Are You a Pinball Zombie!


bly3201ballyhoo1.jpg (85890 bytes)The pinball arcade occupies a famous spot in American history. The coin-operated industry (jukeboxes, pinball machines, slots, and gumball machines) had their roots in gambling. Most states had laws against (or heavily regulated) gambling, but manufactures found ways around those restrictions. Gumball machines, for instance, gave gum as a prize instead of cash.

Pinball machines were a governmental topic of discussion from the beginning as to whether they were games of chance, and therefore gambling devices. As early as 1934 pro-pinball enthusiasts argued that pinball was a game of skill, not a gambling device. The first highly publicized attack against pinball came in 1942 when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned pinball in New York City and ordered the seizure of thousands of machines. He ordered his police to make pinball raids and seizures, like those of prohibition. He was actually photographed smashing the seized machines with a sledgehammer.

Pinball was considered a ‘pointless game," but children were attracted to it and parents worried about the game being a gateway to gambling. The game was considered morally corrupting and a ‘tool from the devil.’ Other large cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, followed New York City’s example as bans became commonplace across the United States.

For decades pinballs used spring launchers to propel the ball, and then gravity took over for the rest of the game. The invention of the flipper by Gotlieb in 1947 was the greatest benefit for the argument of the game being a game of skill. But since pinball was illegal in much of the country, the machines could only be placed into non-family-friendly locations. Greenwich Village in New York City became famous for its backroom pinball. The attraction to the game only increased, and the image of the leather-jacket-wearing rebel as a pinball wizard was born.

Where pinball was not illegal, governments put a paid licensing system in place, taxing machines up to 50% and limiting the number of machines that could be placed in one location. Machines had signs posted on them ‘For Amusement Only.’ Some amusement parks created tokens, which wouldn’t be confused with legal tender. PTA groups and mothers protested at candy stores and small arcades that housed the evil machines, fearing their children would become zombies.

California’s Supreme Court overturned the pinball ban in 1974 and two years later New York City’s City Council voted, after 35 years, to overturn its ban on pinball. Times changed, and pinball arcades became sensible businesses again.

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