon — and sometimes even mock you – in an attempt to nab a few more bucks.

Folks win big all around and you might even see a movie star or two.

But you won’t see any aisles of gimmicky slot machines with reels taken straight from Nick at Nite, dancers in a party pit, or rowdy celebrities being accosted by fans (or authorities).

See, this building on East Tropicana Avenue isn’t actually a casino.

Nostalgia runs wild at Las Vegas' Pinball Hall of Fame

Nostalgia runs wild at Las Vegas' Pinball Hall of Fame

This gray, plain building houses a world of color, noise and history called the Pinball Hall of Fame.

“It’s a one of a kind attraction,” said Tim Arnold, the Michigan native who can often be seen digging into circuit boards and wires while fixing a machine.

As its ordinary exterior suggests, the Pinball Hall of Fame looks like a plain warehouse with white walls and concrete floors. You hardly notice this, though, as your attention is immediately drawn to the noise and color of aisles upon aisles of amusement machines.

“Nobody else has this many machines and nobody else has the technical knowledge [to maintain them],” he said.

Arnold is the driving force behind the Pinball Hall of Fame and the founder of the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club, whose members volunteer time to keep the place tidy and everything in working order.

“The idea was simple: You put pinball machines in a big building then people come to play them.”

And they sure do. Except for a mid-afternoon lull, the Hall of Fame usually has a few groups of locals and tourists attempting their best “Pinball Wizard” impersonation at all hours.

“It’s like having a friend with a pool,” said Charlotte Arnold, Tim’s wife. “You can come on over, but you don’t have to worry about the clean up or maintenance, we’ll take care of that stuff and you can just come and have some fun.”

It’s hard not to part with your quarters at the largest collection of pinball machines in the world. Patrons have more than 200 pinball and arcade machines to choose from, ranging from simpler 1940s games to extravagant interactive tables based on “Avatar,” “Iron Man” and other recent films.

Yes, pinball machines are still being made.

Charlotte Arnold even anticipates that an upcoming machine based on “TRON: Legacy” featuring an “earthquake motor” will be joining the Pinball Hall of Fame’s ranks later this year.

“It’s not just a little buzz. The whole machine rumbles with that one,” she said.

The newer machines tend to have more gimmicks and (literal) bells and whistles: It’s surprisingly cool when you hear Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise say “All hands, prepare for multiball” or to play out the plot of “Terminator 2” with naught but a steel sphere.

Two generations of Batmen, Super Mario, Ted Nugent, the Rolling Stones, “Looney Tunes,” “Street Fighter II” and even “Waterworld” received the pinball treatment, but it’s the older machines, the ones that aren’t based on a movie, TV show, rock star, video game or comic book that will catch your curiosity.

Tables like the sci-fi themed and cheesecake-art-laden “Centigrade 37,” white-hat cowboy and Western trope-heavy “Lawman,” and the far-too-literal “Pinball,” each weave their own narrative in your imagination, without relying on voiceovers, brief video clips and glued-on action figures to do so.

The gorgeous, retro art sets the scene and lets your mind run wild: “Why is that woman frozen and what sinister force is that other woman running from?” “Who is the sheriff after and what did they do to launch his relentless pursuit?” “Why is there a giant steel ball in traffic?”

These older machines don’t retell part of someone else’s story — they get the ball rolling and let you tell your own. It’s a throwback to an era when you used your imagination to fill in the blanks.

It’s important to appreciate these unique machines. As Tim Arnold insists, the Pinball Hall of Fame is about preserving history just as much as it is about having fun.

With no admission cost, just the cost of however many games you play, it’s a bargain. Best of all: Your quarters will go to a good cause.

“We pay the bills and give the rest to charity,” he said. Tim, Charlotte and the other volunteers all work for free and the Hall of Fame donates mostly to the Salvation Army, in addition to other non-denominational charities in the Las Vegas Valley.

“It’s unique, affordable entertainment and it helps the community. That’s a slam dunk, if you ask me.”

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There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Howard Rapp at 8:15 am

    Awesome article, will definitely have to check this place out!

  2. Ben at 7:24 am

    Sounds like a lot of fun, I have to check this place out next time I’m in Vegas….. Thanks for the tip!