Pinheads gather for first Southern Pinball Festival

Crowds of self-proclaimed “pinheads” gathered at the Southern Pinball Festival in Maitland this weekend. The festival was a showcase of pinball tables old and new, and was designed in order to try to bring pinball back into the mainstream.

With a very reasonable $15 admission fee, visitors were treated to all the pinball they could play.

Nearly the entire basic history of pinball popularity was on showcase. There were vintage tables like Gottlieb’s “Royal Flush” and “Drop-a-Card,” and there were the newest tables like Stern’s “Iron Man” and “Transformers.” There was even a “Medieval Madness” table, which can go for as much as $10,000 on the collector’s market.

Out of the dozens of tables available, there weren’t any that went unloved. Goers were just as likely to play “The Addams Family,” which is the best-selling pinball game ever, as they were to play classics such as “Gorgar” or “Flash.”

Also on display were a few gimmicky tables, like Atari’s “Hercules,” which is a table eight feet high with an eight foot long playfield, and uses a cue ball instead of a pinball, and “Banzai Run,” which is partly played vertically on the backboard.

Many of the tables present were on loan from private collectors, and some were even available for purchase, allowing people to add to or start a pinball collection.

The festival also included a tournament officially sanctioned by the International Flipper Pinball Association, where winners could earn points in the World Pinball Player Rankings. The five tournament tables were not available for general play, but with a small additional fee, anyone could attempt to qualify on them.

One of the highlights of the festival was a guest speech by Gary Stern, owner of Stern Pinball, which is the last manufacturer of pinball tables in the world. Stern told anecdotes of his family’s history in coin-op entertainment and of the pinball industry in general.

He also spoke about the future of pinball, and the need to modernize it in order to attract a larger audience. “We’re trying to change the design concept in order to let everybody have fun,” he said. “Pinball is a social game, and we need to get people out of the house and playing together.”

Later there was another speech by “Jersey Jack” Guarnieri, founder of Jersey Jack Pinball Inc. Guarnieri is in the process of creating a new table based on “The Wizard of Oz,” intended for mass distribution on a level not seen since the 1990s. He’s had a lot of luck dealing in coin-op entertainment, and has used the “Wizard of Oz” license to great success with a prize redemption machine. He’s hoping to repeat that success with the pinball machine.

This is the Southern Pinball Festival’s first year, and turnout seems to have been pretty good. The event being held this particular weekend was the idea of Donny White, the festival’s tournament organizer.

“The idea was to have the festival at the same weekend as IAAPA (International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions), because the pinball people come to the convention, Gary Stern and now Jersey Jack, and it should be easy to book them,” said Spencer Carey, one of the show’s organizers.

Carey is an enthusiastic spokesman for the convention, and his love of pinball shows. One day he picked up a broken, old Stern “Stingray” machine, and from there, ended up with a massive collection of 20 tables. He’s since whittled his collection down to only a few, including a “Sopranos” table, the only pinball machine that includes a profanity-laced bonus mode which causes every hit target to utter the F-word.

As the hour grew late, many of the machines had gone dark, requiring some maintenance after all of the love they’d received all day. They appeared to have just gotten tired and fell asleep. There were even some gaps between the tables, where some of the machines had already found new homes.

What brings people to an event like this? Pinball has a different feel than other coin-ops, such as video games. It’s a much more tactile feeling. “Pinball machines aren’t living things,” said Carey, “but it’s organic. It’s wood, it’s steel, it’s parts, it’s screws, it’s nails.”

Carey expects the festival to return again next year. They purposely kept the hype at a minimum, and the plan was to run a smaller, tighter show. Luckily, the event was packed from open to close, and there was plenty to choose from.

So what’s planned for next year? “Bigger, better, and bitchin’, said Carey.