The last pinball wizard

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Gary Stern, president of Stern Pinball, the last manufacturer of pinball tables in the world. (Photo by James Tutten / Valencia Voice)

Gary Stern, president of Stern Pinball, the last manufacturer of pinball tables in the world, sat down with Valencia Voice reporter Jeff Shedden to talk tables, balls, pinheads, and going digital.

Jeff Shedden: So how does it feel to be a hero to thousands of pinheads?

Gary Stern: [Laughs]

JS: But you are like the last gunslinger.

GS: Well, not the last, there will be people making pinball machines after I retire.

JS: And Jersey Jack is showing up.

GS: Well, we actually manufacture tables, not just design them. It’s a hard business, so we’ll see. We have to support the entire market, so we don’t just make L.E.s (Limited Edition machines)

JS: What do you think caused the decline of pinball?

GS: The decline of pinball is from the decline of coin-op. The decline of coin-op comes from things like no-smoking laws or the availability of home entertainment like cable TV or down-loadable movies or Internet games. Once, touch screen gaming was a big deal in bars, but now with the iPhone, people carry touch screen games with them.

JS: The first table I became any good at was The Addams Family at a pool hall. One time a guy threatened me with a pool cue, claiming the solenoid “pop” made him miss his shot.

GS: [laughs] You know, that solenoid “pop” is electric now, but it used to serve two purposes. First, to announce a replay, but it was also a spare coil so a technician could fix a table on the spot, and replace it later. The coil is always the first thing to go.

JS: That’s really cool, you never hear stories of that kind of stuff.

GS: Well another one is, there’s a big speaker at the bottom of the table for delivering the big bass sound, right? It’s also for when you’re working on the machine, you put your screws on the big magnet so you don’t lose them.

JS: One of the most popular titles on Xbox Arcade is Pinball FX. Have you ever considered a Stern video pinball game?

GS: Well there’s a virtual pinball machine right out there. It even has many of our tables on it, unauthorized, but it’s not the same when you have to program the game’s behavior.

JS: Your new Transformers table has a very limited run, so not many people will get to play it. A video version wouldn’t be the same, but people could still play it.

GS: Well, I don’t like them. I don’t object, but I don’t like them. We make pinball machines, and pinball machines have Harry Williams’ “wild ball” in them. The physics and the randomness is all part of it, and it’s not the same if it has to be programmed in.

JS: How did you feel when your competitors stopped making pinball machine?

GS: Well, I knew when it was coming. Some happened a little sooner than expected, but it was never a surprise.

JS: So out of all of your competitors, which one made tables you liked to play?

GS: Well, they all play different, you know, like a Bally or Williams or Gottlieb table. Gottlieb play a certain way, a little slower. But we make tables like Williams with a lot of action.